“It’s strange the way death connects people,” says Kennedy, a character in Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Behind You (Putnam, 2004), about collective grief after a 15-year-old boy is killed by police. Kennedy realizes that he, along with “Ellie and Miah’s moms and pops and everybody who’d ever lost somebody…we’re all a part of the same something.”
Kennedy’s words remind readers that sorrow does more than make us sad: it links us together. When Mary Ann Cappiello, “The Classroom Bookshelf” blogger and a coauthor of this article, read aloud Behind You to her eighth grade students in New Hampshire, she did so to model brilliant language and multiple perspectives. But something more powerful happened. Her students hadn’t experienced the racial and ethnic diversity of New York City, but they knew pain. Many lived in poverty and had lost family members to incarceration, addiction, and violence. As each chapter ended, the class sat quietly until someone would say, “One more.”
Although we might not all recognize it as “bibliotherapy,” those who love books are familiar with the feeling these students experienced of finding solace, understanding, insight, inspiration, or simply, delicious escape in the pages of a book. Most of us can point to books that helped us through hard times, renewed our hope, made us feel understood and less alone, or gave us a valuable new perspective or information on events in our lives.
Stories and storytelling are ancient and powerful tools for making meaning of our lives, processing deep emotion, and reminding us of our shared humanity. In our current climate of mass violence, police brutality, political upheaval, and dehumanizing rhetoric, the need for these stories could not be more urgent.
Our technologically connected world has many advantages, and it provides access to an endless stream of articles, opinions, sound bytes, and videos of events that are frequently distressing or downright traumatic. They can be stressful for the most well-adjusted adults, to say nothing of our students. Bibliotherapy invites us to use books as a tool for making sense of the world around us.
Why bibliotherapy now?
In the United States, more than 34 million children have experienced traumatic events, and almost half of the students in our classrooms are living in adverse circumstances, according to a 2011–12 survey from the National Center for Health Statistics. The categories measured include neglect, abuse, abandonment, and loss. That means that four students in a typical size classroom have experienced more than one of the categories, resulting in a negative impact on learning, behavior, and relationships. The numbers are much higher when we factor in fear as a way of life that can be associated with living in poverty or living with racism.
In an ideal world, every student would receive high-quality mental healthcare to help them cope with tragedy. But in reality, issues of access, funding, and fear of stigma can prevent them from getting support. According to the 2016 access to care data from the State of Mental Health in America report from the organization Mental Health America, six out of 10 “at risk” students do not have access to mental health treatment. Teachers and librarians are often in a unique position within the community to develop long-term, supportive relationships with students and to create spaces in which they might find support, understanding, healing, and growth.
Now, more than ever, we should be using all the tools at our disposal to help our students, and ourselves, figure out how to live in a challenging world. Educators know that many of our students are hurting, and books can be good medicine.
One benefit of using bibliotherapy to work with traumatized students is that it provides a valuable layer of distance. While some students might not feel comfortable disclosing deeply personal or disturbing details of a trauma while at school, they may be more at home talking about how a character in a book might have felt, or writing a reflection on ways a character showed strength and tenacity in the face of hardship. Or, a student might simply feel privately comforted by reading a book about a character who goes through an experience similar to their own.
Bibliotherapy can also build empathy in students who have not yet experienced personal trauma. A 2013 study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano suggested a correlation between reading literary fiction and developing empathy. School librarian Maeve Visser Knoth, from the Phillips Brook School in Menlo Park, CA, coined the term “advance bibliotherapy” as a way ‘“to prepare children for emotional experiences before they occur” in a May/June 2006 Horn Book article.
Nevertheless, some educators may feel hesitant to broach topics that could be deeply painful, uncomfortable, or fraught. Given the pressures and demands on educators, setting aside time and energy for these difficult but valuable conversations can be challenging, even for the most experienced. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for using bibliotherapy to help students cope with trauma that will, we hope, make these efforts feel manageable.
Students of all ages look forward to being read to. A daily diet of listening to carefully selected texts read aloud can create an environment in which students can let down their defenses and recharge. In general, structure, routine, predictability, and clear expectations can also contribute to a sense of safety and order in a student’s life. Sometimes we end a chapter and let the impact sink in with silence. Other times, the students are eager to discuss.
For group discussions related to a traumatic event, make sure you have developed—and consistently enforce—norms about how the group will communicate and treat each other during these conversations. If it’s appropriate to your setting, you might adopt a “what happens here, stays here” agreement for the discussion to promote a sense of privacy and confidentiality—but make sure the group understands that you can’t control whether other students adhere to it.
Whether talking about students’ individual traumas or discussing characters in books, it can be helpful to frame the conversation around ways that people survive, overcome, and adapt to hardships and challenges. What helps people bounce back after difficulties? What characteristics or resources do they have? Where in the story is there hope? Discussing resilience doesn’t have to be limited to conversations about traumatic events, however. It can be a rich theme to explore throughout the school year—every book involves some type of conflict or challenge that a character must overcome.
Sometimes, no matter how carefully we listen or how conscientious we are about enforcing safety, some students aren’t ready or able to talk, and that’s OK. We show we care, but we don’t force it. We leave the door open, and the books out. We plant seeds that could grow when conditions are right.
Another way to help a student feel a sense of control is by asking permission to discuss the topic. For example, you might say, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gun violence in the news and wondering about how it has affected you. I found a book with a character whose family member gets shot. Would it be OK if I shared it with you?”
For small groups or classes, you might ask the students which books they want to read, or distribute an interest survey. For educators with the flexibility to do so, organizing an after-school book club or lunch bunch would allow interested students to self-select into the group. As you offer book suggestions, make sure to provide students with a balance of topics, characters, and experiences so that they see their lives reflected in the literature. Be mindful that diverse characters are presented authentically and that no one type of person is consistently shown as a victim.
Mix up your choices of books to share. Remember that laughter is great medicine. Choose titles that allow for all kinds of emotional responses. Let your read-aloud time be an opportunity for students to find solace, joy, and predictability.
Allow students to re-read the same book as many times as they like. Not only does this build fluency, it also lets them work through fear or cognitive dissonance related to difficult experiences.
Rewrite the story
There is a close connection between trauma recovery and storytelling. Consider the hero’s journey: a hero must leave what is familiar and undergo an ordeal in order to return to her world with a changed perspective. What can you do to help students see themselves as heroes of their own story? What will help them begin to take ownership of the story? How are they different as a result of the trauma? Could any of those differences be positive—such as the realization of how strong they truly are? Sometimes, the very act of telling the story is a way of taking back power over it. Other times, choosing not to tell it serves the same purpose.
Students can choose to reframe the story of the trauma. Perhaps the event is not the tragic ending, but the turning point. You can talk with students about “post-traumatic growth”—the ability people have not just to survive a trauma, but to find a way to grow from it or make something worthwhile out of it. Literature—and life—are full of examples of people using pain and loss as a call to action, a path to insight or empathy, or a reason to help others.
Books to build community
The experience of reading a book can take us out of ourselves, connect us with others, remind us of the universality of human suffering and hope, and offer us wisdom about how to go on living. Some books remind us of the beauty and joy there is in the world, despite everything.
We all need a sense of connection and belonging, and this is especially true for students who feel isolated, alone, or afraid as the result of a trauma. This becomes particularly urgent as students move toward adolescence and start to rely even more heavily on relationships with friends and peers. As we share stories, we see each other’s humanity. A compassionate community can be developed as classes laugh and cry together, sharing stories and developing common language.
Reading a book with others creates a collective experience, a communal reference point. Hearing others talk openly about how a shooting or an act of terror has affected them can build unity, empathy, and cohesion. Encouraging students to identify with one another, find common ground, respect each other’s differences, and build friendships is all part of strengthening the support networks that enable them to be resilient.
There are no magic words. But books give language to talk about difficult issues and complex emotions. Characters reflect resilience. A group book discussion can also reveal how different experiences and beliefs can lead people to a variety of interpretations and conclusions about the same thing. This is a great segue into conversations about human difference, conflict, and multiple perspectives.
Happily ever after?
Artfully incorporating books into trauma recovery can lend balance and perspective. Getting caught up in fear and grief can create tunnel vision that leads us to overgeneralize and think catastrophically. It’s important to acknowledge that teachers and librarians have feelings of their own. Educators need our own “safe spaces” to reflect, process our feelings, and heal from traumas. We need community that fosters our abilities to respond from places of compassion as well as to stand up for justice.
Recovery from trauma is not a one-off event, and developing resilience is a process. A brain that has been altered with chronic, traumatic stress has the capacity for neuroregeneration, as psychiatrist Norman Doidge writes in The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, 2007). We don’t need to have all the answers or be trauma experts to listen and meet students where they are. Being compassionate witnesses can be enough.
We also don’t have to wait for a tragedy in order to build resilience. In fact, it’s probably best to create the safety net before it’s needed, in the same way that we don’t wait for a child to get sick before we encourage them to wash their hands, eat healthy foods, or exercise.
At the end of Woodson’s Behind You, each of the characters has learned to live with their grief, and begins to find joy in the everyday. Teachers and librarians can use books like this to connect with students, give a sense of safety, share complex emotions, and emphasize hope. As the mother who lost her son to a shooting in Behind You says, “…each day there is at least one perfect moment….I turn away from my window, make my way upstairs to my study. When I turn my lamp on, so much beautiful light fills the room.”
Trauma in Schools
Chronic stress or responses to trauma manifest in a variety of ways in schools. Some kids show distress through aggressive behaviors, power struggles, or testing limits. Others withdraw from learning and relationships. It may take a long time to earn their trust, and they might push away adults who are trying to help. They might have a stronger reaction to provocations than others; be restless, fidgety, anxious, hypervigilant, or have trouble concentrating. If a trauma interferes with their sleep, they may be sleepy or irritable at school.
Many schools and districts are becoming more trauma sensitive and creating environments that support resilience. Working with these students requires patience, consistency, and compassion. When students operate from the “fight, flight, or freeze” panic instinct, their higher-order thinking shuts down. Since many are more sensitive to perceived threats, this reflex triggers more readily.
In addition, students living with chronic stress are often mislabeled as learning disabled or having behavioral issues. To unlock their abilities to solve problems, reflect, and think deeply, it’s imperative that they feel safe. But if kids feel like their life is chaos, this can be a tall order.
Administrators understand the need to prepare staff members to work effectively with students and families who have been traumatized. Whether or not your school or organization has begun to implement trauma-informed practices, consider independently seeking out PD, continuing education, conferences, or other training related to psychological trauma. For those looking for a basic introduction, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website provides an overview. The Massachusetts Advocates for Children Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative also has resources for developing trauma-sensitive schools. Other resources include Helping Traumatized Children Learn and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which offers a free PDF manual on psychological first aid to help people after disasters and emergencies. The Lesley University Institute for Trauma Sensitivity website provides a free online survey tool to assess your school community’s ability to foster resilience.
The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child
Every Human Has Rights, National Geographic, 2009, Gr 5 Up
We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Rights in Pictures, illus. by John Burlingham, Frances Lincoln, 2011, Gr 2–5
All the World, by Elizabeth Gordon Scanlon, illus. by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane, 2009, K–3
Can We Help? Kids Volunteering to Help Their Communities by George Ancona, Candlewick, 2015, K–6
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illus. by Doug Chayka, Eerdman’s, 2007, Gr 2–5
Green City: How One City Survived a Tornado and Rebuilt for a Sustainable Future, by Allan Drummond, FSG, 2016, Gr 2–8
Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya, illus, by Susan L. Roth, Dial, 2012, Gr 2–8
I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, Charlesbridge, 2015, Gr K–3
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson, Penguin, 2015, Gr K–6
Mirror by Jeannie Baker, illus. by author, Candlewick, 2010, Gr K–12
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia by Miranda Paul, illus. by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook, 2015, Gr 2–8
One Today: The Inaugural Poem for President Barack Obama by David Blanco, illus. by Dav Pilkey, Little, Brown, 2015, Gr K–8
Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye, illus. by Nancy Carpenter, Four Winds Press, 1994, Gr 2–5
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting, illus. by David Diaz, Harcourt, 1994, Gr K–5
Terrorism and War
14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, illus. by Thomas Gonzalez, Peachtree, 2009, Gr 2–8
Children Growing Up with War by Jenny Matthews, Candlewick, 2014, Gr 5–9
Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman, Putnam, 2002, Gr 3–8
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, S. & S., 1997, Gr 6–10
Making It Home: Real-Life Stories of Children Forced to Flee, by the International Rescue Committee, Puffin, 2004, Gr 4–8
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Atheneum, 2015, Gr 9 Up
Behind You by Jacqueline Woodson, Putnam, 2004, Gr 8 Up
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, Putnam, 1998, Gr 8 Up
Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, S. & S., 2000, Gr 9 Up
Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Little, Brown, 2009, Gr 9 Up
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, Sourcebooks, 2016, Gr 9–12
Violent Ends: A Novel in Seventeen Points of View, Shaun David Hutchinson. ed., S. & S., 2015, Gr 9–12
Erika Dajevskis (pictured) is a school counselor in Philadelphia Public Schools. Mary Ann Cappiello is an associate professor at Lesley University, where Patricia Crain de Galarce is associate dean of the Graduate School of Education.
This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.