Can books cure children?
A well-chosen book can help children navigate the twists and turns of life, say self-styled 'bibliotherapists' Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Words by Jonny Cooper
When Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, they found a novel way of helping each other deal with life's twists and turns. "We would recommend books when one of us was down in the dumps or needed a kick up the backside," recalls Elderkin. "The idea was that the book would shed light on the situation."
Two decades later, they're still prescribing books - although today their patient base is a little wider. As self-styled 'bibliotherapists' associated with Alain de Botton's School of Life, a collection of books that answer the important questions of everyday life, Berthoud and Elderkin recommend books to people around the world. They also write books themselves: 2014's 'The Novel Cure' was a literary first aid kit for adult issues, while its follow-up, 'The Story Cure', is published this week and aimed at children and their ever-fretful parents.
The book is an A-Z of the scenarios and worries that we all meet during the various stages of childhood, from the early - 'nits' and 'potty training' - to the teenage - 'body image' and 'raging hormones'. Each ailment comes with a set of fiction books that Berthoud and Elderkin hope will help the reader cope.
Crucially, they say, the recommendations are chosen for a combination of their message and their readability.
"The book has to sweep somebody up, transport them, in order for its cure to work," says Elderkin. "There are studies that suggest when one is transported, one is more suggestible and open to learning experiences. It seems that the more you relate to the character in a story and the more you are taken up by the story, the more likely you are to have your behaviour changed in the immediate aftermath."
The effect, says Berthoud, can be so powerful that the duo had to seek advice from child psychiatrists when dealing with 'The Story Cure''s heavier ailments. "Anorexia is a good example. Some teen literature can turn into a bit of a manual: how to stay thin, how to avoid being noticed by your parents.
"We had to think really carefully and choose books that kids could read without getting triggered into worrying behaviour."
"A good children's book is as effective for an adult as it is for a child," Elderkin adds. "We felt very cured ourselves as we were reading these books."
NOT WANTING TO WASH YOUR HANDS
'Dr Dog' by Babette Cole
They may not listen to you, but they'll listen to a dog. Especially one that wears a white coat, a stethoscope round his neck, and is the pet of the incorrigible Gumboyle family, drawn in their full disgusting glory by the ever-zany Babette Cole.
The Gumboyles are all guilty of bringing illnesses on themselves. They itch their bums then suck their thumbs, go out in the rain without a hat, and even smoke behind the bike sheds. Dr Dog, forced to return from a fancy lecture tour in Brazil to tend to his hapless humans, explains to each of them how they became ill or infected, whether it was sharing hairbrushes or failing to wash their hands.
Bring him into your home and he'll lick you all into submission.
HAVING HEAD LICE
'Scritch Scratch' by Miriam Moss, illustrated by Delphine Durand
The scourge of many a classroom and the one thing grown-ups dread the children in their care bringing home, nits are as hard to eradicate as they are easy to catch.
For the lucky little nit in Miss Calypso's classroom, there's no shortage of thick and enticing heads of hair to make a home in - but the one it picks is particularly thrilling for the reader (the teacher's). A great introduction to the dreaded little critters' insidious ability to stage a comeback if just one person stints on the treatments, this book also manages to be a story in itself with true love found at the end. All the nit-lit you'll ever need or, frankly, want.
HAVING STRICT PARENTS
'Crummy Mummy and Me', by Anne Fine
If your kids complain that you're stricter than other parents, leave 'Crummy Mummy and Me' lying around. If ever there was proof that it might be harder to have a parent who's the opposite of strict, this is it. Minna's mum doesn't insist that Minna goes to school.
In fact, she'd quite like it if Minna wasn't so uptight about needing to go herself - especially when it's chucking down outside. In the mornings, Minna's the one who has to yell to her mum to hurry up. And when her mum does appear - wearing something completely inappropriate - Minna has to send her back for a jumper. The problem, of course, is that Crummy Mummy's attitude forces Minna to be the responsible one. Once they've glimpsed the realities of life with a 'Crummy Mummy', any child will be relieved that at least in their family, they get to be the rebellious one.
BEING LED ASTRAY
'Sam and the Firefly' by PD Eastman
If you introduce a child early on to the possibility that they may one day have a friend who takes off in an ill-advised direction - and they'll need the presence of mind not to follow - you'll be able to fret much less.
A great story for the job is 'Sam and the Firefly', an early reader in which an owl named Sam, looking for a playmate, meets a zesty little firefly named Gus. Sam is impressed when the firefly shows him the shapes he can draw with his light, and soon the pair of them are scrawling their names across the sea-green Eastman sky. But then Gus gets the idea of writing 'Turn left' and 'Turn right' above the traffic lights for a laugh.
Sam knows that Gus has over-stepped the line and tells the young firefly so - holding his ground even when Gus calls him a spoilsport. Sam is the perfect role model for how to stand firm against your wayward friends - without, in fact, having to lose them as friends.
'The Story Cure' by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is published by Canongate, €28.45