How a book a day can keep pandemic stress away

It’s called bibliotherapy—and it has mental health benefits for children.

Meghan Ely and her eight-year-old son, Oliver, travel every night. Sometimes they’re on the train to Hogwarts castle, other times they tour the kooky metropolis of Dog Man and Cat Kid. 

“We look forward to this ritual,” Ely says. “Reading gives us a chance to end the day on a positive note, no matter how it goes.”

After more than a year of virtual school and pandemic stress bearing down on them, reading has become a much-needed escape for families like the Elys. “Reading stories, especially fantasy, is a ‘social vaccination’ against all the restrictions because they help children find a way to exit what COVID-19 put into play,” says Prisco Piscitelli, UNESCO Chair on Health Education and Sustainable Development, who co-authored a 2020 study on the link between reading children’s literature and wellbeing. And after a recent study by Stanford University found that reading fluency is lagging by about 30 percent during the pandemic, especially for second- and third-graders, getting kids back to books is more important than ever.

The unpredictability of the past year might have kids feeling anxious about everything from vaccine availability to whether they’ll be able to have a birthday party, but studies have shown that fictitious worlds can help children deal with real-life problems and promote wellbeing. This type of literary panacea, officially dubbed bibliotherapy, relies on literature to boost mental health—a practice that dates back millennia to Egyptian pharaohs and Greek philosophers.

And kids’ books can be especially cathartic.

“Very few children’s stories don’t have a resolution,” says endowed professor Michelle H. Martin of the University of Washington, who specializes in children’s and young adult literature. “It might not be a happy ending, but it gives children a new perspective. Things might feel scary and dire right now, but better days are coming.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on—along with uncertainty that comes with it—here’s how parents can use books as part of their resilience and recovery toolkit.

Why reading is more important than ever

“Pandemic” may have been the 2020 Word of the Year, but perhaps it should have been “coping.” Many families have had to adjust to homeschooling, financial strain, and loss in addition to their everyday stressors—and it’s taken an emotional toll on kids.

It turns out, books can be powerful coping tools. “Counselors have used books to help kids handle adversity or tough times for decades,” says Michele Borba, author of Thrivers: Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. Pairing a book with an issue—whether it’s grieving, loneliness, or anxiety—can help kids process their emotions through the story narratives and characters.

For example, a book featuring brave, independent protagonists—be it a classic like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or a graphic novel like Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese—can foster self-reliance in kids. A grieving child may benefit from Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, which is about a group of woodland animals processing the loss of their friend.

And after a year of physical isolation from friends and family, literature can also help kids cope with feelings of loneliness and learn to enjoy their own company. Someone missing friends might find comfort in Full of Empty by Tim J. Myers and Priscilla Myers, a story about a lonely princess. For a child fearful of leaving the bubble, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a tale of optimism and courage.

“Recognizing that it’s OK to be by yourself is a very productive moment,” says Borba, who recommends reaching out to children’s reference librarians for guidance. “You’re not alone. You’re with Bilbo Baggins. You’re with Katniss.”

Connecting outside the book

In addition to helping kids cope with complex feelings, parents can also call upon books as an entry point for difficult discussions about all sorts of issues. (“Remember how [character name] had a problem with [blank]?”)

“Books can help you broach conversations when difficult things happen,” Martin says. For example, when she read Song of the Trees by Mildred Taylor with her then-eight-old-daughter, they talked about racism through the eyes of one of the characters.

Similarly, in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Forever, eight-year-old Ramona Quimby’s father is working double shifts while looking for a better job. “When parents were unhappy, the whole world seemed to go wrong,” she wrote. Martin says that this level of realism is what allows kids to think through real-life issues that might be relevant during the pandemic and beyond.

When kids see themselves on the pages, the experience can feel encouraging. “Books give kids a sense of power,” Martin says. “They have the power to mention things that are bothering them. That kind of empowerment can be good for mental health—it doesn’t feel like you’re helpless and can’t do anything.”

How to become a reading family, no matter your schedule

Judith Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, could not have predicted just how many terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days awaited us in 2020. Here are four tips for adding books to your child’s daily routine—and making the tough days feel a little less tough. 

Bundle books with activities. To cement family reading bonds, engage in book-related activities, like baking constellation cookies as you read Mae Among the Stars, or building a thank-you tree to practice gratitude after reading Thank you, Omu! (Kids can even exchange the leaves with friends.)

Another idea: “Acting out the book as it’s read and utilizing props that go along with the book can make the reading experience more engaging,” says Tara Mathien, clinical assistant professor of early childhood studies at the University of Florida.

Bond over books and blankets. Notice how little kids love building forts? That’s because a nook equals security. Borba recommends draping a sheet over a kitchen table to create a reading tent big enough for parents. “Don’t stop reading to your children after they are able to read,” Martin adds.

Alternatively, piling onto a fluffy bed is a fool-proof lure. “When I was teaching elementary school, I always let kids spread around the room to find a cozy corner instead of sitting at their desks,” says Noelle Easterling, a stay-at-home mom who taught for more than 10 years. “Now I do the same with my daughter.”

Mathien recommends incorporating these bonding moments into your family’s everyday routine: “Something like reading a book together at bedtime becomes a routine the child expects, can count on, and feels secure with.”

Start a literary quest. For older kids, 10th-grade English teacher Ewelina Czyz loves a good “book hunt,” in which students rotate between book stations to try new titles. You can create a similar setup at home by placing an array of books in different rooms, then have your kids swap places every 10 minutes. You can also invite young friends from your pandemic pod to bring in books they love for a literary potluck.

“Giving kids a chance to sample a book one-on-one opens up a genre they may not have chosen otherwise,” Czyz says. For recommendations and virtual book clubs, look to local libraries that set up designated book-chat Zoom links for tweens and teens.

Give tech a chance. On days when reading isn’t in the cards (and neither is YouTube), digital tomes can be great options. For instance, the Libby app lets you use your library card to gain free access to ebooks and audiobooks.

“Kids who listen to books can be extraordinary readers,” Borba says. “It stretches their attention span, helps focus, and teaches how to be self-sufficient.” And if children struggle with reading, audiobooks can be a pathway to physical books, like Fish In a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, a tale of a bright sixth-grade girl who faced her own reading challenges.

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