Bibliotherapy and Philosophical Discussions Through Stories

Some time back, there was a workshop at our school on bibliotherapy and how we can use it with our children. It resonated with me especially since I have an avid reader in the house with whom I sometimes have difficulties talking to about certain issues. Even before this workshop we have been using bibliotherapy to touch on the trickier topics (although we did not know it as bibliotherapy then).

“A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of  counselors.” – Henry Ward Beecher

BibliotherapyWhat is Bibliotherapy?

Most definitions of Bibliotherapy refer to its use as a form of treatment. For instance, Wikipedia states that:

“Bibliotherapy is an expressive therapy that involves the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. Bibliotherapy is often combined with writing therapy.”

Good Therapy refers to it as a therapeutic approach for supporting mental health treatment and well-being. Bibliotherapy as a form of treatment for various medical conditions has been studied and found to be beneficial in some instances:

Bibliotherapy as also been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) UK as a practical means for early treatment of mild and moderate depression, anxiety and panic and some other mental health problems.

Bibliotherapy for Families

“It is the process of using books to help children think about, understand and work through emotional concerns.” – Darla Ferris Miller, Positive Child Guidance

At our school, bibliotherapy is recommended to help us connect better with our children. We can use books to help them make sense of difficult times by opening avenues of discussion that might otherwise prove too difficult for them to openly talk about. Through bibliotherapy, we can help children improve their cognitive, social and emotional development.

Bibliotherapy is a targeted use of children s literature to improve cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes. Children s books and stories act as an adjuvant, supporting and assisting teachers, counselors, therapists and parents as they work with children in therapeutic and instructional ways. – Linda Karges-Bone

BibliotherapyWhy is Reading Therapeutic?

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” – Charles W. Eliot

Reading books can help us come to terms with issues that cause emotional distress, such as divorce, illness, and loss. They help to ‘open up’ difficult conversations so that we may talk about topics that we struggle with personally. Reading can also help us guide children and prevent behavioural issues, such as bullying, intolerance, and other friendship issues. Books may be both educational and a means to help parents stay connected with their children.

Books are Great Metaphors

What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two.

In counselling, metaphors use a story or illustration to explore alternative ways of looking at something.

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” – Shakespeare, As You Like It.

These appear in all cultures in the form of stories, parables or analogies and help to improve understanding, make a point memorable and or help make a positive change.

Therapeutic metaphors can help us see thoughts differently by creating the space or distance between our thoughts and ourselves.

Metaphors are powerful tools because in dealing with difficult topics of life, they can evoke positive emotions, even laughter, while limiting defensiveness, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

What is Therapeutic about a Metaphor?

In the last 25 years, research from neuroscientists, linguists, and cognitive scientists has converged to form a new understanding regarding the way the human mind works. There are four key findings:

1. The usage of metaphors is far more common in everyday life, used mainly to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions. For example, “you have painted yourself into a corner”.

2. Neither the speaker or listener is aware of this happening so it is safer psychologically. For example, “It does my head in”.

3. They are central to the way people think, make sense of this world and take decisions. Examples:

  • “I have been watching her like a hawk”
  • “He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing”

4. They are not used arbitrarily. They are mostly drawn from our experiences, how we interact with our environment. Examples:

  • “he/she drives me up the wall”
  • “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”
  • “they are full of themselves”
  • “you can’t wrap them in cotton wool”

Using Stories for Teaching Purposes

“A book is a ticket. A ticket to worlds and stories, places and things, ideas, insights, and imagination. A ticket to colors and wonder, images and emotions, mystery, heart tugs and promise. A ticket to the tapestries and threads of history and humanity–and to hope. – Kenda Turner

The following exercise illustrates how stories can be used to teach a variety of topics.

Bibliotherapy ExampleThe Little Refugee by Anh and Suzanne Do

Subjects covered:

  • Refugees
  • War and Dispossession
  • Vietnamese Culture and History
  • Racial and Ethnic Differences

Values to explore:

  • Compassion
  • Fear and resilience
  • Hope

Questions about the Story:

  • What is the main character doing/gone through?
  • What is the main message of the storyline?
  • Why did they have to leave their country?
  • How would you feel if you were that little boy (empathic response)?
  • How would you feel dressing up as a girl/boy? Use humour
  • What did other characters do to help?

Questions for Discussion:

  • Anh Do’s family had to flee their home country. Why did they have to flee? How must they have felt?
  • How would it have felt to have 40 people crammed onto one small fishing boat?
  • What gives people in such dangerous situations the strength to go on?
  • Even when Anh’s mother felt very sad, she told Anh that they must always have hope. Mum said, ‘We are so lucky to be alive and living in this beautiful country. There are many people much worse off than us.’ This is a wonderful philosophy for life. Whenever you have a problem, think about those who are suffering in war, famine, floods, tsunamis, etc. Discuss.
  • How would you make a new student at school feel welcome?
  • How should refugees be treated?

Books for Encouraging Philosophical Discussions

“Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” – E.P. Whipple

Bibliotherapy DiscussionsAside from the therapeutic value of books, we also use stories as a source of topics for philosophical discussions. Through these discussions, we can encourage children to exercise their thinking skills and to ponder more deeply various topics and issues in the world around them.

One of our favourite series of books for such discussions is the series “Wings of Fire” by Tui T Sutherland. The story of “Darkstalker“, in particular, opens Pandora’s Box on the very meaty subject of good and evil, and all the shades of grey in between.

The Bottom Line

  • Reading is a time for reflection; during story time children learn to self-reflect.
  • It also promotes an open mind.
  • We need to make time for it because children have an inquisitive mind and it is important that we offer them time and space to answer their questions.
  • Be honest and don’t answer a question if you are not sure about the answer.

“Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.” – Jesse Lee Bennett


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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