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The introduction of the book ‘The Story Cure: An A-Z of Books to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise’, by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin (2016), begins “Between once upon a time and happily ever after is a land we've all been to. Strange and marvellous things happen there.” That land is where life-long readers are created, minds are enlightened and storywriters are formed. It involves a journey we must bring children to from the moment they are born. For me, story is how we make sense of our world; it is evolutionary. It is also essential nourishment for healthy language development (Peck, 1989). When speaking to parents, I remind them that none of them would dream of collecting children from school on a Friday and not feeding them again to Monday. Similarly, children need daily engagement with story for optimum language development. The author of a pioneering study of the special qualities of picture books, Nodelman (1989) describes the usefulness of stories perfectly when he noted, “the combination of words and pictures is an ideal way to learn a lot in a relatively painless way” (p.284).
The authors of The Story Cure, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, describe themselves, alongside parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers, as bibliotherapists. Their previous book ’The Novel Cure’ (2013), introduced the healing properties of reading, where novels are prescribed based on the ailment. For a teacher of young children, what a wonderful ability it is to be fully trained to administer, what could be termed, a “story vaccine” on a daily basis! Pehrsson (2005) discusses also how bibliotherapy can help children after experiencing trauma and hurt, facilitating the release of “emotional pressures” and supporting new ways of thinking and talking about their concerns and problems, in a shared, trusting space. Berthoud and Elderkin (2016) describe the journey that readers are taken on noting that,
“By the time we come back, brushing the dust off our hats, a new worldly look in our eye, we know alone what we've seen, experienced, endured. And we've discovered something else, too, that whatever is going on in our actual lives, and whatever we're feeling about it, someone else has felt that way too. We're not alone after all." (Berthoud & Elderkin, 2016, p. ix)
Bibliotherapy in action
The case study below demonstrates how I take children’s fondness for a particular story and use it to create another story, rich in natural language and localised to their learning context. Children of all ages are easily engaged when the story revolves around where they live, a person they know and the adventures that happen within. As anyone who interacts with children well knows, they love to hear stories of the antics of a new puppy, a silly thing that happened, or a real life story. In the below case, my point of departure is Julia Donaldson’s acclaimed story ‘The Gruffalo’. This much-loved story brings children into an imaginary world, rich in rhyme, rhythm and repetition. Mallet (2012) discusses how stories and picture books meet children’s need for the repetition that they also find in songs and rhymes. The playful storyteller, through their liveliness, spontaneity, imagination, humour and down-to-earth silliness, makes the characters real in voice, movement and anticipation, exploiting – and developing – the children’s addiction to the story of ‘The Gruffalo’.
In the below case, I explore where the mouse lived before he went to live in the forest with the Gruffalo. I begin in a near-whisper, as if I don’t want anyone else to know; these children are the only ones who are going to hear this breaking news:
“Children – do you want to know something that no one else knows about the mouse?...”
Malcolm Mouse and the Odd Numbered House
“Malcolm Mouse lived in an odd numbered house in a street close to their school with the Murphy family, whose favourite food was pizza.
Mr and Mrs Murphy had gone to Rome for their honeymoon and that was the first time they ever ate pizza and after that they just adored it. Such was their love of this Italian-inspired dish that all their children were called after varieties of pizza. The eldest was Margherita, the youngest was Pepperoni and the middle child’s name was Romana. While Malcolm Mouse had been living with the Murphys for five years, not one of the Murphy family knew he was a resident in their odd numbered house. Malcolm only came out of his cosy spot in the laundry cupboard when he could hear snoring from all the bedrooms. Then he knew he was safe to go and search for some left over pizza crusts. But he always remembered to return to his cosy spot before anyone got up and before Mrs Matilda Murphy came back from nightshift in the local hospital.
It was a fateful Tuesday night in February that was to be Malcolm Mouse’s last night in the house. It was ‘buy one, get one free’ at the local pizza house so, instead of the normal four 12 inch pizzas, eight pizzas arrived. They ate all the pizzas but left all the crusts and Malcolm could think of nothing as tasty. He ate all the crusts from the eight pizzas and the sheer volume of the food made him very, very sleepy.
Disaster was to strike.
He forgot to go to his usual hiding place in the laundry cupboard. Matilda came back from nightshift in the local hospital, looking forward to climbing into her warm bed and having a very well-deserved rest after cleaning all the wards on the seventh floor. As she walked into the living room, she was horrified to find Malcolm, with the remote control in his paw, watching his favourite cartoon – Tom and Jerry. Matilda Murphy jumped on the sofa screaming, ‘There’s a mouse in the house!’ Malcolm knew it was time to find alternative accommodation when he saw the pest extermination van arrive outside the odd numbered house in the local street...”
Figure 1 demonstrates the vivid detail of the story remembered by a 10-year-old pupil after this type of oral storytelling. The task was introduced, and modelled, before the story began: the class were informed that they would get a point for every detail remembered. The resulting level of attention in the room was so high as to be almost palpable.
Bibliotherapy is good for us all because when we tell a story we are free and can learn so much about the world we live in and the feelings we experience as we navigate our way through it. A cherished book of mine is “A Child of Books” by Oliver Jeffers – an extraordinary picture book offering forty classic works of children's literature and lullabies, through the story of a little girl as she sails her raft across a sea of words, arriving at the house of a small boy who invites her to join him on a “literary adventure”. It brought me back to the many texts that influenced my life and I was transported back in time, through forests of fairy tales and mountains of make believe. The two travel together on a fantastical journey that unlocks the children’s imagination, opening them up to a lifetime of adventure and magic.
This is our task too: we need to unlock children's imaginations, to encourage their voice. The next inventions have yet to be imagined! Grab the opportunity and make as many children as possible “a child of books”; help to velcro stories to their hearts and minds; show them the world.