Bibliotherapy: The use of selected reading materials as therapeutic adjuvants in medicine and psychiatry; also guidance in the solution of personal problems through directed reading. (AHIL Quarterly, Summer 1966, p. 18.)
I am seven years old. It is a couple years after my parents have separated. My brother and I are at the New Jersey shore with our mother. We are in a bookstore because I have asked for a book rather than a t-shirt or a toy to be my souvenir of our trip. She says yes and I pour over the books in the store until I find a biography of Helen Keller. I read the blurb on the cover and I am stunned by the idea that a child who is blind, deaf, and unable to speak intelligibly can be taught language. How can anyone overcome such a thing? It is the worst circumstance I have heard of in my short life, worse than my parents' divorce which has devastated me. I am intrigued and I must have this book. I devour the book and learn that Helen's teacher refused to make excuses for her. Helen was expected to learn self-control and once she gained some measure of that she was able to learn to communicate. If Helen and Annie could do that I can get through my parents' divorce I think. And some measure of hope for myself is restored.
In fourth grade I discover Harriet Tubman through a collection of brief biographical sketches in our classroom. I am amazed that an illiterate slave could find a way to lead so many to freedom. Slavery, that's another circumstance worse than my own. In the library I search for everything I can find about Harriet Tubman. I learn that in addition to having to escape slavery and to being illiterate she suffered a head injury when an overseer hit her in the head with a large heavy object. She suffered crippling blackout headaches which would have left her defenseless if she had been caught during one. If she can overcome all that and lead others to freedom in the process, I can overcome a teacher who singles me out for mistreatment in the class. If she held her head high so can I.
I find folklore, fables, and mythologies and I see the wisdom of cultures around the world. I drink in what they have to offer hoping I can grow to be the sage or the hero rather than the fool. I learn about Martin Luther King, Jr and Gandhi and the power of non-violence. I seek out books on the people who have overcome adversity of all different types. I devour them hoping to take in something of their strength and resilience and goodness.
Later, as a teen I discover the power of research when I develop asthma and though we do not have access to decent medicines I learn, through books, how to do self-relaxation in order to control the natural panic response when an attack comes. I learn if I can control panic and find a way to physically relax the breath comes easier.
I go to books for comfort, for solace, for information. I do not not know there are people who prescribe books with intent to help others in the way I have been seeking out. I won't know that until I am in college and a professor assigns a reading having to do with bibliotherapy. It resonates with me. I know in my bones this is a useful tool because I know the hope I found in biographies, the escape I found in fiction, the health I found in research.
Now I am in my forties. I run two urban elementary libraries. I see children every day who live in poverty, who lack a parent, who see violence in their homes. A first grader demands, "I need a happy family book." I am currently helping another student, with a promise to a subsequent one for help. I gesture to indicate just a moment. When I am done with the first student I am asked, "Where are the happy family books?" Again, I let this student know waiting turns is important so I can help everyone.
When I finish and turn to her I meet her eyes and ask what she is looking for. "Miss, can I have a happy family book?" I am a little perplexed so I ask if there is a particular character or a certain story she is thinking of. She looks me in the eye with a mixture of both expectant hope and deep need. "Miss, I'd really like a book about families that are happy....because mine is not. Do you have any?" she asks as if there is a whole happy family sub-genre under fantasy literature.
I am instantly struck. I must find an excellent book for this child. I pause a moment to let my brain catch up with my heart and then bend down to smile and say, "Follow me." I see the flame of hope flicker more brightly in this first grader persistent enough to keep asking until her need was met. We arrive at an often neglected corner shelf which contains one of my favorite authors, one I discovered when my children were young, one who is gentle and hopeful in his stories without being saccharine. I kneel down, my little friend crawls in next to me. I search the shelf and retrieve the book I was looking for. Eyes meet again as I tell her, "This is a story about a little mouse girl who has some things which upset her. Her parents and a teacher at school are loving and kind and help her find ways to feel better about things. Does that sound like the kind of book you might like to read?" Her face lights up, she nods vigorously and takes the book from my hands. She sighs in relief and I see tension in her shoulders ease.
We walk together to my computer so I can check the book out to her. I tell her this book is one of my favorites and I liked to read it to my children when they were little. She beams again. I ask her to tell me what she thinks when she brings it back, to tell me if she liked it or if she didn't; either answer is just fine because knowing her opinion will help me find just the right books for her. She clutches the book to her chest as she agrees to report back then joins her classmates lining up to leave.
Just before exiting she turns back and says unprompted and with the kind of gratitude that keeps you warm on the coldest of days, "Thank you so much for helping me find this book, Miss."
That's my job. That's why I'm here, sweetie.