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Bibliotherapy for the Inclusive Classroom

by Anita Iaquinta and Shellie Hipsky


The concept of healing through books is not a new one. This use of literature in this way can be traced far back in history, to the days of the first libraries in Greece (Bibliotherapy, 1982). The first documented use of bibliotherapy as an intervention technique was recorded in 1840 (Afolayan, 1992). In 1916, the term "bibliotherapy" was used in a published article in The Atlantic Monthly to describe the process of presenting books to medical patients who needed help understanding their problems (Crothers, 1916). Today, bibliotherapy is the term applied for the use of fiction to explore; a) children's feelings about self-esteem; b) the experience of living with a chronic condition including disability, and c) the ability to relate to a main character with a similar condition.

The rise in popularity of bibliotherapy may be due to the societal and familial problems in the United States; a rise in divorce, alienation of young people, excessive peer group pressure, alcohol, and drug abuse. Tu (1999) provided the explanation that:

Through literature, children can understand that they are not alone in encountering problems. In using literature to help children cope with problems, teachers recognize that children today encounter many problems and they can then better understand and relate to children's feelings (p.2).

Bibliotherapy has thus been used to enhance understanding, self-esteem, and adjustment to a developmental crisis (Morris-Vann, 1983).

Bibliotherapy in Inclusive Classrooms

Teachers can use bibliotherapy in the inclusive classroom as a tool to promote understanding of disabilities for both the challenged and non-challenged students. Pardeck and Pardeck (1994) explained a perspective of interest to this study when they claimed that:

literature has developed in recent years which is concerned with the pedagogical and curricular issues raised, for example, in connection with the "urban school," minority ethnic groups, disadvantaged and handicapped groups, and children who live apart from their families (p. ix).

By providing non-fictional and fictional characters who have comparable disabilities, students can feel that there are others in similar situations.

Selecting Stories for the Classroom

Students may be more willing to engage in open discussions about their thoughts and feeling through discussion of carefully selected texts. The following questions established by Carlson (2001) and Cartledge and Kiarie (2001) can be used when choosing appropriate children's literature with therapy in mind:

• Is the story simple, clear, brief, non-repetitiuous, and believable?
• Is it at an appropriate reading level and developmental level?
• Does the story fit with relevant feelings, needs, interests, and goals?
• Does it demonstrate cultural diversity, gender inclusivity, and sensitivity to aggression?
• Do characters show coping skills and does the problem situation show resolution? (Maich & Kean, 2004, p.7)

A good bibliotherapy lesson includes the following four elements, according to Forgan (p.76) Using this format, a teacher can provide opportunities for children to explore an array of situations relevant to their own. The books presented in the next section can give you some ideas for bibliotherapy in the classroom around the topic of disabilities.

Figure 1. Elements of the bibliotherapy lesson

It's Brian's eight birthday, and his family bought him a parakeet. He's named it Scratchy, because that's what it feels like when the bird sits on his finger. Brian has been blind since he was four. He can't see Scratchy, but he can play with him and teach him to talk. Brian's absent-minded brother leaves the front door open, and Scratchy flies outside. Will Brian be able to get him back? Ages 6 – 9

Blind since birth, Louis uses all his senses to love his grandmother and feel her love for him. When she dies and Louis seems to have been forgotten in the family treasure hunt Gran arranged in lieu of a will, he must hold on to his knowledge of her love for him and his memories of her smell—"lilacs, with a whiff of bleach"—and her "molasses voice" to know he could never have been overlooked. It is a lifetime later, when Louis is a grandfather himself, that his conviction is affirmed by his "favorite youngest grandchild's" discovery in Gran's much-loved hickory chair. Ages 6 – 10

This very sensitive book treats the topic of Down syndrome in a very positive way. As more children with Down syndrome and other disabilities enter our classrooms, discussions of pertinent issues are important. The author does an admirable job of presenting the information in an informative, gentle, non-threatening way, at just the right level for a young elementary school aged child to understand. This book is written in first-person narrative, told in the words of Nick, the young boy with Down syndrome. The similarities between Nick and the reader are stressed, rather than the differences. Ages PK – 2

Nathan lives next door to Miss Sandy, a raptor rehabilitator. She's very busy taking care of injured birds of prey, like owls and hawks. Nathan wishes he could help Miss Sandy with some of her chores, but he uses a wheelchair or walker because of cerebral palsy. Then Fire, an owl with a broken wing, comes to Miss Sandy. Fire is desperate to fly, and Nathan can't wait for her to get her wish. But on the day Fire tries to fly, she cannot do it. Miss Sandy says the owl's wing will never be strong enough. The light goes out in Fire's eyes and she stops eating. Nathan searches a way to help Fire, not realizing that what he finds will help transform his life as well. Ages 6 – 9

This inspiring photo-essay shares the vision of Mary Verdi-Fletcher, creator of a children's dance troupe that blends "sit-down" dancers in wheelchairs with "stand-up" performers. The book follows the company from practice to opening day of "The Sorcerer's Apprentices." The full-color photographs capture the magical transformation of everyday children into stars of the stage. Ages 8 – 12

Jimmy can't sit still in class. His teacher, Mr. Jugardor encourages the other students to be tolerant of him. When the children wriggle and jump about after the teacher asks them to put ladybugs down their shirts, they understand what it's like to have A.D.D., just like Jimmy. Wyrick's illustrations are bold, cheerful colors with black outlining. Ages K – 3

Sarah and her cousins are all set for a sleepover weekend complete with hot chocolate, pillow fights, and ghost stories—until the power goes out in a storm and plunges them into total darkness. Sarah isn't worried, because she is blind, she is able to guide the rest of the girls safely through the pitch-dark house. With warm, sensitive text and richly atmospheric illustrations, the book prompts young children to reflect on how a person's differences can be their greatest strength. Ages 5 – 9

Russ, a five-year-old boy with Down syndrome, tags along with his Uncle Jerry, a fireman, during a day of work at a real firehouse. Captured in detail with vivid color photographs, this story begins as Russ goes "on duty" for the day. He helps inspect the fire equipment-the ax, fire hydrant, flashlight, ladders, fire truck-to make sure that it's all working OK. He also discovers that a very important job at the firehouse is keeping the equipment clean, so Russ and Uncle Jerry start scrubbing and rinsing. Even Sparky the Dalmatian gets a sudsy bath. After they're finished everything in the firehouse is sparkling-except for Russ, who's just a little bit wet! Ages 3 – 7

In the mid-1800s, Luke and his mother help support themselves by making panoramic eggs of maple sugar. When a man bursts into their home and accuses them of hiding slaves, Luke's mother denies the charges--although she is planning to meet her contact on the Underground Railroad that very day. With his mother held at home, Luke, who is deaf, must use his resources and creative talents to help make the connection. Ages 6 – 10


Afolayan, J.A. (1992). Documentary perspective of bibliotherapy in education. Reading Horizons. 33, 137-148.

Bibliotherapy. Fact Sheet (1982). Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 234 338) 257.

Carlson, R. (2001). Therapeutic use of story in therapy with children. Guidance & Counseling,16(3), 92-99.

Cartledge, G., & Kiarie, M. (2001). Learning social skills through literature for children adolescents. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(2), 40-47.

Crothers, S. (1916, September). A literary clinic. Atlantic Monthly, 118, 291-302.

Forgan, J.W. (November, 2002). Using bibliotherapy to teach problem solving. Intervention in School and Clinic. Austin: 38(2),75-83.

Hollander, S.A. (2004). Inclusion literature: Ideas for teachers and teacher educators. Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education. 1(8). Retrieved on June 8, 2006 from

Maich, K., & Kean, S. (2004). Read two books and write me in the morning: Bibliotherapy for social emotional intervention in the inclusive classroom. Teaching Exceptional Children, 1(2), p. 5-11.

Morris-Vann, A.M. (1983). The efficacy of bibliotherapy on the mental health of elementary students who have experienced a loss precipitated by parental unemployment, divorce, marital separation, or divorce. Dissertation Abstracts International, 47, 676A. (University Microfilms)

Pardeck, J.T., & Pardeck, J.A. (1994). Bibliotherapy: A clinical approach for helping children. Yverdon, Switzerland: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Prater, M. A. (2003). Learning disabilities in children's and adolescent literature: How are characters portrayed? Learning Disability Quarterly, 26, 47-61

Tu, W. (1999). Using literature to help children cope with problems. Bloomington, IN. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED436008)

About the authors

Anita Iaquinta, D.Ed. is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education and Social Sciences at Robert Morris University. She currently teaches all undergraduate and some graduate classes in reading and language arts methods courses along with content area reading, educational psychology, elementary social studies, and has taught children's literature, cultural diversity, creativity in the elementary classroom, issues and trends in education, and elementary assessment, to name a few. Additionally, she works as an educational consultant in the area of guided reading where she coaches and facilitates elementary teachers in the implementation of guided reading instruction.

Shellie Hipsky, Ed.D. is currently an Assistant Professor of Education at Robert Morris University and an Educational Consultant for the Tri-State Study Council at the University of Pittsburgh Her career includes teaching students from kindergarten to graduate school in the U.S. as well as in Rome, Italy. She has been published in: Curriculum Review, The Northam Centre for Leadership Studies Monograph, Educational Review, and Kappa Delta Pi Record. Hipsky's books are The Drama Discovery Curriculum: Bibliotherapy and Theater Games for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Challenges and Arts Alive. As a recent Assistant Principal in charge of curriculum and supervision at a school for students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, she is acutely aware of teacher and student needs.

©July 2006

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