I recently took a summer class on Bibliotherapy for Youth Services. If you’re not familiar with bibliotherapy (I wasn’t), it’s basically a way of using written material to address the concerns, fears, troubling situations, or life changes that an individual–in this case, a child–is going through. (There’s a pretty good Wikipedia article on it, here.)
Anyway, I read a great deal of picture books and children’s novels for this class, and thought I would post my reflections on the novels here. The reading list was interesting–a number of titles which were certainly good, but many which were either outdated or out of print. That got me wondering if the class’ reading list just needed to be updated, or if, perhaps, bibliotherapy is not as common in today’s children’s literature. If anyone has thoughts on this–particularly any children’s librarians–I’d be interested to hear them.
(Books listed in order they were read.)
A Taste of Blackberries
By: Doris Buchanan Smith
Illustrated: Mike Wimmer
Harper Trophy, 1988
Doris Buchanan Smith’s A Taste of Blackberries starts with an idyllic childhood moment: two young friends rambling through a blackberry patch, checking to see if the fruit is ripe. The lazy summer day continues with races and some
mischievous apple thieving, and Jaime, the (unnamed) narrator’s friend, always vying for attention. Jaime is fun, but he’s also melodramatic and a bit of a show off, and his antics are sometimes too much for the narrator to take.
Everything changes when Jaime stirs up a bees nest that afternoon. Many of the neighborhood children get stung, including Jaime, who makes a big show of thrashing around on the ground and yelling. Or at least, everyone thinks it’s a big show, until they find out that Jaime was allergic to bee stings. And the one or two stings he received were actually enough to kill him.
Conveying the senselessness of a child’s death to young readers is difficult enough, but what makes A Taste of Blackberries even more tragic is the guilt that the narrator feels for ignoring his friend’s cries of pain. Smith handles both aspects of this troubling situation with grace and empathy, allowing the narrator to explore a whole range of emotions and mourn in his own way (he feels like he can’t eat until after Jaime’s funeral).
Equally important, Smith illustrates that caring adults are present everywhere in the narrator’s life. Not only his parents, but his neighbors, and even Jaime’s mother are there for him as he navigates this difficult time, ready to listen or even just sit quietly with him as he begins to heal. This is an important point for children to take away from such a story–that the adults in their lives are ready and able to be there for them during difficult and painful times.
Jessi’s Secret Language (The Babysitter’s Club)
Ann M. Martin
Apple Paperbacks, 1988
Jessi, one of the newest (and youngest) members of the Baby-sitter’s Club, gets a weekly job babysitting for a new family in town, the Braddocks. the Braddocks have two children–Haley and Matt. Matt is deaf, so Jessi begins to learn sign language to communicate with him.
Being one of the only black people in their town, Jessi understands how it feels to be different and isolated from the people around her. She begins to realize, however, that Matt’s deafness not only isolates him from children his age, but also Haley, who feels responsible for her brother, but sometimes wishes he could be “normal” like other kids. She has the idea to not only introduce the Braddock children to other kids their ages, but also teach the neighborhood children Matt’s “Secret Language.” Soon, all the babysitters are learning ‘Ameslan’ and teaching it to their charges.
Having always enjoyed this series when I was a kid, I was pleased to see how well it held up when I reread this title. Martin does a great job of instilling a sense of empathy in the story, and also drawing parallels between experiences that might not seem immediately similar to children who are reading the story. By this I mean not only the fact that Jessi relates to how Matt and Helen feel as outsiders in their community, but also the similarity she draws between dancing (“telling a story with your body”) and sign language. I think this encourages young readers to not only put themselves in the position of people who they don’t think (at first) that they can relate to, but also start to see that something that might not seem normal–like sign language–is actually very similar to something that is very familiar, like dancing.
The Alfred Summer
By Jan Slepian
Puffin Books, 1980
Four Brighton Beach teens–Lester, Alfred, Myron, and Claire–are all outcasts in some way. Lester has cerebral palsy and although he is smart, and witty, and insightful, all the people around him see is his physical disability. Alfred is learning disabled, a fact which leads many people to disregard his kind spirit and label him as a “retard” or “slow.” Myron is clumsy and overweight and spends his days being teased and pushed around by his mother and sisters, expected to fill the shoes of his deceased father, even though he’s only a teenager. And Claire is a champion runner on her track team, but she dresses like a boy, which many of her neighbors and peers find very disconcerting.
These four become unlikely friends, joining together to help Myron build a boat–The Getaway–which they hope will help them escape from their problems. What they find in the process is that with their new-found friendships, is that they no longer want to escape. Rather, spending time together, they discover the capacity to challenge not only the perceptions of people around them, but also the perceptions they have of themselves.
In Lester, Slepian has created a dynamic and unique voice–a smart, sarcastic, and cynical teen who has become resentful after years of being patronized by his parents, ignored by his peers, and unable to do the things he so wants to do. Although his experiences and feelings are very specific to those of an individual with cerebral palsy, many of his problems (an overbearing mother, a distant father) are common with teens and incredibly sympathetic. None of Slepian’s characters are pitiable, but rather, she shows them each to have their own strengths and gifts, failings and fears. As Lester’s father says in a rare show of attentiveness, “Sure people can be rotten. But at the same time people can be good. A little of both, son, a little of both…Just like me, Lester. And like your mother…and you,” (98).
This is a story which emphasizes the importance of taking charge of oneself, of learning how to cope with circumstances that are out of one’s control and making the best of them. This is not to say that The Alfred Summer is unrealistically optimistic or cheery. It’s actually anything but. Slepian acknowledges that these kids will face difficulties and prejudice and that sometimes, unpredictable, awful things happen to very good people. But her characters find strength within themselves to deal with the challenges that face them–they tap into Claire’s “Azzif Theory” and start to become the people that they want to be. It’s a great lesson for any child who feels alienated or without control in his/her own life.
In Lester’s Turn, Jan Slepian returns to Brighton Beach, “the old neighborhood,” where The Alfred Summer took place. Although only a few years have passed, there have been many changes since we last saw Lester, Alfred, Myron, and Claire. For one, Myron and Claire have moved away. Even more difficult, however, is that Alfred’s mother has died. Alfred’s epilepsy has worsened and his father spends a lot of time away from home on business. So Alfred has to live in a special hospital, where, to Lester’s eyes, he’s wasting away.
Lonely without the friends he had finally made and struggling with the idea that he’ll be graduating from high school soon, Lester decides that he is going to quit school and take Alfred away from the hospital. He envisions his new life–working a full time job and caring for Alfie, just the two of them together. His plan becomes big news for Claire (who he still sees), and his new acquaintances–a mother and son who live upstairs from Claire in her new home, and Tillie Rose, a neighborhood teenager who works in Alfie’s hospital. But after a special weekend outing with Alfred, something terrible happens, and Lester must face his own insecurities and start planning for his own future.
Although darker in themes (and plot line) than The Alfred Summer, Lester’s Turn maintains the frank honesty and perceptive empathy of its predecessor. Lester’s fear of facing his own future and making plans for his life after graduation will be familiar to older teens who are struggling to make their own choices. Alfred’s death, though difficult, also emphasizes the importance of making the most of one’s life, no matter the circumstances, and considering the impact that anyone can have on other’s lives.
Lisa, Bright and Dark
Lisa Shilling is an attractive, smart, and friendly girl from a comfortably middle class family in a small town in New York. She’s dating the most popular boy in her highschool, has lots of friends, and seems to have everything. But midway through her junior year of highschool, Lisa begins to notice that something is wrong.
She’s hearing voices, feeling isolated, has unpredictable mood swings and lashes out at her friends. She develops a cruel sense of humor, disappears from places unexpectedly, and even occasionally takes on an English accent and persona. And though her peers and close friends realize that something is wrong with Lisa, the adults in her life either pretend that nothing unusual is happening or refuse to take action. So three of Lisa’s friends take it upon themselves to buoy her up as best they can until they can convince an adult that Lisa isn’t acting out or faking it–she really does need professional help.
Lisa, Bright and Dark posits itself not only about a teen’s battle with mental illness, but also a sort of parable about the callousness and lack of responsibility that adults often take when dealing with young people. This is emphasized not only through Lisa’s neglectful parents, but also the counselor and teachers at her high school, who see that something is terribly wrong with one of their students, but are afraid of incurring the anger of her parents–of “interfering” with the way they raise their children. While certainly adults are often guilty of turning a blind eye to the problems and issues that their kids are going through–refusing to believe that their teens could be having sex, experimenting with drugs, etc.–I wonder if this book reflects attitudes that are still socially acceptable. It’s my feeling that if teachers, clergy members, and friends all noticed that a teen they knew was having mental health problems, a myriad of counselors and resources would be provided for her, even if the parents didn’t fully cooperate. It seems to me that it is now much more socially acceptable–and even socially mandated–to get involved when a teen shows signs of mental distress.
The fact that the book is narrated by one of Lisa’s less good friends, Betsy, works very well. Not only does Betsy’s bubbly voice balance out the harshness of Lisa’s story (peppered as it is with tangents about Paul Newman’s dreamy eyes, movie factoids, and high school social commentary), but it also provides a realistic window onto Lisa’s situation. It allows the reader to observe someone who is slowly descending into mental illness from an external point of view. This is probably a more empathetic position for most teens, but also makes the reader think about their own responsibilities to their friends and peers and the ways in which she might seek out help for a friend in a similar situation.
Light a Single Candle
By Beverly Butler
PocketBook, 1970 (original, 1962)
Cathy is a tomboyish, independent, and athletic teenager, who wants more than anything to become an artist. On her fourteenth birthday, Cathy–who has always had extremely poor eyesight–finds out that she will go blind before her next birthday. Although the transition to blindness is extremely difficult for Cathy, what makes it even more hard are the reactions she receives from those around her. No one will treat her like normal. After training with a guide dog named Trudy, however, Cathy finds that she can regain her independence and even return to a public high school.
A sweet story, which doesn’t romanticize blindness, but also doesn’t treat it as a condition to be pitied. A story which any teen who is struggling to learn (or earn) independence might benefit from.
Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You
Puffin Books, 1985
Helen Nichols has a reputation for being one of the best pitchers, and worst readers, in the sixth grade. She’s also known as one of the biggest troublemakers in school. At the start of the year, she’s assigned to the classroom of Mrs.Lobb–“Blob” to those who know her–a teacher with very little tolerance and a lot of rules. Although Helen works for hours after school every day with her mother on her homework, she can’t fake her way through reading assignments and tests all year, and soon she’s in danger of failing the sixth grade. With the sympathetic guidance of some understanding adults (her father, uncle, and new teacher, Mr. Marshall), Helen makes the difficult decision to start taking special ed classes in reading–even if it means getting made fun of by her classmates.
Although many of the references in the book are more than a little out of date–the students talk about playing Van Halen albums and use Pee Chee notebooks–DeClements does an excellent job of creating a relatable pre-teen world. Her sixth graders talk like sixth graders, and act like sixth graders, without ever lapsing into the sort of self consciously good behavior that makes it obvious that they were written by an adult. This is important, not only because it makes the characters believable, but because it is an honest portrayal of the sort of power struggles that kids at this age have with the adults around them. They’re not sure if they want to be treated like children or teenagers, and take a great deal of pride in pulling things over on adults (particularly their parents) when they can. Helen frequently does things at her friend’s house that she knows her mother wouldn’t allow–drive in her friend’s brother’s fiberglass car, go to a horror movie unchaperoned–and this seemed so wonderfully realistic to me.
DeClements also deals with Helen’s bad behavior and reading difficulties with the same sort of empathy and realism. It’s not difficult to see why she acts out so much, but the connection between her bad behavior and her disability is never belabored. Also, just because Helen decides to take special education classes doesn’t mean that she suddenly loses all of her self-deprecating negativity. “Face it, Helen,” she says in the next to last chapter. “You’re dumb in reading.”
Another facet of DeClement’s realism is that the adults in the novel have their problems and short-comings, too. Mrs. Lobb is certainly a beleagured teacher, but she’s also unable to find a way to connect with Helen and be a productive figure in her life. Helen’s mother also means well with her refusal to let Helen take special education classes, but her actions are mostly motivated by her pride, and Helen’s father even admits this to her. Adults aren’t perfect either, and I think that demonstrating that shows a lot of respect for young readers.
The other standout aspect of this book is that it really underscores the importance of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. Helen not only decides of her own accord to pay back the school for her spray-painting vandalism, but also asks herself to be considered for special ed classes. Later in the book, she assures her mother that at twelve, she’s old enough–and responsible enough–to stay at home without supervision after school. Learning to be responsible helps Helen begin to feel better about herself as a person, and I think this is an applicable message for any young reader.