How many times have you finished reading a book with your child only to have him exclaim "Hey, that's just like me!" Assuming that your child doesn't think he's a talking aardvark or a skivvy-wearing superhero, he's probably talking about the situation in which the character found himself. Or, more accurately, the problem that the character had to solve. This is the basis of developmental bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy is a big word to describe the process of using books to help children work through real-life problems. The truth is, most of us already instinctively practice bibliotherapy; we're just not thinking about doing it. But according to the Bibliotherapy Fact Sheet put out by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, bibliotherapy "is a deliberate course of action that requires careful planning." So take a minute to find out what's going on behind-the-scenes (or between the lines): it will provide insight into how to take reading to a whole new level.

The benefits of bibliotherapy are threefold: Identification, Catharsis and Insight. Simply stated, when reading the appropriate book, a child has the opportunity to:

  • relate to the main character and his predicament
  • become so emotionally connected to the story that his own feelings are revealed
  • realize that his problem is solvable or, at the very least, that he is not alone

Sounds exhausting, right? Not really. Usually all of this happens without the child even knowing it. If you've chosen a good book for your child's situation, you should expect to have a teachable moment waiting for you when the cover closes. Use it wisely. Be prepared to discuss the character's dilemma and lead a creative problem-solving session with your child.

The key to making all of this work is making sure you have a great book. With so many out there, how do you know which one to choose? Take a closer look at your child's particular problems. Does he struggle in school? Worry about bullies? Have trouble at home? These questions will guide you in selecting a book that will speak to your child. The bottom line is that there are no "right" books. Here are some more ways to ensure you're on the right page.

  1. Make sure you've correctly identified your child's problem and use a resource like The Bookfinder or A to Zoo to find a list of books that address that particular situation.
  2. Match the reading level and genre of book to your child's skills and interest.
  3. Choose a book with believable characters and a realistic plot.

The goal of bibliotherapy is simple: to help children cope with problems through the exploits of literary characters. And, if that means a child discovers he's not the only skivvy-wearing superhero after all, well, that's fine too. After all, as C.S. Lewis once said, "We read to know we are not alone."