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Volume 22, Number 2
Winter 1995


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Molding the Minds of the Young: The History of Bibliotherapy as Applied to Children and Adolescents

Lauren Myracle
And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tale which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we wish them to have when they are grown up? We cannot.... Anything received into the mind at this age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.... (Plato, 374 B.C., p. 72)
From Plato's time and before, adults have been concerned with molding the minds of the young, and what better way to do so than with books? So the logic goes, at any rate, for as Theodosia Crosse rapturously points out, "Literature is and has been through ages the great medium of thought transference. It is the mighty stronghold wherein are kept the gems of intellect.... In its depths are reflected joy, sorrow, hope, despair -- every emotion that recorded life has known" (Crosse, 1928, p. 925). Adults throughout the ages have viewed books as powerful tools with which to guide children's thinking, strengthen their character, shape their behavior, and, more recently, even to solve their problems. The ways in which books have been employed as a means to produce change in children are multitudinous, and it is both interesting and amusing to trace the history of bibliotherapy as it has been applied to children and adolescents.

Although the powerful effects of reading have been known since ancient times, it was only in the early 1900s that a specific term was coined for the use of books to effect a change in a person's thinking or behavior. In a 1916 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Samuel Crothers discussed a technique of prescribing books to patients who need help understanding their problems, and he labeled this technique "bibliotherapy" (Crothers, 1916, p. 291). More concretely, bibliotherapy is defined by Riordan and Wilson as "the guided reading of written materials in gaining understanding or solving problems relevant to a person's therapeutic needs" (Riordan and Wilson, 1989, p. 506). Caroline Shrodes, one of bibliotherapy's staunchest supporters, suggests that bibliotherapy is effective because it allows the reader to identify with a character and realize that he or she is not the only person with a particular problem. As the character works through a problem, the reader is emotionally involved in the struggle and ultimately achieves insight about his or her own situation (Shrodes, 1955, p. 24).

The application of bibliotherapy was initially limited to hospitals, where it was used as an adjunct to the library services provided to World War I veterans. By 1940 its use had spread to a variety of settings, and in 1946 bibliotherapy was applied for the first time with children (Agnes, 1946, pp. 8-16). Before focusing on this usage, however, there is a related topic that should be mentioned: the history of young adult literature. Since books from this genre are typically employed when bibliotherapy is applied to children and adolescents, it is worthwhile to trace the genre's major changes.

Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the majority of books written for children were intensely and unapologetically didactic. They were written to instruct children in religious matters and to warn them away from the temptations of the material world. According to Cline and McBride, it wasn't until around 1850 that novels and adventure stories were written specifically for the pleasure of the young, and they credit Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, for creating the market for this new brand of fiction (Cline and McBride, 1983, p. 18). In the last half of the nineteenth century, a great many such novels were published for children, including such classics as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

By the early twentieth century it was obvious that a new genre had caught on. Authors began to capitalize on the growing interest in fiction for children and adolescents, and it was at this point that the series novel was born (Cline and McBride, p. 19). Edward Stratemeyer, for example, was responsible for over fifteen separate series, of which The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew are probably the most well known. Still, most of these books continued to treat adolescents and their concerns in a moralistic and sentimental manner, probably because the authors were writing about kids rather than through kids' eyes. Basically, the message of a typical young adult novel during this period was that if you are upright and honest and you work really hard, everything will work out in the end.

However, 1951 heralded a new frankness in young adult literature (Cline and McBride, p. 26), for it was in 1951 that J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye. Soon afterwards, young adult novels were tackling such topics as teenage pregnancy, abortion, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, homosexuality, and, more recently, AIDS. In modern young adult literature, adolescent protagonists are portrayed more realistically, and often things don't work out. Nonetheless, characters are likely to meet challenges face-on and to deal with them thoughtfully and courageously. From didacticism to sentimentality to realism, perhaps it can be said that young adult literature has finally grown up.

To a large extent, the use of bibliotherapy with adolescents has followed the same general path as the coming-to-age of young adult literature, although the changes in bibliotherapy have consistently occurred ten-to-twenty years after the changes in the literature. Beginning with the 1920s and working our way to the present, then, we can see that, like young adult literature, bibliotherapy as applied to children and adolescents has gone from didacticism to sentimentality to realism.

Why begin with the 1920s if bibliotherapy wasn't used with kids until 1946? Or, to go a step further, if books have been used as tools to influence children's behavior long before the term "bibliotherapy" ever existed, shouldn't we go back to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century to begin our investigation? To do so would certainly be interesting, but the early twentieth century is a logical starting point for the study of bibliotherapy because it was at this time that a flurry of attention was directed toward adolescents as a rapidly growing reading public. Josette Frank describes a cartoon from this period in which a mother stood disconsolately before a bookshelf in her living room. Shakespeare's plays and other classics remained untouched on the shelves, "while lying open on chairs and tables with every appearance of awaiting their readers' eager return were lurid paper editions of thrillers -- Gang War, Life of Capone, and Flivver Love" (Josette, 1937, p. 4). The caption underneath the cartoon read, "Why Mothers Get Gray."

These years saw the influx of series novels and other less "serious" stories, and parents as well as educators and other professionals worried about the impact of such books on their readers. Crosse warned in 1928, "For, in literature, as in life, there are two forms of expression -- constructive or destructive, elevating or debasing; and, unfortunately, the immature often do not know the difference and many read with avidity the most demoralizing subject matter" (Crosse, p. 926). The "immature" that she referred to, of course, were adolescents; and, as an example of the dangers of destructive literature, she tells the story of an observant psychologist who saw a pretty girl on the street one day. As he approached her, he mentally defined her as "good looking, neatly and appropriately dressed" (Crosse, p. 927), but as he passed her and heard her speaking to a friend, he realized that her grammar was atrocious. "It was perfectly obvious," Crosse stated, "that her parents had not carefully supervised her early reading and that her association with literature of worth was entirely lacking" (Crosse, p. 927). In a similar vein, Katherine Lind direfully pronounced in 1936 that excessive reading of escape literature could cause maladjustment, because it encouraged adolescents to retreat from the real world. "Through the creation of a dream world," she cautioned, "the reader becomes a sort of `marginal personality'" (Lind, 1936, p. 467).

The logical response to this frightening state of affairs was to establish a set of guidelines to help parents identify what books were worthwhile and which were trash. To this end, book lists were published that indexed acceptable books for children and adolescents, and as an added bonus also indexed the specific moral values that a child would gain through reading these books. It is in this indexing of moral values that the seeds of bibliotherapy can be seen, because basically the authors of these lists were saying, "Here is how you can mold your child. These are the books that will change children's behavior and enable them to be obedient, productive members of society."

Edwin Starbuck published the first of these guides in 1928, and explained in his introduction the purpose of his work. "In so far as there is a threat of moral disintegration through the mass of cheap and sensuous fiction," he says, "the situation should be alleviated by just such efforts as are symbolized by this book" (Starbuck, 1928, p. 4). His book, along with others that came out at the same time, was easy to use. If a mother were concerned about a particular character flaw in her child, she would simply flip to the back of the book and find the particular virtue she wanted to instill. Next to the particular virtue she would find a listing of appropriate books, and, by turning to the appropriate page, she could then read plot summaries of each book to determine which would be best for her child. For example, if a mother wanted her son to be more unselfish, Starbuck's guide would direct her to Jasmine VanDresser's Jimsey, summarized as follows: "Little black Jimsey, happy, unselfish, and ingenious, gives her fretful white playmate some lessons in cheerfulness, after which they enjoy together jolly and exciting adventures" (Starbuck, p. 55). Or, if a father wanted to help his daughter adjust to her handicap, Clara Kircher's guide would direct him to Lenora Weber's Happy Landing, about a girl named Martha who keeps her family together while her father is away. "By her faith in and love for her sister Chatty she helps her to overcome her feelings of hatred and jealousy caused by lameness. In an emergency Chatty forgets her bad leg and is able to start using it again" (Kircher, 1945, p. 49).

Gradually, the didacticism of these early stabs at using literature to change children's behavior was replaced by a more child-focused application of bibliotherapy. By 1940, professionals were starting to address the concerns of the adolescent rather than the concerns of the adolescent's parents, and this shift can be seen in the numerous studies and conferences during this time that treat the adolescent in a somewhat sentimental manner. For example, in 1946 Sister Mary Agnes published the first study on bibliotherapy for socially maladjusted children. She prefaces her findings by recounting the poignant tale of how eleven-year-old Mary met her first orphan in a book called Daddy-Long-Legs, then went on to devote the entire next year to making scrapbooks and delivering them to poor orphan children (Agnes, 1946, p. 8). In the study she stresses the use of biblio-therapy to help children overcome their problems rather than to develop a particular value or character trait, and her case studies are given titles such as "Ronnie ... Convinced She Is `Dumb'," "Barbara ... In Need of Attention," and "David ... Golden Haired Lochinvar, Disliked" (Agnes, p. 14).

This somewhat sappy treatment of children and adolescents can be seen from the 1940s clear through to the 1960s. Judge Jacob Panken asserted in 1947 that almost all children want to be good, but that a poor home life can turn a child to delinquency (Panken, 1947, p. 72). His solution? Have the juvenile delinquent read an inspiring story about Abraham Lincoln or perhaps Thomas Jefferson. In his article he includes letters from several delinquents who were given this sound advice and who profited from it -- one boy even drew a sketch to show his admiration for Lincoln. Judge Panken commended him, saying, "I like that big foot which you have illustrated. All big fellows have big feet and Lincoln was a big man.... You have done a fine piece of work and I compliment you on it" (Panken, p. 82).

Things hadn't changed much by the 1960s, as evidenced by Jane Dirmeyer's book geared for bibliotherapy with the adolescent. In her guide she stresses that adolescents have special needs and "that unless these special needs are met with some degree of adequacy, the adolescent approaches adulthood unprepared to meet his responsibilities" (Dirmeyer, 1968, p. 19). For example, many adolescents need reassurance that they are normal, and for this reassurance they could read Louise Baker's Out on a Limb, about a young woman who has only one leg. Despite her grandmother's grim prediction that "Louise will never get a man" (Dirmeyer, p. 24), she marries twice, serving as an inspiration to teenagers everywhere. Or for a boy, Gene Olson's The Tall One might be more appropriate. Seven-feet-tall Mike is ridiculed by his classmates, until he leads his high school to victory in the state basketball game (Dirmeyer, p. 27).

Perhaps it is unfair to poke fun at these well-meaning professionals, for despite the simplicity of their approaches, their hearts were in the right place. Unlike their predecessors, they attempted to use bibliotherapy as a means of helping children and adolescents feel better about themselves, and no doubt in many cases they succeeded. Because of the growing complexity of the world, however, the issues adolescents dealt with were already changing dramatically. Now, in addition to worrying about appearance and popularity, kids worried about divorce, suicide, rape, pregnancy, homosexuality, AIDS, prejudice, drugs and alcohol, social alienation, and even mental illness. The complicated nature of these problems demanded far more than the sentimental pat on the head that bibliotherapy tended to offer, and, in the early 1970s, psychologists, doctors, educators, and other professionals slowly shifted to a more realistic application of bibliotherapy with children and adolescents.

Henry Olsen in 1975 elaborated on the numerous real-world problems faced by children and adolescents, and argued that bibliotherapy is especially appropriate in the modern world because it allows kids a safe way of confronting dilemmas. "Through bibliotherapy," he states, "children have an opportunity to identify, to compensate, and to relive in a controlled manner a problem that they are aware of" (Olsen, 1975, p. 425). He compares bibliotherapy to prevention of a disease, and suggests that, because books help a child develop his or her self-concept, the child will be better adjusted to trying situations in the future (Olsen, p. 425).

A further illustration of bibliotherapy's more realistic approach can be found in its modern-day usage not only with "normal" teenagers and children, but with specialized populations as well. For example, Ronald Lenkowsky effectively used a program of bibliotherapy to positively influence the self-concept of learning disabled and emotionally handicapped adolescents (Lenkowsky, Daybock, Barkowsy, and Puccio, 1987, pp. 483-489). Thomas Hébert used bibliotherapy to meet the special needs of bright boys (Hébert, 1991, p. 210), and John Sheridan implemented a bibliotherapy program for children with divorced or separated parents (Sheridan, Stanley, and de Lissovoy, 1984, pp. 134-141). Other populations with which bibliotherapy has been successfully used are incest victims, rape victims, juvenile delinquents, drug and alcohol abusers, and children with low self-esteem.

In all these applications, bibliotherapy was used as one of several methods of intervention, a point that illustrates another aspect of the realism that was emerging in bibliotherapy's use. No longer was bibliotherapy hailed as an amazing new therapeutic technique; rather, its advocates clearly defined its limits and argued primarily for its use in conjunction with other therapies. "As with any therapy," advised John Pardeck, "there are precautions and limitations when using bibliotherapy. It should not be viewed as a single approach to treatment but rather as an adjunct to other therapies" (Pardeck, 1990, p. 1048). Bibliotherapist Thomas Hébert concurred, warning, "Bibliotherapy is not a cure-all that will automatically influence ... attitudes or behaviors in the desired direction" (Hébert, 1991, p. 210).

An additional aspect of modern bibliotherapy's realistic approach can be seen in its use of contemporary young adult novels. Yes, the ever-present book lists and guides still exist, but no longer are the books coded according to the value to be transmitted or the insecurity to be overcome. Rather, books are categorized according to general themes, and the summaries given are far less didactic or sentimental than in earlier such guides. For example, Theodore Hipple in his 1984 book list recommends John Knowles' A Separate Peace for an adolescent who is dealing with feelings of rivalry:

This powerful novel presents a reflective look at an adolescent's feelings of rivalry against the background of the global rivalry of World War II. It is Gene's story of his love for and envy of his best friend Phineas, for whom success seems so effortless. Phineas, always seeking to enliven events in the prep school, forms the Super Suicide Society. Gene, constantly looking for signs of competitive feelings in his friend, chooses to view the frequent meetings of the secret club as his friend's attempt to wreck his (Gene's) grades. But he cannot be certain, and in fact he comes to doubt that Phineas ever acts on such motives. Phineas remains a hero; Gene remains the thinker who never quite accepts his own feelings of rivalry. (Hipple, 1984, p. 143)
This summary is representative of those found in other modern guides. The summary itself is longer than those from earlier lists; the more complex plots of modern young adult fiction cannot be pinned down to only two or three sentences. It should also be noted that the language of the summary is straightforward and mature. No longer are the summaries written in "cutesy" language with the intent to charm the reader. Most importantly, the summary does not offer a happy ending. Hipple suggests that insight has been gained by the main character, but he certainly does not offer a "happily ever after." This approach is in accordance with both the realism of modern young adult fiction, in which sometimes problems are not resolved, and the focus of modern bibliotherapy, in which it is not assumed that adolescents can be "fixed" by the proper application of just the right book.

From didacticism to sentimentality to realism, bibliotherapy with children and adolescents has seen many changes since the beginning of the twentieth century. These changes, along with the wealth of excellent young adult novels now available, have led to an increase in bibliotherapy's popularity and its use by a variety of professionals in a wide array of settings (Riordan and Wilson, pp. 506-507). Despite the fact that bibliotherapy is not a fool-proof cure-all (what therapy is?), it has been found to be an effective technique in many situations. As George Calhoun pointed out in 1987, "...the advantages of bibliotherapy are many, and the disadvantages relatively few" (Calhoun, 1987, p. 941), and it is likely that the use of bibliotherapy with children and adolescents will continue to grow.

Works Cited

Agnes, S. M. "Bibliotherapy for Socially Maladjusted Children," Catholic Educational Review, 44, 1946, pp. 8-16.

Calhoun, G. J. "Enhancing Self-perception through Bibliotherapy," Adolescence, 22, 1987, pp. 939-943.

Cline, R. and W. McBride. A Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1983.

Crosse, T. "Literature and Character: The Place of Good Literature in Character Building," Welfare Magazine, 19, 1928, pp. 925-931.

Crothers, S. M. "A Literary Clinic," Atlantic Monthly, 118, 1916, pp. 291-301.

Dirmeyer, J. Bibliotherapy for the Late Adolescent. Thesis. Colorado State University, 1968.

Frank, Josette. What Books for Children? Guideposts for Parents. Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1937.

Hébert, T. P. "Meeting the Affective Needs of Bright Boys through Bibliotherapy," Roeper Review, 13, 1991, pp. 207-212.

Hipple, T. W., J. H. Yarbrough, and J. S. Kaplan. "Twenty Adolescent Novels that Counselors Should Know About," The School Counselor, 32, 1984, pp. 142-149.

Kircher, Clara J. Character Formation Through Bibliotherapy. The Catholic University of America Press, 1945.

Lenkowsky, R. S., M. Dayboch, E. I. Barkowsky, and L. Puccio. "Effects of Bibliotherapy on the Self-concept of Learning Disabled, Emotionally Handicapped Adolescents in a Classroom Setting," Psychological Reports, 61, 1987, pp. 483-489.

Lind, K. N. "The Social Psychology of Children's Reading," American Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 1936, pp. 454-469.

Olsen, H. D. "Bibliotherapy to Help Children Solve Problems," Elementary School Journal, 75, 1975, pp. 423-429.

Panken, J. J. "Psychotherapeutic Value of Books in the Treatment and Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency," American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1, 1947, pp. 71-86.

Pardeck, J. T. "Using Bibliotherapy in Clinical Practice with Children," Psychological Reports, 67, 1990, pp. 1043-1049.

Riordan, R. J. and L. S. Wilson. "Bibliotherapy: Does It Work?" Journal of Counseling and Development, 67, 1989, pp. 506-507.

Sheridan, J. T., B. B. Stanley, and V. de Lissovoy. "Structured Group Counseling and Explicit Bibliotherapy as In-school Strategies for Preventing Problems in Youth of Changing Families," The School Counselor, 32, 1984, pp. 134-141.

Shrodes, C. "Bibliotherapy," The Reading Teacher, 9, 1955, pp. 24-30.

Starbuck, E. D. A Guide to Literature for Character Training, Volume I. Norwood Press, 1928.

______. A Guide to Books for Character, Volume II. The Macmillan Company, 1930.


Lauren Myracle studies and writes about bibliotherapy in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

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