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How children's anxieties have been brought to book by novel idea

By Kate Whiting

Published 28/11/2016

Problem solving: reading with your children, no matter how young, can be a real help to all
Problem solving: reading with your children, no matter how young, can be a real help to all
Susan Elderkin

Today's world can be a scary place for grown-ups and youngsters alike. But good stories can ease a multitude of growing pains and fears, say bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

There is nothing like turning to a good book for solace or escapism and reading is just as beneficial for children too, according to bibliotherapists - someone who recommends a book as a way to help overcome an issue.

"Just because you're small, it doesn't mean your brain is small," says Susan Elderkin, author and bibliotherapist, over coffee.

She's referring to that perennial favourite Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's The Gruffalo, which, in Elderkin's new book, The Story Cure, written with fellow bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud, is a "cure for being small".

"Children's literature is full of examples of how the vertically challenged develop other qualities," they write, "and kids on the short side can select from a wide range of role models to find the one that best fits."

The duo, both children "who'd go off and read for hours on end" met studying English Literature at Cambridge University, and set up their bibliotherapy service at The School Of Life in 2007. The Novel Cure, prescribing reading remedies to adults, was published in 2013 and The Story Cure was the natural follow-up - a book for adults to help children with everything from anxiety to zits.

In their selections, they've drawn on their own experiences as parents: Elderkin to a seven-year-old son, Kirin, and Berthoud to three daughters, aged nine, 11 and 14.

"I've really loved reading the Moomintroll books with him - they had us in absolute hysterics. Moomintroll's an only child. I didn't make a huge deal of it, and my son's really sociable and doesn't have any of those 'can't share' kind of issues. But it really helps to reinforce that positive idea of being a sociable single child," says Elderkin.

"When Kirin was a tantrum-throwing toddler, Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny - a picture book about the enraged tears that follow the favourite toy getting lost - was a favourite.

"He just found her tantrum so funny, but also felt the exasperation of the father, with all these question marks coming out of his head. That separation from the emotion is really helpful for kids, it's not just something inside any more. And you can access that later. You can stand outside the tantrum with them, once they've calmed down, and say, 'Look what it did to mummy, look what it did to daddy'."

Berthoud's brood have required a different kind of cure.

"My kids are not instinctively the type to sit down with a book," she says. "They've been great advocates of the 'doing something else while you're reading cure' - so hula hooping while you're reading, or reading in the bath. They've ended up reading a lot more, it's a way of making them feel like they're doing something."

In researching the cures, they worked with a child and adolescent psychiatrist and Berthoud advises: "In the case of eating disorders or self-harm or suicidal thoughts, we would always say see a professional, but the books in here are adjuncts to that. We also say make sure you read the book yourself before your child does, or at the same time at least, so you can talk about it."

Elderkin adds: "Kids are naturals at being their own bibliotherapist, they know what they're drawn to and what they don't want. They're good self-censors."

So how does the therapy work? When a child picks up or is a given a book addressing bullying, for example, what's going on in their head?

"The main cure is it shows you you're not alone, it's reflecting a situation other people have been in, whether it's being bullied or the death of a grandparent, you might be feeling this or asking these sort of questions," says Elderkin. "That's just hugely comforting to a child as they don't have the emotional language yet to say to their parents, 'This is what I'm going through'.

"They also get to be in the shoes of that person, and learn through those experiences. So something like Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, where a boy is on an island and has to survive, the reader will go through that experience without actually having to live it, and be transported by it. Through living that experience vicariously, they feel they're more able to cope with everyday vicissitudes."

At a time when a new world order has come about thanks to President-elect Donald Trump, some children may be picking up on their parents' anxieties, and a prevailing mood of uncertainty about the planet's future.

Stories are more important that ever, say the pair, and can play a huge role with easing fears - or allowing children to confront them in a controlled way.

"Dystopian fiction is all about coping with disaster and surviving in an apocalyptic world and it's empowering in a sense. It makes you think, 'I could be the one that actually skinned the rabbit', or whatever - and then to some degree, 'It's not as bad as this', you hope..." says Elderkin.

"We have a section on fearing for the future of the planet and all of these books are about taking responsibility yourself and showing children that they've got to take the future into their hands.

"Stories are where you're most likely to find emotional honesty - that's always been the case and, now more than ever, it's a reassuring place to go."

Belfast Telegraph

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