For Librarians

Using Books to Calm Anxiety

7118768Using books as a therapeutic tool, bibliotherapy, can be a powerful experience. As children face new situations and demands, they typically will experience some degree of anxiety, which is normal. In fact, learning to feel distress in certain situations can help prevent children from dangerous situations. But there are also everyday worries, where children need some guidance from parents and caregivers in order to fully process their feelings. Books can help children address routine worries and fears. However, if you suspect that your child is experiencing anxiety that is excessive and uncontrollable, please contact a mental health professional. Now let’s take a look at the two stages of childhood development that children who read middle grade books are going through and the sorts of books that might ease worry during each phase.

Children (ages 6-10). During this period, kids may fear outside dangers, especially, but not limited to, natural disasters, robberies and accidents. Often, these fears stem from what they’ve heard about on the news. Transitions may be difficult, especially during the beginning of school when they must adopt new routines.

If your child is feeling powerless in the wake of a natural disaster, you might want to give them books that empower. Also look up news stories about children who have raised money for hurricane Sandy, for example, or kids who have come up with creative fundraisers for non-profits. You can also look for books that focus on small victories that help the environment. For example, you can read about a character who recycles, or works on a way to save the rain forest. The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a wonderful book about a 12 year-old confronting hurricane Katrina. To calm going-to-school fears, you can guide them to some funny school stories such as the classic Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar.

Children (Middle School age and up). During this life phase, it’s normal to worry about social status and acceptance, as well as academic and athletic performance. Additionally, older teenagers may worry about their future.

For tweens (and teens), consider looking up the early years of people whom they admire and sharing these stories. You may discover that a rock star, athlete, actor or author was shy, or overcame adversities to get where they are today. Check out Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary about the brave children who marched along Martin Luther King and Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Kids on Strike!6522296

Stories are very powerful. You can pick a book that speaks to a given situation and present it to a child so they can understand their world, and feel soothed and calmed.

Hillary Homzie‘s second tween novel for girls,The Hot List, was published last year. She parents three boys and is always looking for ways to soothe and heal.

From Augustus Gloop to Dudley Dursley: Fat Studies and Middle Grade Novels

We hear quite a lot about the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ these days. From Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to healthy school lunch initiatives by celebrity chefs, we as a culture are concerned about our children’s eating, exercise and well being.

As well we should be.

The problem is, these health concerns are too often framed in ways that are psychologically and culturally unhealthy for young people. The phrase ‘epidemic’ conjures images of risk and contagion, and usually is accompanied by a fear of or anger toward certain populations associated with these bodily ‘failings’. Consider, for example, that historic public health campaigns against tuberculosis became ways to marginalize poor or immigrant communities, who were associated with this disease threat, and therefore became considered ‘diseased’ altogether. ‘Health’ here became a way to justify/disguise classism and xenophobia. Similarly, public health campaigns addressing the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ (such as this horrific Georgia advertisement) too often use the moralistic shaming and blaming of individual children and their families rather than critiquing systems, such as the food service industry, which makes it difficult to access affordable fresh foodstuffs in urban areas. Here, ‘health’ becomes a way to reinforce stereotypes and prejudice about poor communities, communities of color, and of course individuals of size.

In her essay, “Fat panic and the new morality,” which appears in a 2010 collection entitled Against Health, Kathleen LeBesco analyzes the “obesity epidemic” as a “moral panic.” In her words: “our insistence on turning efforts to achieve good health into a greater moral enterprise means that health also becomes a sharp political stick in which much harm is ultimately done.” So in addition to waif-thin images in beauty magazines, and the pervasive sexualization of even, say, young girl’s clothing, public health itself is a part what’s been called our pervasive toxic body culture – a culture which contributes to everything from self-hatred to self-harm to disordered eating and more. A culture which connects a young person’s appearance, size and/or weight to their worth, their very humanity.

The notion of obesity itself has come under some scrutiny by scholars and activists. Consider that recent research suggests that lower mortality might actually be associated with being overweight, that an entire scholarly discipline of Fat Studies has arisen, or that campaigns such as the Health At Every Size Campaign , the Endangered Species: Women movement, and websites such as Adios, Barbie seek to address toxic body culture.

As a pediatrician, parent, and writer of middle grade novels, I know that stories are an important way that culture gets shaped. Middle grade novels have the power to either reinforce or counteract the harmful messages sent to young people through both the commercial and public health media alike.

Rebecca Rabinowitz recently wrote a wonderful piece called, “Who’s that Fat Kid? Fat Politics and Children’s Literature” for the Children’s Book Council Diversity Blog. In it, she critiques the stereotypes and tropes of fat children in children’s literature: as either bully (ie. Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter Books) or a victim of bullying (ie. Judy Blume’s classic Blubber). Fatness often becomes code in children’s literature for gluttony, greed or other moral failings — just consider Augustus Gloop from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Oompa-Loompa song says it all: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop! Augustus Gloop! So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.”

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois asked “How does it feel to be a problem?” Like stories with a protagonist of color, where the entire narratives becomes only ‘about’ the problems of race, Rabinowitz urges writers not to make fatness a ‘problem’ to be solved. As she notes, many stories with fat protagonists such as Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, or e.E. Charlton-Trujilo’s Fat Angie, often portray their protagonists dieting, or exercising or otherwise trying to become ‘less fat.’ In Rabinowitz’ words,

I want to see characters whose fatness is not symbolic of anything. Characters who are fat simply because some people in the real world are fat… I want characters who complete their emotional and social and physical growth arcs without becoming less fat. I like books that confront fatphobia head-on, and I’d also like to see books that aren’t especially about fatness but feature fat characters…Allow fat characters the humanity that not-fat characters have. Banish fatness as a symbol; banish the textual message that a fat character is okay only as long as they’re on their way to becoming less fat.

Thinking about writing a character of size? Consider first if fatness is a part of this person’s myriad qualities, or if it is a singular, defining, stereotyped quality. Like race, class or sexuality, diversity of body size is a real phenomenon in the world to be represented in middle grade literature. The question is, whether we represent it in ways that reinforce old, oppressive stories or change the cultural narrative.

When she’s not writing middle-grade novels, Sayantani DasGupta teaches courses on narrative, health and social justice at Columbia University, blogs for Adios, Barbie, and speaks nationally about girls, toxic body culture, and media images.

Remembering the Eruption of Mount St. Helens

On May 18, 2013 at 8:32 am PDT, I hope you paused 
to celebrate the amazing power of our Earth, upon which so much depends.  Many of us throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond remember that moment on May 18, 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted, changing lives and the landscape of the Washington Cascades forever.  This anniversary offers an excellent opportunity to connect middle grade readers with an array of informational text and online resources that tell this amazing story — massive destructive power unleashed in seconds, as well as incredible stories of survival and regeneration as the Earth continues to heal.


Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens by Patricia Lauber (book cover above)
This is my favorite book on the eruption!  Vivid photographs illustrate Lauber’s engaging description of the run-up to the eruption, the have-to-see-it-to-believe-it impacts on all living things within reach of the explosion, and the dramatic recovery that continues today, 33 years later.  Readers will be enthralled as they figure out how the terms “survivors” and “colonizers” apply in a special volcanic context.

Volcanoes & Earthquakes by James Putnam & Susanna van Rose
Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness Books are always kid favorites.  This book explores earth science events around the world, including the eruption of Mount St. Helens.  The photo-heavy format of DK books, with limited and supportive text, makes the book a great option for readers who may be fascinated with volcanoes but struggle with challenging text.


Gopher to the Rescue! A Volcano Recovery Story 
by Terry Catasus Jennings & Laurie O’Keefe

OK, Gopher isn’t technically nonfiction, but the National Science Teachers Association liked it so much, they named it to the 2013 Outstanding Science Trade Books for K-12, calling it “A good story that gives an unusual perspective on a current topic, showing succession after a volcano eruption on Mt. St. Helens.

Will It Blow?: Become a Volcano Detective at Mount St. Helens
by Elizabeth Rusch; ill. by K.E. Lewis
Readers who wonder what’s next for Mount St. Helens and other active volcanoes can put on their scientist/detective caps and tackle the question, “Will it blow — and when?”  Interactive, engaging, and grounded in the real-life work that challenges scientists right now.


Teaching Resources

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Visit the US Forest Service’s rich, interactive website on everything related to the eruption and rebirth!  Students can take a webcam peek at the mountain in real time, or watch archived video of a period of significant eruptions from 2004.

US Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program: Mount St. Helens
This site is filled with accessible scientific information from the United States Geological Survey.  Students can hear directly from USGS scientists about what happened leading up to, during, and after the eruption in a video that uses dramatic images from that day.

NOVA Program on the Eruption of Mount St. Helens (Public Broadcasting System)
This YouTube clip from an episode of the award-winning science program, NOVA on PBS, shows both real and simulated images of the eruption and its aftermath.

Gallery of Earth Images: NASA’s Space Place
See NASA satellite images of active volcanoes, from Mount St. Helens to all corners of the world.

Dave Crockett:  A First-Person Account by KOMO-4 (Seattle) News Photographer
The thoroughly riveting video was shot by a Seattle news photographer who was on Mount St. Helens that morning, because he “had a hunch that something was about to happen.”  Crockett was caught right in the middle of the action and miraculously survived.  Dave’s story reminds us also to honor the 57 people– loggers, campers, scientists — who were nearby but not as fortunate.


On May 18, 1980, Katherine Schlick Noe stepped out into a beautiful Seattle morning and heard what she thought were two distant sonic booms. She’s been fascinated with the story of Mount St. Helens ever since. Visit her at