How to Use Bibliotherapy with Children

Posted by Bijal Shah on

There are many definitions of bibliotherapy used in the past:

“Bibliotherapy is the use of books to help people solve problems” (Prater, Johnstun, Dyches & Johnstun, 2006; Jackson, 2006). 

[The] use of selected reading material as therapeutic adjuvant in medicine and psychiatry; and, guidance in the solution of personal problems through directed reading” (Jackson, 2006). 

“therapeutic reading in which children find duplications of their own problems and observe how children similar to themselves face their difficulties” (Jack & Ronan, 2008).

"Bibliotherapy is thought of as a sensitive and non-intrusive method of guiding people [and children] towards problem solving and coping in their personal lives" (Jack & Ronan).

"Bibliotherapy involves reading books to help children cope with problems and realize that they are not alone and that their emotional responses are perfectly normal" (Russell, 2009).

Bibliotherapy has the potential to enhance a child's self-concept by fostering greater self-appreciation and improved self-understanding. It can effectively nurture and heal self-esteem, offering a means for children to alleviate emotional burdens while recognizing they are not alone in facing particular challenges. Furthermore, bibliotherapy encourages meaningful discussions and empowers children to discover constructive approaches to problem-solving.  Bibliotherapy also teaches children tolerance, inclusiveness, differences, how to treat others, and morality.

Children's bibliotherapy was introduced in the 1960s when educational psychologists Zaccaria and Moses recommended it as a therapeutic tool to teachers and counsellors for the mental well-being of students.

"Children of all ages love to read because it can be therapeutic" (Stamps, 2003).

When using bibliotherapy with children, discussion is an important part of the process. Pre-written questions, specifically on a chosen mental health theme is crucial to the bibliotherapy process and creating inclusive discussion, reflection and sharing. Children can either write down responses for discussion or use drawings, and subsequently share these within groups. Suggested group size should be a maximum of 8 children.

Some themes that are excellent for children's bibliotherapy include bullying, anxiety and building social skills. They can help build self-esteem and resilience, provide relief, manage conflict and better understand other people. Bibliotherapy is particularly useful for children who struggle with disability and are unable to verbalise their feelings. The literature gives them the language they need to express this. Bibliotherapy is also helpful for children who are overwhelmed by traumatic events such as death, divorce, illness and abuse.

Types of Children's Bibliotherapy

The three major classifications of bibliotherapy are Institutional Bibliotherapy, Clinical Bibliotherapy and Developmental Bibliotherapy.

Institutional Bibliotherapy

Institutional bibliotherapy refers to the use of books, literature, or written materials as therapeutic tools within institutional settings, such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and other structured environments. The primary goal of institutional bibliotherapy is to promote emotional, psychological, and personal development among the individuals residing or participating in these institutions. Here are some key aspects and characteristics of institutional bibliotherapy:

1. Targeted Populations: Institutional bibliotherapy can be applied to a variety of populations, including students in schools, inmates in correctional facilities, patients in hospitals, and residents in care facilities. The approach is tailored to the specific needs and challenges faced by these individuals.

2. Educational Settings: In schools, bibliotherapy is often used to help students understand and cope with various issues they might be experiencing, such as bullying, family problems, grief, or academic difficulties. It can also promote a love of reading and literacy.

3. Correctional Institutions: In prisons or juvenile detention centers, bibliotherapy may be used as a tool for rehabilitation and addressing issues like anger management, addiction, and personal growth. Reading materials can serve as a means of self-reflection and personal change.

4. Healthcare Facilities: In hospitals and mental health institutions, bibliotherapy is employed to aid patients in understanding and managing their emotions, illnesses, or mental health conditions. It can also offer solace and distraction during recovery.

5. Group or Individual Therapy: Institutional bibliotherapy can be administered in both group and individual therapy sessions. Group sessions allow participants to share their thoughts and feelings related to the reading materials, fostering a sense of community and support.

6. Book Selection: The choice of reading materials is crucial in institutional bibliotherapy. Books, articles, and stories are carefully selected to address the specific issues or goals of the therapy. The content should be relatable and resonate with the target population.

7. Facilitators: Facilitators, which may include teachers, counselors, librarians, or therapists, play a key role in guiding individuals through the bibliotherapeutic process. They help participants engage with the materials and facilitate discussions or activities related to the reading.

8. Self-Reflection and Discussion: Participants are encouraged to reflect on the content and how it relates to their own experiences and challenges. Discussions, journaling, and other interactive activities are often part of the therapy process.

9. Benefits: The benefits of institutional bibliotherapy can include increased self-awareness, improved coping skills, better communication, enhanced emotional well-being, and personal growth. It can also be a cost-effective and accessible form of therapy.

Institutional bibliotherapy can be a valuable component of the broader therapeutic landscape within institutions, offering an innovative and engaging approach to personal development and well-being. It recognizes the power of literature to inspire change and foster a deeper understanding of oneself and others.


Clinical bibliotherapy

Clinical bibliotherapy is typically employed by mental health professionals, such as therapists, psychologists, and counsellors, to support clients in understanding and coping with their challenges, feelings, and personal growth. Here are some key aspects and characteristics of clinical bibliotherapy:

1. Therapeutic Context: Clinical bibliotherapy is conducted within a clinical or therapeutic context. It is used as a complementary approach to traditional psychotherapy and counseling. Mental health professionals select and recommend specific reading materials based on a client's needs and goals.

2. Individualized Approach: The choice of reading materials is highly individualized. Therapists assess the client's specific issues, concerns, and therapeutic goals to select books or other written materials that are relevant to the client's needs.

3. Integration into Therapy: The reading materials are integrated into the therapeutic process. Clients read the selected materials either independently or with guidance from their therapist. Then, they discuss the content during therapy sessions, exploring how it relates to their own experiences and emotions.

4. Enhancing Self-Reflection: Clinical bibliotherapy encourages clients to engage in self-reflection. Clients are prompted to examine how the content of the readings resonates with their own lives and challenges, fostering insight and personal growth.

5. Addressing a Range of Issues: Clinical bibliotherapy can be used to address a wide range of emotional and psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, relationship problems, self-esteem, and personal development. It can also be applied to specific populations, such as children, adolescents, or adults.

6. Supplemental to Traditional Therapies: Clinical bibliotherapy is often used in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychoanalysis. It complements these methods by providing an additional means for clients to explore their thoughts and emotions.

7. Facilitated by Professionals: Mental health professionals guide and support the bibliotherapeutic process. They help clients make connections between the reading materials and their own experiences, providing a structured and safe environment for exploration.

8. Client Empowerment: Clinical bibliotherapy empowers clients to take an active role in their therapeutic journey. By reading and reflecting on the recommended materials, clients gain a sense of agency in their healing and personal development.

9. Evidence-Based Practice: There is an increasing body of research and evidence supporting the efficacy of clinical bibliotherapy in addressing various mental health issues. It is considered a valuable and evidence-based intervention.

10. Confidentiality and Privacy: As with traditional therapy, the confidentiality and privacy of the therapeutic relationship are maintained in clinical bibliotherapy. Clients can openly discuss their thoughts and feelings related to the readings in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

Clinical bibliotherapy is a dynamic and evolving field that recognizes the therapeutic potential of literature and written materials. It provides clients with a unique avenue for exploring their emotions, fostering personal growth, and achieving therapeutic goals under the guidance of mental health professionals.

Developmental bibliotherapy
Developmental bibliotherapy is an approach to bibliotherapy that specifically targets the emotional, psychological, and cognitive development of individuals, particularly children and adolescents. It involves the use of literature and reading materials as a means to support and enhance the developmental processes and milestones that individuals experience at different stages of their lives. It's a valuable tool for educators, parents, and mental health professionals to support individuals and offer insight and guidance on their development pathways to self-discovery and maturity.  Here are some key features and aspects of developmental bibliotherapy:

1. Age-Appropriate Materials: Developmental bibliotherapy selects reading materials that are age-appropriate and relevant to the developmental stage of the individual. This ensures that the content is relatable and engaging.

2. Supporting Developmental Milestones: The reading materials chosen for developmental bibliotherapy are intended to support and facilitate the achievement of important developmental milestones. For example, in early childhood, it might focus on social and emotional development, while in adolescence, it might address identity formation and relationships.

3. Fostering Cognitive Skills: Developmental bibliotherapy can be used to enhance cognitive skills, such as language development, critical thinking, and problem-solving, by exposing individuals to diverse literary genres and complex themes.

4. Emotional Intelligence: It can help individuals understand and manage their emotions as they progress through different life stages. Reading about characters and situations in literature allows individuals to relate their own emotions and experiences.

5. Identity and Self-Discovery: For adolescents, developmental bibliotherapy often addresses identity development. It can help young people explore and understand their own identities, values, and beliefs through the characters and situations presented in books.

6. Social Skills and Relationships: Books can provide valuable insights into human relationships, and developmental bibliotherapy can be used to enhance social skills, communication, and empathy. It may also address issues related to peer relationships and family dynamics.

7. Life Transitions: This approach can be particularly beneficial during transitional periods in a person's life, such as starting school, puberty, or transitioning to adulthood. Reading materials can help individuals cope with the changes and challenges associated with these transitions.

8. Parental Involvement: In the case of developmental bibliotherapy for children, parents or caregivers often play a significant role. They may be involved in selecting and reading books with their children, facilitating discussions, and providing guidance.

9. Educational Settings: Developmental bibliotherapy is commonly used in educational settings, including schools and libraries, to support academic and personal development. It can enhance students' reading comprehension, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.

10. Integration with Education: It is often integrated into the educational curriculum, where teachers use books and stories to teach not only academic subjects but also important life lessons and character development.

Children's Bibliotherapy Sessions

Children often identify with a character when they are facing a similar problem or situation to them. The words and story on the page often give them the language to understand and explain how they may be feeling in a safe setting. They gain insights and learn coping strategies by reading about how a particular character deals with or copes with his/her challenges. They then have a self-realisation that they tool can solve their problem or challenge in a similar way. This empowerment leads to self-belief and confidence in their own capabilities to address issues that may have seemed impossible or daunting before. It gives a sense of control - they have choices, power and agency to take the necessary steps to resolve a problem.

They also build their own values and behaviour after positively experiencing this through reading and seeing it displayed by the character.

The key with this type of bibliotherapeutic intervention is that there must be clear goal and plan of action after the reading and reflection process to ensure that the child is not left with unresolved emotional uncertainty or conflict, as otherwise they may come away feeling confused or unsure about how to process the many emotions that may have been triggered for them.

Book selection & Connection

Connection and resonance with a character is key, in order for the bibliotherapy process to be effective. This is one of the most important parts of the bibliotherapy process; as is the reading level - the story and the language must be age-appropriate for the child in order for them to experience a connection with the character. Studies have shown that children as young as six or seven are capable of connecting with others. 

In order for the child to feel safe to explore their own feelings or emotions through the book, fiction is more effective as this enables some distance from themselves and allow them to experience their own issues through that of the character's. Educators and mental health professionals should encourage connections and links between the child and the reader and also suggest or allow the child to make predictions between their own lives and that of the character's.

You might also find this chart on selecting books for children helpful.

Setting Goals & Questions

Setting clear goals for the child in advance of reading the literature is really helpful as guides the educator/mental health professional to create an action plan for the child so that at the end of the bibliotherapy session, they feel empowered.

A crucial part of this is preparing questions in advance for the child to reflect on as they read and leverage their reading. I call this process 'reflective practice' and discuss this is more detail in my book "Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Reading". 

For example, if you are looking to explore the theme of bullying through bibliotherapy, the educator/mental health professional could select a few books on bullying and discuss how the character-as-victim and/or character-as-bully might feel, why the bully might feel the need to pick on others, and possible resolutions.

During this process, it is vital that the educator/mental health professional remain non-judgemental or impartial in order for the children to trust the professional and be open and honest about their feelings and be willing to explore and be active in the process.

Stages of the Bibliotherapy Process

There are 4 stages that a child experiences during the bibliotherapy process: 

(i) identification, (ii) catharsis, (iii) insight and (iv) universalisation.

(I discuss this process in more detail and the parallels with traditional psychotherapy on my online course Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health)

1. Identification

Text-to-self connections through connections with fictional children or even animal characters can help the child recognise the thoughts and behaviours of others. Educators/mental health professionals should encourage these 'text-to-text', 'text-to-self', and 'text-to- world' connections. 

2. Catharsis

These connections, once made, enable catharsis, i.e. a connection with their own feelings and emotions through connection with the text/character relieves tension and leads to catharsis as they compare their own experiences to those of the character in the text. This gives way to insight.

3. Insight

Insight empowers children to understand how they too can navigate thier own situation and effect positive change within themselves or externally.

4. Universalisation

As children begin to understand that others also struggle with similar issues such as the fictional character, they are able to embrace and process the story in a more universal way. Acceptance and wider understanding can lead to self-compassion and self-acceptance.

Educators and Mental Health Professionals can use follow-up activities such as keeping a journal (writing and drawing about how they are feeling), creating Venn diagrams or character weaves to help students better connect their reflections to the narratives and texts that they are reading.

You might find Book Therapy's Venn Diagrams (comparison of the feelings of the child versus a character's) to enable text-to-self connections and better empathise with other people's perspectives, helpful. Role playing is also helpful.

After reading a book, it's common to engage in creative art and writing projects, which can be especially advantageous for students who may find it challenging to express themselves verbally. Some specific examples of these activities include:

  1. Crafting collages that symbolize the emotions or experiences depicted in the story.
  2. Designing a poster that encapsulates the essence of the narrative.
  3. Reimagining and recreating a beloved scene from the story as a personal artwork.
  4. Molding clay sculptures inspired by elements in the narrative.
  5. Composing a heartfelt letter to a character from the story.
  6. Crafting poetry inspired by the themes and emotions encountered in the book.
  7. Selecting a section of the story for rewriting and modification, encouraging creative expression.
  8. Constructing a Venn diagram to explore the similarities and differences between the character in the story and the child.
  9. Developing Venn diagrams to illustrate relationships among new words, thereby enriching vocabulary or drawing connections to other texts.
  10. Formulating an original story that envisions the character's life five years into the future.

These engaging activities serve to reinforce the child's realization that, much like the characters they encounter in literature, their own lives can also evolve and improve.

How Do Children Experience Literature?

Many elements of literature influence how engaged a child will be in a book. This includes:

Surface features

  • A book's physical dimensions;
  • the colours used;
  • the arrangement and layout; and
  • the design of the illustrations*

*The illustrations themselves have a unique capacity to capture the emotions and thoughts experienced by children, conveying ideas, sentiments or feelings through visual imagery, for instance, portraying the loneliness of a zoo animal.

Textual features

  • the font type and size;
  • level of language complexity
The quality of all of these elements influences how likely it is that a child will engage with and connect to the literature or book, and whether they will be able to derive the necessary meaning and insights from the words.

It's helpful for a child to summarise a story in their own words. This can inform how well they understood the story but also what stood out for them (what resonated with them and is meaningful) and feelings and thoughts are being triggered and any helpful insights that they have gained from the story.

This also helps the child internalise what they have learned and they can apply their newfound knowledge in a real setting. They will start to make connections to their own lives. They may be as simple as having a character named Andrew in a story and having a child say, “I know someone named Andrew.”

These uncomplicated associations serve as the groundwork for children, enabling them to develop more advanced literary insights as they mature. Even if certain connections appear tenuous at first, they act as a stepping stone, paving the way for children to establish more profound connections as they grow older.

Lastly, another manner in which children engage with the text is by asserting their influence over the narrative, discussing what actions they would or would not take on behalf of the characters. These expressions empower children to actively participate in the story, effectively incorporating themselves into the narrative.

You might also find our book and/or online course on Bibliotherapy helpful too:

Bibliotherapy Book - Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Reading

Bibliotherapy Course - Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health Online Course 

Parenting Course - Raising A Reader & Storyteller Online Course

Children's Bibliotherapy Course - Children's Bibliotherapy Skills Online Course 


A big hello and thank you for reading. Passionate about literature, psychology, and life I launched Book Therapy as an alternative form of therapy using the power of literature. I offer bibliotherapy sessions and curate reading lists/personalised book prescriptions for clients based on their individual needs. This is our signature personalised reading service.

I train mental health professionals, librarians, teachers as well as readers on using bibliotherapy in their own work through our online Bibliotherapy, Literature and Mental Health course).

You can also check out Book Therapy’s other free reading lists and A- Z of book prescriptions (covering both fiction and non-fiction). These suggest books based on your existing life situation (e.g. anxiety, job change, relationship heartache) as well as interests (e.g memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, crime etc).

There’s also a Children’s A — Z of Book Prescriptions. Feel free to check out the blog for more literary gems. There’s also a post on my personal story of how I entered the world of bibliotherapy and book curation.

In this role, I have had the opportunity to publish two books called Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Reading and The Happiness Mindset, and write various literary essays and pieces for newspapers and magazines.

I have undertaken bibliotherapy workshops for The United Nations, various libraries in New York and corporate organisations in the UK and US. My book recommendations have featured in the Guardian, Marie Claire, NBC News, Asian Voice, New York Observer, Sydney Telegraph and various other publications.

If you are a parent you might enjoy a podcast I’ve recorded with speech and language therapist Sunita Shah on Raising A Reader & Storyteller. And if you’d like to connect, email me at


Book Therapy is a participant in the Amazon EU, US and Canada Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to, and

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