Using Literature to Explore Kids’ Issues

A book’s narrative can be turned into a powerful way to get kids to open up about their experiences and feelings.
Jul 11, 2023
Reading can be leveraged into therapy.

Increasingly, it looks like the kids are not alright, they’re anxious and less resilient at a time when many will be facing major issues in their lives like divorce, bullying, body image, pressure to perform at school… take your pick.

Social media with its focus on external values, curated images and the need to be liked gives children, particularly girls, impossible models to live up to and an excessive dependence on collecting ‘likes’, which leads to increasingly suppressing their authentic selves. Spending more time connecting via a screen also means that the nourishment and complexity of face-to-face connections are less available than they were to previous generations. 

Researchers point to a lowered tolerance for stress, due to over-protection from competition, for example, the race where everyone wins. This protects the child from the experience of failure and stunts their ability to tolerate failure, learn from it and pick themselves up to try again. Any life will contain failures - resilience is the ability to weather them, and even better, to learn from them. In addition, without a tolerance for failure, there can be no innovation or creativity. 

There is a palpable reduction in freedom and autonomy in today’s children, compared with the children of decades past. Parents are more protective and children are more risk averse. Excessive aversion to risk creates anxiety and lowers independence and self-confidence.

Addressing kids’ issues takes some work and a proven strategy is therapeutic storytelling, using literature to initiate conversations about big feelings in a way that doesn’t increase anxiety, talking about characters in a story to explore what a child is going through.

Author and clinical psychologist Doris Brett was one of the pioneers of therapeutic storytelling, in the 1980s she wrote Annie Stories, a book about the use of therapeutic storytelling to help children deal with stressful issues.

It was published internationally and was one of the first books to look at narrative therapy for children. This has now become mainstream and there are many children’s books available using stories to help children deal with issues such as starting school, separation anxiety, fear of the dark and so on.

“A number of researchers have now documented the emotional and social benefits of ‘shared’ reading, talking about a book, both between teacher and child and between parent and child. Studies show, among other things, increases in empathy, interpersonal skills, increased ability to label and understand emotions in the child with whom the book is shared. These benefits were tied to reading novels in which relationships and emotional growth were part of the plot,” says Brett.

The first step is talking about a book in the way that you might at a book club - why do you think the characters reacted the way they did? What would have happened if they had reacted differently? What were they feeling? Why were they feeling that? What changes do they experience in themselves as the journey progresses?

The second step might be ‘Do you know anyone like that?’ 

The third step might be ‘Sometimes I have felt like that.’ Saying that you have felt these feelings makes it less threatening and easier for the child to say that they have too. They have the sense that they are not alone in feeling this and also that you might understand them because you have experienced similar feelings. 

For the fourth step, never push the child into talking about themselves and ‘admitting’ feelings or problems. They’ll do it when they are ready and when it feels safe to do so. 

“In the meantime, talking about those feelings or issues by ‘proxy’ is extremely therapeutic and effective. It allows the child to take in ways of seeing things and reacting to issues, without feeling threatened. As soon as you feel threatened, you close up shop and defend yourself rather than listen,” says Brett.

“As humans, our lives are particularly complicated - they involve challenges, dilemmas, complex relationships and emotional issues that we need to resolve on a regular basis. As infants, with a massive amount of learning ahead of us, we are hard-wired to learn by imitation and observation. As older children, and adults, we remain compellingly interested in how others solve problems and deal with difficult emotional issues that are similar to our own.” 

For a book to become a ‘proxy’ experience, the challenges faced by the hero should have parallels to the reader’s life. The ‘proxy’ character doesn’t have to be human. In Brett’s latest book Philomella and the Impossible Forest, for instance, one of Philomella’s travelling companions is Bill, a talking dog. Bill was abandoned by his family, who moved away to a bright new life. This has parallels to a situation some children may experience in the schoolyard - being evicted from their friendship group and seeing the group having having fun with each other in a different part of the playground, while the evicted child sits alone.

Philomella has to learn to manage anger and resentment, adjust to unwelcome change, face her fears, learn to think creatively and strategically instead of just reacting helplessly, and discover the importance of kindness and compassion. These are all issues that are commonly faced, by adults as well as children.

For therapeutic storytelling to work, some actual reading has to take place, no mean feat when children have so much media via so many devices available to them.

“You have to actually make time for reading on a regular basis. Perhaps 20 minutes to start with. You might also want to give yourself that time so that you can read your book in the same room as the child is reading their book. It should be a time where there are no other distractions,” says Brett.

“Secondly, you need a book that interests your child. If your child is a reluctant reader, you might want to start with graphic novels before working your way up to words only. Make sure you pick a book where the vocabulary matches that of your child’s level to start with. You don’t want the project to be too daunting.

“These days, with so much screen time and the frequent dopamine hits that go with it, kids might have a shortened concentration span. That means the book needs to grab them. It needs to be exciting and stimulating, so that they want to find out what happens next. A page-turner will keep them engaged and extend their ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. The Harry Potter series proved to be so enchanting, with its imaginative plots and engaging characters, that millions of children became committed readers through being introduced to it.

“Reading improves concentration and focus. When you read, your concentration is deep, as opposed to the shallow concentration of multi-tasking, or the short concentration bursts of flicking through screen sites and images.”

Using Philomella’s Story to Start Conversations
Several characters in Philomella, including Philomella herself, are dealing with issues of abandonment and rejection. They all have different ways of dealing with their experiences and Philomella is able to view different perspectives through their eyes, which helps her to come to her own resolution.

For example:
Bill, the dog, was abandoned by his family when they moved overseas and left him behind. He is initially depressed and later becomes consumed with anger. He comes to realise that he is reluctant to let go of his anger, fearing that if he does, he will become depressed again. But he also realises that his anger is taking over his whole personality, leaving no room for love or the simple pleasures of life with new friends. He is able to let go of his anger and discover how freeing it is.

Mary, the were dragon, lost her temper after endless teasing and rejection at school. This caused her to turn into a dragon, lose control and cause chaos in the school. She was reviled for it and expelled. This experience of rejection left her frightened of her anger and determined never to allow herself to get angry again. She became a ‘people-pleaser’. She has to learn that she is able to express anger without relinquishing control of herself or losing her friends.

Alazon, the powerful wizard, who is the villain of the story, was teased and rejected at school. He nursed fantasies of revenge, and as he became a powerful wizard, was able to carry out these fantasies in excessive ways. He continues to be fuelled by this and takes delight in his cruelty and the fear with which he is regarded. He confronts Philomella by telling her that they are alike - they both harbour fantasies of revenge. Philomella sees what this has led to in Alazon and that it is not a path she wants for herself.

Philomella, is furious at her father, blaming him for the divorce which has turned her life upside down. He is trying to be a loving part of her life but Philomella rejects his overtures, intent on punishing him for ruining her life. Throughout the journey, she learns from the people she meets and the situations she is faced with, how to see her situation through different perspectives and come to a position where she can let go of her anger and move forward with compassion and hope.

Philomella’s Teacher’s Guide
Philomella and the Impossible Forest has a teacher’s guide with prompts for class discussions or individual exploration.  The questions cover a range of emotional issues or dilemmas that come up naturally in the text of Philomella. Below are a few examples;  

Chapter 10
Page 82. When confronting the pin-cushion monsters, Philomella thinks: Names could change how you felt about yourself - and that changed who you thought you were.

Q: Do you agree? Have you ever been called a name that affected how you feel about yourself?

Page 83. Philomella also thinks: Names didn’t just change the way you felt about yourself. They had an extra power. They changed how you felt about what you named.

Q: Has naming something ever changed the way you felt about it - for example, made it less scary, or more normal?

Chapter 20
Page 176. Ash says to Philomella, ‘I wasn’t fully one thing or another … You couldn’t understand. You’re all of something. You’re all human. Me, I’m only half-half. Half tree. Half human. Half me.’

Q: Have you ever felt that you were an outsider or didn’t belong? Have you ever felt that you were half one thing and half another? Can you explain how that makes you feel? How does it affect other people’s perceptions of you?

Page 177. Philomella tells Ash that because he was half-half, he had special and valuable abilities that other people didn’t have . ‘... If you had been all tree, you wouldn’t have been able to shoot your arrow and kill the troll … If you had been all human, you wouldn’t have been able to talk to the trees, so that they could get you to where you needed to be to shoot that arrow … If you hadn’t been exactly who you are, you wouldn’t have been able to save us.’

Q: If you feel you are ‘half-half’, what special abilities or knowledge do you have from each of your halves?

Chapter 22
Page 191. The Lady’s Brother (Tricks) tells Philomella that if he had helped her ‘… then you wouldn’t have had the chance to help yourself.

Q: Do you think his way is best? Do you think Tricks is right and that if someone is always helping you, then it’s harder to learn how to help yourself?