Readers’ Advisory, Bibliotherapy, and Grief in YA Literature

The benefits of reading go beyond entertainment and into therapeutic tools when focusing on loss and grief in young adult literature. This year, the practice of bibliotherapy celebrates 100 years* in assisting mental health professionals and readers cope with many issues through informed choices about reading material. It is especially relevant to young adult readers in understanding loss and the grief process.

readers' advisory, bibliotherapy, and grief

Teenagers today are said to have higher levels of anxiety and depression and informed readers’ advisory creates an opportunity to help teens by using the comfort and familiarity of reading. However, it is not to be misunderstood or considered as true therapy unless a therapist is involved.   Through readers’ advisory, especially in a school setting, adults can both assist in book recommendations and also listen to teenagers (and possibly notice when teens need to speak to a school counselor).  Just as librarians do not parent or restrict readers, we also do not assume any professional opinion about therapy or mental illness. See this article on the difference between bibliotherapy and readers’ advisory.  The actual practice of bibliotherapy includes a skilled therapist, but adults who are familiar with stories of loss can assist with recommendations.  After all, we already know the interest of our readers (and reading levels) and can offer novels that address grief and coping.

Recently, additional focus to how characters deal with loss has been the focus. Stages of grief appear more than a brief sadness or attending a funeral in one chapter then quickly moving onto a happy ending. In books such as All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Out of Reach by Carrie Across, and If You’re Lucky by Yvonne Prinz, authors delve further in the topic of loss in that there is not a healing resolution at the end of each novel. In fact, these novels are honest accounts of the stages of grief and display healing as an ongoing process.

Novels offer examples of how others cope and, most importantly, they show the range of emotions that people experience. Gone are the days of a nicely concluded story at the end of a 300 page book. Readers experience a wider range of emotions from characters and are shown healing is a struggle, if accomplished at all.

Readers’ Advisory and Books About Death

Readers’ advisory should not be as obvious as “after facing a loss in our community, here are books about death,” but as library staff and teachers are often safe adults sought out by teens to confide in, we are the sources to provide support to teens dealing with grief.

By showing other teenagers have faced similar problems, it offers readers hope that they will get through a current hardship. It also shows that not everyone heals over the same course of time, but that moving on and finding acceptance might occur eventually, as shown in the novels. Authors are responsibly including the help of therapists, support groups, and sometimes medication in these stories, which may convince readers that seeking help is normal and worthwhile.

A Variety in Experiences of Loss

The types of loss have increased in variety as well, exhibiting stages of grief in a raw, honest, often angry narration. In other words, these plots are mirroring life which benefit readers not only in experiences, but possibly finding solace in their own grief.

In And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, a suicide’s intention is questioned, but those left behind are confused, ashamed, and sad. Hubbard covers the confusion and anger well, questioning God’s existence and why a young death occurred. It is often difficult to explain tragedies to teenagers who question how bad things can happen in our world and these novels help show readers how questioning the goodness of the world or perceived fairness is common.

In The Truth About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, Suzanne, a 12-year-old whose best friend drowns, does not accept the reason “sometimes bad things happen” and spends the entire novel trying to prove that something had to have caused her friend’s death. She comes to the conclusion that while “bad things happen” is not a good reason, it is sometimes the truth. Questioning the logic behind a death reoccurs in many novels with teenagers trying to understand death, proving that processing grief is a continual struggle.

Often people don’t discuss loss and death with teenagers or if they do they only discuss one type of grief. How many teens are told it is okay to get angry when someone dies? Trying to understand death or why bad things happen is a challenge people of all ages face, but it is especially difficult to understand while still in the adolescent stage of development.

From John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars when Gus puts on his prefuneral to Gayle Forman’s I Was Here, where Meg plans a timed email suicide note and packed her belongings so that her family wouldn’t have to, authors cover the topic of death in original ways and show the emotional and mental state of those left behind.  By reading about grief, teenagers are exposed to the depth of loss and the different reactions it causes. There is not one way to grieve and grief is not a time when teens need to feel they are not fitting the norm in expected behavior.

By experiencing the variety of loss in literature, perhaps teens will know it is acceptable to feel anger, confusion, denial, guilt, and sadness after a death. The range of emotion in these books goes from feeling “the tentacles of suicide” (Gayle Forman) to the beautifully written idea of seeking out the “bright places” in our own lives (Jennifer Niven), mirroring the range of emotions teens experience in their own moments of grief.

Reading books that deal with sad topics are not to be avoided, especially for adolescents who are gaining life experiences.  Reading how others process information or that others experience grief validate a teens emotions and thoughts yet sensitivity should always be at the forefront of any book suggestions. Adults can offer reading as a way to gain experience, but is not the same as talking to a professional.

To hide youth from sadness hides them from a healthy range of emotions. To exclude plots of depression or suicide blankets over the real problem of mental illness. By showing negative emotions associated with overcoming a death, such as the plots in And We Stay, I Was Here, and If You’re Lucky, authors tell the readers that even in a time of sadness or confusion, focusing on yourself is important. Teens will know it’s not selfish to feel a variety of emotions or even want part of their old routine.  The honesty shown by Jennifer Niven, specifically once the family agrees to talk about their loss, expresses how being honest about what you feel is healthy.  Instead of shielding youth from sad topics, adults should welcome the reading of these books and hope that once the novels are begun so will this topic of conversation.

Further Notes:

If you are in a setting where counselors are present, there are also many opportunities to assist in bibliotherapy with the guidance of trained professionals such as themed book talks, art or writing exercises, or even anonymous letters to characters.

*Samuel Crothers was the first to use the term Bibliotherapy in 1916 (Laura J. Cohen, “Bibliotherapy: The Right Book at the Right Time.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing 26.8 (1988).

— Sarah Carnahan, currently reading The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes