Development Bibliotherapy - using books to guide young people through adolescence

Students need school librarians and dedicated reading programs to enhance their mental health and wellbeing.

Not only does reading fiction help adolescents navigate personal and emotional development during their teens, but developing a reading habit can help to mitigate the disruptive effects of mental health throughout their entire lives.

As we read stories mirror neurons in our brains learn from imagining the story almost as much as if we were the characters in the story ourselves. We are learning vicariously, practicing and testing alternative responses for later use as we accompany our fictional heroes through the pages of the novel.

What’s special about stories?

Stories show us that it’s okay to fail, that mistakes are opportunities for learning, that courage isn’t an absence of fear, and that not everyone is as they seem.

Stories help us identify and refine our values and ideals, show us what resilience looks like, help us to define our goals and encourage us to explore our emotions.

Stories reflect and validate our lived experiences, help us to accept our past, help us to create order from our chaotic lives, and encourage us to be optimistic about the future.

Stories comfort us, help us connect with others and make us feel less alone.

Stories reframe our problems, help us create distance and see different perspectives, and nurture optimism, hope and self-efficacy.

Stories promote empathy and compassion, remove stigmas and stereotypes, help us to embrace diversity, and help us to be more accepting of ourselves by showing us a wider view of normal.

Stories introduce us to ancient wisdom and create intergenerational connections.

Stories help us to understand our world and help us to recognise the importance of our own life story as part of a bigger picture.

Stories give us answers to questions we don’t know how to ask.

Stories give us role models to inspire us to persevere and improve, to empower us to speak out, to join in celebrating the successes of others, and to help us to be grateful and accepting of ourselves.

Stories give us the insight, the language and the confidence to seek help when we need to share our concerns or can’t manage alone.

Stories are not only the easiest way but sometimes the only way to learn about ourselves, and find our place in the society and the world we inhabit, from a safe and secure place.

Who can ensure our students are learning these things if not the teacher librarian?

Developmental Bibliotherapy occurs when Young People recognise that a change has taken place in their thoughts, feelings, beliefs or behaviours.

Implementing Developmental Bibliotherapy can take as little as five minutes or can be developed into a unit of work. Whether as an informal chat, recalling an event or quote, creating a piece of artwork or writing a book review, Developmental Bibliotherapy is almost certainly taking place in every library wherever a skilful teacher librarian is talking to young people about the books they are reading.

Simply put, Developmental Bibliotherapy is a process by which a reader, after reflecting on significant characters or events in a story, makes a conscious change in their thoughts or beliefs.

Although reading fiction is not a panacea, by showing young people a wider view of normal, by allowing them to explore their emotions and their identity alongside fictional heroes, by removing stigmas and stereotypes and by giving them the language and the confidence to seek answers from trusted adults, Developmental Bibliotherapy programs gives students skills that can promote better mental health outcomes throughout their lives.

Implementing Developmental Bibliotherapy – a few simple ideas

If an activity results in the reader reflecting and articulating a positive change in their thoughts, feelings, beliefs or behaviours then Developmental Bibliotherapy has been in effect.

Depending on the age level of the readers, some activities you might easily implement include:

Ask individuals…
Would you like to be any of the characters in the book [they are reading] and why/why not?
Would you like any of the characters in the book as a friend and why/why not?
What are the personal qualities that make [this character] a good/bad friend?

Have students create a bookmark with a quotation from the book and talk to them about the significance of their choice of quotation.

Create a template for a book review that includes guided questions to encourage reflection.

NOTE: Books do not judge and neither should librarians – remember that in developmental Bibliotherapy activities there are no wrong answers.

Two reasons why a Teacher Librarian is the best person to implement Developmental Bibliotherapy

Teacher Librarians love to talk about books. And Teacher Librarians provide guidance, encouragement opportunities for learning without grades.

For more details and resources on how Developmental Bibliotherapy promotes better mental health outcomes in teens see 

Judith Wakeman, October 2019

JLW ID Photo 2019

More about the author

Judith combines a Bachelor of Education with Graduate Diplomas in Computer Science and Information Management alongside a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge and a love of books in her current role.

As a teacher librarian, Judith quickly realises the special relationships many students build with their school librarian, helping them view their library as a safe place – a learning environment where they are able to explore ideas and be themselves free of judgement from others.

Her extensive reading comprises largely of books from the Young Adult genre. She has studied Bibliotherapy and Youth Mental Health First Aid, and believes that the school library can be one of many exciting and colourful pathways to building and maintaining good mental health and resilience for young people struggling with life pressures.



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