Making Space in Kids' Literature for Mental Health Issues
Today's kids are worried. Their books ought to help them.
Posted Sep 29, 2017
by Nicole C. Kear
Today’s kids are worried. From an early age. About all sorts of things. Anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 kids, and the median age of onset is 6, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. As they get older, they get more anxious: 1 in 4 teens meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Health.
It’s no wonder some experts have called anxiety an epidemic.
You find anxious kids in classrooms and amusement parks, on jungle gyms and airplanes. The only place you don’t tend to find them is in literature for young children. The same is true for those struggling with other common challenges of childhood, like ADHD, grief, and learning differences.
Here’s why that’s a problem: Anxiety (and ADHD, and grief, and learning differences) can be isolating. Knowing that others are wrestling with the same challenges, that you’re not the only one, can be enormously beneficial. And books can offer that fellow feeling in a safe space: It’s part of what makes reading such a transformative experience.
The concept of bibliotherapy is not new, nor is it narrowly-defined. The term is broad in scope and the practice can take many different forms. Recent research suggests that bibliotherapy can have a real and measurable therapeutic value for those struggling with a variety of disorders, including insomnia, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction. Building on this idea, places like the School of Life in London have emerged, offering a “novel cure,” in the form of a book prescription for clients.
I haven’t conducted research on bibliotherapy, but I’ve experienced its effects as both a reader and an author. I’ve been self-medicating with books since I was old enough to decode words. Right now, my drug of choice is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Sometimes what I need is escapism, stories that live me out of the confines of my own experience. Sometimes I need just the opposite – stories that resonate deeply and help me understand my experience in a different way. Such was the case 12 years ago when I was wrestling with vision loss while caring for a newborn and I read Ryan Knighton’s memoir, Cockeyed. Reading about Knighton’s experience coping with the same degenerative retinal disease that was erasing my vision was nothing short of a revelation. His hilarious and heart-wrenching memoir granted me sanity, solace, and a sense of hope for the future.
Years later, when I wrote my own memoir about vision loss, Now I See You, I witnessed the effects of bibliotherapy from a different angle. I heard from countless readers, many of them visually-impaired themselves, who were stunned, relieved, and grateful to read about an experience that so closely resembled their own.
Kids experience that relief and fellow feeling when they recognize their own emotional experiences in books, too. It’s a thrilling and liberating sensation and it’s something I think all kids should experience – including the ones who grapple with challenges in the realm of mental health.
It’s not that the landscape of children’s literature lacks titles addressing these issues; it's just that these books tend to be geared towards older kids—upper-elementary students and middle-schoolers. For this age range, countless books deal masterfully with issues from ADHD (such as the Joey Pigza series by Jack Gantos), to OCD (as in Kathleen Lane’s The Best Worst Thing). There’s even room to take these very real issues and play them out in more fantastical settings, as Rick Riordan does in his beloved Percy Jackson series.
I’m looking forward to seeing those kinds of issues tackled more frequently in books for younger children. It’s what I’ve tried to do in my chapter book series, "The Fix-It Friends," which features characters dealing with anxiety, grief, bullying, ADHD, and learning differences. The books are written for kids aged 6-9, who may be just beginning to cope with these oftentimes chronic issues
It’s worth pointing out, too, that books that tackle mental health issues are beneficial not just for kids dealing with those challenges, but for all kids. Reading is a solitary enterprise, but it's also a powerful vehicle for connecting with others.
As a reader of fiction or memoir, you walk a mile (and then some) in someone else’s shoes. You get a glimpse into their innermost thoughts and feelings. This breeds understanding. Understanding breeds compassion. And compassion is something all of us need.