Fiction or Nonfiction? Bibliotherapy Examined

A Question of Bibliotherapy

One afternoon a teacher for a group home asked me for books to use for his class of teens aged 14-17, male and female, to begin some bibliotherapy with them. He was particularly interested in fiction, dealing with issues of abandonment and abuse, for reluctant readers. These issues could even be just a small part of the plot. He said that he would use the books to begin discussion with the students about their own problems. I found a few books for him, but I soon realized that it was quite difficult to find titles that did not contain language that would exclude them from classroom use.

As a youth services librarian in a public library and part-time graduate student in a library media specialist program, I am aware of LM_NET, so I posted the question there asking for a response. I received a great response with many suggested titles. A few respondents expressed concern that the teacher should be a trained psychologist or supervised by a trained counselor in order to conduct bibliotherapy in the proper way. One person expressed concern that bibliotherapy could in some cases harm a child and another expressed the opinion that bibliotherapy does not tend to work at all. Several library media specialists who assumed I was going to conduct bibliotherapy myself reprimanded me.

The Ethics of Bibliotherapy

This reaction toward the use of bibliotherapy by teachers and library media specialists brings to mind several questions of ethics. Since disseminating information is our aim, should we be concerned with how the information is used? Do we have a right or any obligation to guide those who gain information from our library media centers in the use of the information? In the previous context, the teacher requested fiction books on a certain topic. He did not have to let me know how they were to be used in his work, yet he did. Where does our concern about the use of information, whether it’s found in the fiction or nonfiction section, begin and end, and are there different ethics for library media specialists and public librarians? Books used for therapy would be books used in a medical context, and as professional librarians in either a public library or library media center, we have an obligation to give a patron the correct type of help.

Librarians who are asked questions by patrons concerning law and medicine have very strict guidelines. Definitive answers are never given; we only give patrons reliable reference sources. We refer them to physicians and lawyers for interpretation, diagnosis, and treatment. In the practice of readers’ advisory in the areas mentioned above, we should be sensitive to a student or patron as an individual who may have needs that cannot be addressed by reading a book. In the nonfiction and reference sections, librarians traditionally help patrons find the information, and then it is up to the patrons to use the information correctly.

Of course, it is possible to find information in print on almost any topic imaginable. Dr. Steven K. Nielsen, Associate Professor of Counseling at Lynchburg College and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist states that:

“Bibliotherapy is a multimillion dollar business in the U.S. Attempting to avoid the stigma associated with psychotherapy, people search for self-help books at their local library or bookstore that appear to address their problem. Some books included on bibliotherapy lists are devoted to the significant other who is riding ’shot-gun’ alongside of the impaired individual. These books are written to help the spouse of an angry man or the parent of an ADHD child. These books are designed to provide information and support but, when the information is used by a novice outside of the context of therapy, can result in dire consequences. The reader typically assumes that information in books represents the state-of-the-art viewpoints on emotional disorders and options for treatment. Sometimes the information is inaccurate, inappropriately referenced, or outdated. Frequently, well-intentioned spouses and parents will offer ’evidence’ direct from these books hoping to initiate the process of self-appraisal and change. Impaired individuals, unfortunately, often report that the information provided by their parents or spouses only promoted feelings of shame and guilt which, in the long run, delayed or prevented them from seeking professional help.”

Our Obligation as Library Media Specialists

Clearly, we have a grave responsibility to ensure that our library media center collection has reliable sources. As library media specialists, we should use reputable journal reviews to choose fiction and nonfiction books for our collections. Of course, there may be inaccurate depictions of the disorders of the mind among fiction books, as there may be inaccurate descriptions among nonfiction books. Perhaps some reviewers may not know that certain information is incorrect, especially if they are not experts in each particular field mentioned in the book. They may not have access to the latest findings in the field. It would be impossible to have physicians review all books that have any mention of a medical disorder, lawyers review books that mention law, or psychologists review all books including characters with mental disorders. However, if an author has high standards, then he or she will consult with experts to ensure that a book is accurate in an area outside his or her field, and that consultation should be noted somewhere in the book. Unless there is some historical reason to keep them, we must discard all items we know to be inaccurate and dated.

Read Between the Lines

There is a big difference in the way fiction and nonfiction books should be used. Fiction comes from an author’s mind and heart and is not intended to be a scientific evaluation of a phenomenon. It is generally related from a character’s point of view and the character has faults of perception. The character may be a bigot, blinded by love or hate, ignorant, or superstitious; consequently the character’s description of an event or his or her own experience is skewed.

A nonfiction book can be helpful in some cases, especially if it is a book recommended by a professional in the field. Dr. Nielsen also explains that “sometimes, after getting to know a client, therapists will recommend a specific book that will help the client move along more quickly in therapy. These books are well-researched and written by experts in the field.”

Perhaps bibliotherapy using fiction could never really be therapy, which is management and treatment of an illness. Using fiction books in a classroom could more accurately be regarded not as bibliotherapy, but as a discussion of themes or characters, which may allow the participants to examine their own issues or problems in a nonthreatening way. Does this type of discussion step beyond a teacher’s role? The answer could be yes, yet people experience many types of abuse or abandonment in their lives; consequently, quite a few characters in books experience it also. When a book is taught in the classroom or talked about elsewhere, elements contained in the book will come under discussion.

Another important element to examine in any book is the author. An author will write in the context of her education, environment, and life experience. In the study of literature, an author is frequently examined by researching biographical information so that the work is evaluated within the context of the author’s life. This knowledge of an author’s biography also provides a type of check and balance for a reader of fiction and nonfiction.

Bibliography Not Bibliotherapy

With all of this in mind, I decided to mention the concerns about bibliotherapy to the teacher and I gave him the bibliography I had compiled from the LM_NET subscribers. He decided to have his class read When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and when I last spoke to him he said that the class was enjoying it. Fiction is not true, but it may contain elements of truth and insight inaccessible to us in our daily lives. As Shirley Lukenbill, Library Media Specialist at Wooldridge Elementary and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information asserts, “…you do NOT have to be a therapist to help children. You just cannot prescribe reading unless you are a trained therapist.” At the very least, the list of fiction books suggested by librarians all over the country is a bibliography of wonderful books that may help us all understand the trauma suffered by some of the children in the world.

NOTE: Quotes from Nielson and Lukenbill used with permission from the authors. Information from LM_NET posts used with permission from Peter Milbury.


Crutcher, Chris. Staying Fat for Sara Byrnes. 1993. 224pp. $17.99 hc. Greenwillow Books. 0-68811-552-7. Grades 8-12.

Crutcher, Chris. Whale Talk. 2001. 224pp. $15.99 hc. Greenwillow Books. 0-68818-019-1. Grades 8–12. The respondent noted this book has some mild profanity, but is excellent— the second suggested book by Crutcher.

Dessen, Sarah. Dreamland. 2000. 250pp. $15.99 hc. Viking Children’s Books (Penguin Putnam). 0-67089-122-3. Grade 8 & Up.

DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. 2000. 182pp. $15.99 hc. Candlewick Press. 0-76360-776-2. Grades 4-6. The respondent noted that this book may be rejected by teens as too young for them, but she said a movie based on this book will be released next year and Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band is in the movie, so this may interest older readers.

Fisher, Antwone. Finding Fish: A Memoir. 2001. 384pp. $7.50 pbk. HarperTorch. 0-06053-986-0. This book is in the adult nonfiction section of our library. It is an autobiography.

Flinn, Alexandra. Breathing Underwater. 2002. 272pp. $7.99 pbk. HarperTempest. 0-06447-257-4. Grade 7 & Up. Two respondents suggested this book.

Frost, Helen. Keesha’s House. 2003. 128pp. $16 hc. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 0-37434-064-1. Grade 9 & Up. The respondent notes no profanity and a quick read.

Haddix, Margaret. Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey. 1997. 112pp. $4.99 pbk. Simon Pulse. 0-68981-543-3. Grade 6 & Up. Two respondents recommended this book.

Holt, Kimberly Willis. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. 1999. 240pp. $16.95 hc. Henry Holt and Co. 0-80506-116-9. Grades 5–8.

White, Ruth. Belle Prater’s Boy. 1996. 208pp. $17 hc. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 0-37430-668-0. Grade 5 & Up. This is a YA book in our library.

Rosey Clark

MLA Citation Clark, Rosey. "Fiction or Nonfiction? Bibliotherapy Examined." Library Media Connection, 24, no. 1, August 2005. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 2152357

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