Using Books to Heal and Enthuse Gifted Students

By Lauren Martin

Alexander’s day was terrible.  It was horrible.  Overall it was no good, and very bad.  He woke up with bubble gum in his hair, missed out on the toy in the cereal box, and had to go to the dentist as well as go shopping!  Alexander believed that because Australia was down under, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day would turn into a wonderful, terrific, really good day if he were there.  There are so many other things that happened during that day which made Alexander positive Australia would be the best place to be!

Synopsis of the children’s picture book Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day’ by Judith Viorst, adapted from summary at 
http://kennedy-center.org/programs/family/alexander/intro.html - 8/10/01.

CHILDREN FACE many situations in their lives and often have trouble coping.  They can feel isolated; that they are the only person who has ever felt this way.  Books have traditionally been used to heal readers through narrative, and can be dated back to the time of Thebes - The Theban Library bore an inscription across its portal:  ‘The Healing Place of the Soul’ (Byrne at http://www.tased.edu.au/tasonline/tag/aaegt7/byrne.htm on 6/10/01).  Using books to deal with problems or issues is one way to help children cope with situations at hand (Rizza, M; 1997).

Bibliotherapy involves guided reading and is the use of literature to help people solve problems. ‘It is (part of) a family of technique for structuring interaction between a facilitator and a participant based on mutual sharing of literature’ (Pardeck, 1989, cited in Alex at http://www.indiana.edu/~eric_rec/ieo/digests/d82.html on 8/10/01). 

Hébert (1991) cautions that the simple act of reading a story is not bibliotherapy (cited in Rizza, 1997).  Bibliotherapy begins the discussion process by giving the child someone or something to identify with, to reiterate that there is hope and a way out of the situation, and that others have felt the way you do now.  By using this technique, children learn the processes of problem solving which will help them with their own crises. 

Bibliotherapy can be used for children who are suffering emotionally, such as with family problems or break-ups, death of a loved one (human or animal), or moving house.  This is a form of developmental bibliotherapy.  Other uses for bibliotherapy include to encourage interests outside of one’s self, to relieve pressure – mental and emotional, to emphasis that others feel the way they do, to offer diverse solutions to a problem, to encourage attitudinal / behavioural change, and to reduce fear.  Bibliotherapy is also one activity used with gifted and talented students when they are faced with troubles because of their ability.  (‘Bibliotherapy’, cited in Alex at http://www.indiana.edu/~eric_rec/ieo/digests/d82.html on 6/10/01; Byrne at http://www.tased.edu.au/tasonline/tag/aaegt7/byrne.htm on 6/10/01). 

Particularly for gifted and talented students, bibliotherapy is used to promote further thought, and to challenge students when reading literature to use higher-order thinking skills via the implementation of thought-provoking questions and activities.  Examples of these are provided further on in this article.  Because of the high level of ability that gifted and talented students posses, bibliotherapy gives these students a challenge to not only help the character/s of the book solve their problems, and thus solve their own, but to use empathy to relate to the character/s.

Ways in which bibliotherapy techniques are administered can vary.  Group or individual sessions can be used, although in an individual situation people feel less inhibited and tend to speak up more.  Group work in the classroom, however, can be integrated into many areas so that it does not seem to be specifically related to one child.  For example, a teacher may use a book such as Jane and the dragon by M. Baynton for a boy who wants to play with girls at school.  This does not specifically relate to the child, but allows the children to see that if Jane wants to be a knight, being a girl shouldn’t be a reason for her not to.  With this, the teacher can use the book for research on knights or dragons, and can devise literacy-based activities to ensure reading the book has more than its bibliotherapy purpose. 

Byrne (at http://www.tased.edu.au/tasonline/tag/aaegt7/byrne.htm on 6/10/01) outlines the use of bibliotherapy in a councillor-client relationship, but this could apply to a parent-child or teacher-student relationship.  The author highlights the importance of the councillor having the knowledge of the literature to be used to ensure it is appropriate to the situation and the age and developmental level of the person, and, especially if bibliotherapy is being used on a person individually, knowledge of the psychological, physical and emotional status of the client are vital.  Next, Byrne stresses the importance of trust in the client-councillor relationship so that the client feels safe in revealing their feelings, which will occur through the chosen literature.

Following on from Byrne, Halsted (1990) emphasises that for bibliotherapy to be effective, the leader of the session (i.e. the teacher, parent or councillor) must be informed about the three-part process the reader will participate in (with the guidance of the leader) through the use of bibliotherapy.  The first section, identification, is where the reader is able to associate with a character in the book (usually the main character) and their situation.  Catharsis, step two, is where the reader begins experiencing the emotions attributed to the character and empathising with the character.  Part three, insight, involves the reader applying what they have learnt about the character and the way they handled the situation to their own real-life experience.  Lastly, to confirm this process, the leader will pose questions to the reader/s that help them to speak about the situation and will verify their understanding (Halsted, 1990).

The choice of books to be used in bibliotherapy is imperative.  The stories need to have diverse characters and creative answers to realistic problems.  Children need to engage in the story to enable any success from its use.  It is important that the parent, teacher or councillor reads the book before giving it to the child so that the story is relevant to their problem, so that appropriate questions are devised to initiate conversation, and that, particularly in a classroom situation for gifted and talented students, activities are devised to encourage the use of higher order thinking skills.   

One such example is Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by Judith Viorst; this book could be used with younger, able readers.   The synopsis at the start of the article highlights that nothing in Alexander’s day would go right.  However, Alexander is later consoled after he realises that other people have bad days too.  This book could be used for children who believe that everyone is against them, for ‘middle child’ syndrome and such. Although bibliotherapy is used primarily with children to help them solve problems, it can be used in another way for gifted children.  An example of this is using the book ‘Wombat Stew’ by M. Vaughn.  This is a book in which gifted and talented readers can use analysis, synthesis and evaluation skills to complete activities accompanying the story.  An example of this is using evaluation to prepare a trial for the dingo from both the defence and prosecution sides for his crime of assault against the wombat (Knight & Bailey, 1997, page 117).  Activities such as this encourage higher-order thinking skills and influence the reader such that they want to become more involved in the book and reading more deeply into it. Other ways to challenge and encourage gifted readers are outlined by Knight & Bailey (1997, page 115 - 117).  Activities such as looking for hidden meanings in books, making justifications for character’s decisions and identifying and analysing patterns in text are some good follow-on activities for bibliotherapy books.  Using short-term and long-term projects is another method to engage students in topics they have an interest in, and are useful in introducing new areas or follow on activities for themes introduced in bibliotherapy books.  They give students a focus for their energy, and can be used in a classroom of mixed ability without specifically targeting mainstream or gifted and talented students by slightly adjusting questions for students. The use of bibliotherapy is an important technique to help children express their feelings and resolve situations.  It is also a good way to develop the minds of gifted readers through the use of thought-provoking questions, as well as expand their analysis, synthesis and evaluation skills.  Using books with literacy merit that have characters and storylines developmentally appropriate to the students is vital, as is the understanding of the bibliotherapy process.  Helping students realise that others have felt the way they do, and that there are solutions to their problems, is the main focus of bibliotherapy.  Using books to discuss fictional situations, rather than confronting the child on their specific feelings, will allow students to reduce the feeling of inhibition when broaching personal subjects.

Alex, Nola Kortner.  ‘Bibliotherapy’, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication Digest #82.  Published online at http://www.indiana.edu/~eric_rec/ieo/digests/d82.html, cited on 6/10/01. 

Byrne, Gail .R.  ‘An Introduction to Bibliotherapy’, published online at http://www.tased.edu.au/tasonline/tag/aaegt7/byrne.htm cited on 6/10/01

Cambourne, B (1998).  The Whole Story – Natural Learning and the Acquisition of Literacy in the Classroom.  Ashton Scholastic. 

Halsted,-Judith-Wynn (1990).  Guiding the Gifted Reader. ERIC Digest #E481.  Published online at http://www.hearte.com/gasp/481.htm, cited on 6/10/01. 

Hebert, T.P. (1991). Meeting the Affective Needs of Bright Boys Through Bibliotherapy, Roeper Review, 13, 207-212.  Published online at http://www.sde.state.id.us/GiftedTalented/Biblio/showone.asp?iId=109, cited on 6/10/01. 

Knight, B.A. & Bailey, S (1997).  Parents as Lifelong Teachers of The Gifted. Hawker Brownlow.

Rizza, M (1997).  ‘A Parent's Guide to Helping Children: Using Bibliotherapy at Home’  Published online at  http://www.sp.uconn.edu/~nrcgt/news/winter97/wintr972.html cited on 1/10/01. 

‘Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day’ summary (book by Judith Viorst).  Published online at http://kennedy-center.org/programs/family/alexander/intro.html cited on 8/10/01.

Lauren Martin is a second-year Bachelor of Education (Primary) student at the University of Western Sydney, Milperra.  She recently completed a subject on Gifted and Talented students for which this article was written. Her article is published here with her permission.