Demystifying “Therapeutic”” Fiction

Fiction books for adults and children.

AUTHOR INDEX

| Baker | BanksCather | Cleary | Crowley | Curtis | Darnielle | Davies | DiCamillo | Dunn | Eugenides | Franzen | Gaiman | Giff | Hanson | Highsmith |Ishiguro | King | Knausgaard | Kundera | LeGuin | L’Engle | Lewis | Martin | Maugham | Moore | Nadzam | O’Brien | Palacio | PalahniukPaterson | Patron | Peake | Richler | Russell | Schmidt | Selznick | Shields | Tartt | Vonnegut | Woodson |

ADULTS

Our approach to choosing adult titles for BT-oriented annotations is congruent with our BT philosophy espoused on this website. You will notice that we select genre fiction along with mainstream fiction because we believe that these books can be just as therapeutic for some readers as classical, contemporary literary, and psychological titles. A literary classic would be a hard sell (and probably, not a good fit) for a dedicated sci-fi or mystery reader, and we truly believe that therapeutic qualities (and therapeutic uses) can be found in any genre and type of writing. It all depends on who uses it, how, and in what context; it also depends on the kind of discussion that follows. We do not attempt to triage reading matters into high- and low-brow, nor do we strive to provide an exhaustive list of therapeutic books. Instead, we would like to present several salient examples of books that can be therapeutic, even if it is not too obvious from the start, and to provide quality annotations, which highlight therapeutic features and points of caution in the chosen titles. We hope that practitioners of BT in libraries can extrapolate our approach onto other types of literature.

Banks, R. (1997). The sweet hereafter. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

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This novel explores the aftershock of a tragic school bus accident. The small community affected by the crash is still grieving when Mitchell Stephens, a New York attorney hired by some of the victims’ parents, arrives in town to investigate a negligence suit. The town is suffering the overwhelming loss of its children, but the shared catastrophe has also illuminated their day-to-day struggles with each other and themselves. The story is told from four different perspectives: Dolores, the surviving bus driver; Billy, the only eyewitness, and father of twins who died in the crash; lawyer Mitchell Stephens; and Nicole, a teenage survivor who has suffered a spinal cord injury. The novel investigates shared grief as the characters search for answers and try to lay blame for an essentially blameless and senseless disaster. While the novel addresses a heavy subject matter, the prose is taut and easily digestible. The story is focused specifically on the aftermath, and the children who died in the accident are mostly shadows, not vividly portrayed. This approach may be agreeable or disagreeable depending on the reader, and those are the features of the narrative that should be taken into consideration if this book is recommended for use in therapeutic contexts.▲ 

Cather, W. (1918). My Ántonia. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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This novel is often touted as one of the great classics of American literature. A young lawyer, Jim, tells the story of his coming-of-age which, as he realizes, is entirely centered on his relationship with a young immigrant girl named Ántonia. As children they bonded over a shared loss—Jim having to move from urban Virginia to rural Nebraska after the death of his parents and Ántonia leaving her homeland forever—as well as the shared feeling of being outsiders in a new, strange land. The story is full of emotional ups and downs and honestly deals with some difficult topics, including racism, sexism, socio-economic disparity, and suicide. Yet the characters carry on and persevere despite adversity. Various ways of coping are presented, and although one might not agree with the characters’ approaches to life, the reader is made aware that the characters choose what’s best for them in the context of their time period. Such an eye-opening study of both characters and history makes one ponder one’s own actions and accomplishments. The reader is left with a calming sense that all lives lived leave a legacy behind.▲ 

Crowley, J. (1976). The deep. New York: Berkley.

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A stranger, neither male nor female, arrives in a world where two sides, the “Reds” and the “Blacks,” have been at war with each other for as long as anyone can remember. The Visitor does not know where it came from, or what its purpose is in this feudal, flat, circular world that rests on a pillar rising from a vast nothingness known only as the Deep. This is a world where commoners are exploited by their protectors (the warring factions), who themselves fear a group of freedom-fighting assassins called the Just. Amid an ongoing war of succession, the Visitor begins to learn and master the world’s language, history, and intrigues. The Visitor’s quest for purpose eventually leads to a monster called Leviathan, the ancient choreographer of this world’s events, who sleeps coiled around the pillar that supports the world. The novel points to the cyclical futility of war, revenge, and strategic violence: the world is, in essence, a game, though the individual characters are complex. The landscape of the novel is atmospheric and haunting, and the language is lyrical. The story effectively creates a sense of wonder and provides a familiar fantasy scenario; practitioners of bibliotherapy might consider recommending it to fantasy readers who have experienced violence. However, the story not only addresses the futility of violence – it also ends with a sense of hope for change. The writing, however, may be too dense and the approach too detached for some readers (most deaths, for example, happen quietly off-stage); on the other hand, this particular narrative style can suit more sensitive and impressionable readers. The ending, albeit hopeful, might feel incomplete. ▲ 

Darnielle, J. (2008). Master of reality. New York: Continuum.

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This epistolary novella comes from 33 1/3, a series of books exploring seminal music albums. Musician and novelist Darnielle explains the Black Sabbath album “Master of Reality” from the perspective of Roger Painter, a troubled 80s teenager who has been committed to an adolescent psychiatric center. His walkman and tapes have been confiscated, but Roger is positive that the key to his recovery lies in listening to his favorite record. Ordered to keep a journal, Roger uses his writing to convince his therapist that music is essential to his life and that he absolutely needs his tapes back. The journal ends abruptly halfway through the novella and transitions to the now adult Roger, who has stumbled across his old journal and decided to write his former therapist. In the first section, Roger’s voice is visceral and impatient, one of a disillusioned teenager; in the second half, Roger is more measured and capable of conversing with the person who denied him his favorite record when he needed it most. The novel explores Roger’s social isolation and alienation, but his intense appeal and passionate campaign for the return of his tape affirms the saving power of music. Although “Master of Reality” is the focus of Roger’s fixation, readers need not be familiar with Black Sabbath to be moved by Roger’s story. By working through this novel with a trained professional, readers might revisit the passion and idealism of their own adolescence and explore how their experiences and unresolved conflicts might still impact them. .▲ 

Davies, R. (2001). Fifth business. New York: Penguin Books.

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Fifth Business, the tightly plotted story of Dunstan Ramsay, is set in motion in the winter of 1908, when Ramsay’s best friend Percy Boyd Staunton tries to hit him with a snowball. Ramsay dodges the snowball, which conceals a rock, and the snowball instead hits the minister’s pregnant wife, Mary Dempster. Consumed by guilt over a chain of dramatic events that ensue, Ramsay dedicates his life to caring for Mrs. Dempster and researching saints and saintliness. Neither villain nor hero, Ramsay becomes a supporting character in other characters’ dramas, while his own story unfolds as “the unlived life.” Mythology and Jungian archetypes are overtly present in the novel, lending the story a feel of timeliness and inevitability. The story speaks to the power and futility of guilt and the interconnected nature of our lives; it argues for the significance of those who see themselves as supporting characters. Practitioners of bibliotherapy might see in this novel an opportunity for readers to reflect on how their actions have impacted the lives of others (overtly or subtly; positively or negatively), and how they have responded to these situations. The mythological dimension of the novel may also provoke productive discussions of fate and individual agency.▲ 

Dunn, K. (1989). Geek love. New York: Vintage/Random House.

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Al and Lil Binewski are the proprietors of a travelling carnival, who decide to breed their own freak show when their business starts to flag. By chemically altering the genes of their children before birth they produce a few strange creatures, one of whom is Oly, the hunchbacked albino dwarf and the narrator of the story. Geek Love is Oly’s extended message and plea to her daughter Miranda. Conceived telekinetically, Miranda flaunts her tail at a local fetish club and considers having it removed. As this brief description probably suggests, this is a weird, dark, and at times rather rough and grotesque read. Mutation, violence, and incestuous overtones are rampant, but the writing is lyrical, lively, and dazzling, and the novel embraces difference and oddity. Strangeness is treated as a source of strength, and normalcy, as understood by the characters, is the curse; readers are forced to reconsider their perceptions of normalcy, and to realize that the human experience transcends physical appearance. In the context of bibliotherapy, this book is recommended only for experienced, open-minded, and omnivorous readers; to readers who are uncomfortable with flawed characters, harsh turns of events, and stretched reality, this novel may be nothing short of appalling. Furthermore, readers who have experienced or witnessed miscarriage, amputation, or disfigurement may find the circumstances and descriptions upsetting. .▲ 

Eugenides, J. (2007). Middlesex. New York: Picador.

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An epic family saga, Middlesex is also what its protagonist describes as a “roller coaster ride of a single gene through time.” A mutated gene, set on its course by a Greek couple immigrating to America, eventually finds a home in their grandchild Calliope Stephanides, who is born intersex and raised as a girl. An extremely rich and funny family history, this novel examines the Greek immigrant experience: their escape to Detroit, the launch of their family business, and the start of their family. Calliope grapples with typical childhood and adolescent troubles, the most memorable of which is her love for a female friend. Learning that he is intersex at the age of 14, Calliope is convinced that he should be living as a man-Cal-and flees to San Francisco, where he eventually forges his first truthful romance with Julie Kikuchi. The novel is a work of great imagination and love. It deals with the theme of transition, as seen both through immigration and Cal’s choice to live as a man. The conflicted historical landscape of America is a backdrop, unfolding through the eras of Prohibition, World War II, the Depression, the race riots, and various social movements. In a bibliotherapy setting, Middlesex might incite useful discussions about various types of transition. On the informational and emotional level, this novel might help readers to understand issues of gender expression; however, it should be used cautiously with readers who are actually considering or undergoing transition. These readers might not see Cal’s experience as adequately nuanced. Even so, if used critically the story might provide a useful entry point for the reader to discuss how one particular intersex character does or does not fit their experience. ▲ 

Franzen, J. (2002). The corrections. New York: Picador.

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This novel spotlights the Lamberts, a typical dysfunctional American family. The story is told through four intertwining narratives: the parents, Enid and Alfred, and their three adult children who have fled the site of their Midwest upbringing to avoid duplicating their parents’ unhappiness. Enid, the matriarch, stranded in the family home with her steadily declining husband, is bent on bringing the family together for a Christmas dinner. Each of the adult children has his/her own issues: Chip has recently lost his tenure-track job over a liaison with a student; Denise is sleeping with her boss’s wife; and Gary is successful but depressed and an alcoholic. A realistic and often humorous story of family dynamics, the novel explores the impact of emotional repression, the damage family members can cause each other, and the learning potential of our mistakes and disappointments. Through Alfred’s experience with Parkinson’s and dementia, the novel also examines the effect of a degenerative disease on a family. The novel is intelligently written and has the right amount of humor; readers with complex family situations or repressive parental relationships might find a great deal here with which they can identify. While this is a critically acclaimed and widely read work, it should not be prescribed as a quick fix to readers by librarians or any other practitioners without specialized training. The greatest therapeutic effect of this novel will manifest in guided professional discussions of the book rather than its solitary reading. ▲ 

ocean Gaiman, N. (2014). The ocean at the end of the lane. St Louis, MO: Turtleback Books.

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Our narrator is a grown man going back to visit his childhood home. The trip stirs up long forgotten memories of a summer filled with mysterious events. The image of a menacing creature, bent on destroying the narrator and his family and unnoticed by anyone but the horrified narrator, looms. So it goes until he meets three women who live at the end of the lane – three enigmatic women who can see things and understand secrets of the universe obscured from ordinary people. Time, space, and reality bend when the narrator is with them. Indeed, these beings seem to be as old as time. By turns a truly frightening horror story and an infinitely inspiring fairy tale, the narrative is presented in a way that makes everything seem real, albeit outside of our perception. Playing with perception is a theme that runs throughout, with many unexplained things, loose ends, half-revealed truths, and not entirely satisfying resolutions. This open-endedness will resonate well with some readers, stimulate imagination, and jog creativity. But it can also frustrate others who look for a more structured narrative and a definitive ending. Librarians can certainly recommend this book as a valuable and inventive story to therapists engaged in BT. However, they should also warn therapists that such a narrative may be heavy on readers suffering from anxiety and attention deficit issues, and readers who are really impressionable, suggestible, and easily frightened or disturbed.▲ 

Hanson, V.D. (2011). The end of Sparta. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

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This book tells the story of Thebes’ rise to power in Greece at the expense of the Spartan Hegemony. It follows Melon, a farmer near Thebes; Chion, Melon’s slave and loyal companion; and Neto, a prophetess/house slave of Melon, during the campaigns of Epaminondas. At several points this book stops to ask the question: Why do we fight wars? The concepts of freedom, honor, and duty are also scrutinized. On a personal level, the book depicts Melon’s struggle to determine his role in society before, during, and after the wars as he constantly finds himself having to redefine his relationships with others.This book emphasizes the non-material gains to which a person can aspire, such as a happy family, a successful career, or the satisfaction of helping others. Philosophically, the story explores the ideas of equality and one’s responsibility for humanity as a whole. Historical fiction can have a powerful effect on those who respond to the genre; its profound narrative and larger-than-life characters are as impressive as they are disturbing. As this is a book about war, a certain amount of violence and vivid descriptions of combat are inevitable. Possibly more worrisome is the way that physical violence is often brought up as a possible and valid option in day to day interactions, though it is seldom implemented.

Highsmith, P. (2001). Strangers on a train. New York: W.W. Norton.

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This literary crime novel tells of two strangers who meet for the first time on a train. Guy Haines is a young, successful architect. Charles Bruno is a deranged socialite. They chat over dinner, and Charles, learning that Guy is trying to get a divorce, suggests the “perfect” murder: Charles will murder Guy’s wife, and in return Guy will murder Charles’ much-despised father. When Guy rejects Charles’ suggestion, Charles follows through with his end of the bargain anyway. He then stalks Guy relentlessly, blackmailing and coercing him, urging him closer and closer to fulfilling the murderous deal. The novel explores the effects of guilt, the nature of evil, and the potential for depravity in decent, ordinary people. The story is well-paced, and wrought with tension and suspense; it is overall a fun yet chilling read. Guy and Charles are both interesting characters for discussion in a therapeutic context: Guy is an average person who succumbs to guilt and evasion, and Charles is childlike, envious, and incapable of love. Their bizarre hold over each other exemplifies a dysfunctional friendship.

Ishiguro, K. (2005). The remains of the day. London: Faber and Faber.

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At the center of this novel is a story of Stevens, an aging English butler, whose short solitary trip to visit an old friend becomes a vehicle for taking stock of his life. Looking back, Stevens realizes how many possibilities he willingly missed when he chose to privilege his professional duties over meaningful life experiences: love, family, close friendships. Stevens’ lifelong self-delusion is the key to his self-preservation, and amid the sadness and wastefulness, he emerges as a reminder of the richness and importance of human life. He is also a poster child for free will and choice: despite mistakes and missteps, life is our own. We can elect to give in to regrets, change our life course, or learn to be content with our past. In the bibliotherapy context, this novel would work well as an example of an unreliable narrator who is completely immersed in a self-delusion. Readers and trained professionals may examine how Stevens fools himself and why he denies himself life experiences; they may also discuss the environmental factors that could have caused Stevens to approach his life in this way.

King, S. & Straub, P. (2001). The talisman. New York: Random House.

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King and Straub’s fantasy collaboration stars 12-year-old Jack Sawyer, who embarks on a journey to find a magical item, known only as “The Talisman,” which will supposedly save his dying mother from cancer. He journeys across America, flipping back and forth to a parallel universe called The Territories. The novel deals with self-discovery and triumph. As a book of fantasy, the expected tropes are comfortingly present: castles, magical items and creatures, and a clear division between good and evil. The novel is long, but the story arc is rich and progresses well. This is also very much a coming-of-age tale, with a resilient, honest, and brave protagonist. Jack’s travel companions, introduced later in the book, create a strong theme of friendship. Although the novel is fantasy with a triumphant ending, it does contain some gruesome and gritty moments that might upset some sensitive readers.

Knausgaard, K.O. (2013). My struggle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Knausgaard’s series of autobiographical novels exposes the day-to-day incidents, experiences, and thoughts of an ordinary person. Although the details are meticulous and numerous, the story is almost oddly compelling and hypnotic. Unfolding thematically instead of chronologically, the novels follow Karl Ove through the daily minutia of grocery shopping and taking his toddler to the library, as well as more significant events, like losing his father, helping his partner through her agonizing labor, and botching up a declaration of love. Karl Ove is perceptive in his observations, but he is also at times subversively truthful when he confesses to certain unattractive dispositions and humiliating anxieties. Readers sense that the narrator is telling them things he would never tell his loved ones, and his perspective on the world is so amplified that readers come to know him at an uncommonly deep level. The novel has a confessional yet pragmatic, life-like appeal that is almost indulgent, a sort of literary reality television. Because this is such an experiential read that spans so many key human experiences and provides such insight into the character’s way of seeing, it has a lot of potential for bibliotherapy. Some readers might find the eloquence and precision with which Karl Ove speaks of his failures, worries, and pretensions cathartic; others might find the richness of detail amusing; yet others might identify with his anxieties about being a parent, his introversion, or any number of his life experiences. Yet, there is a possibility that some readers may find the protagonist’s experiences overwhelming. The series as a whole is long – 3,600 pages over six volumes – so practitioners of bibliotherapy might want to consider a single volume depending on their reader’s needs.

Kundera, M. (1991). Immortality. London: Faber and Faber.

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This is a non-linear novel, most suitable for experienced readers of literary fiction. It shifts back and forth, from characters in the present day, to Kundera himself in the process of novel writing, to the historical tale of Goethe and a young writer named Bettina. The novel deals with the idea of a personal legacy, the interconnectedness of the human experience, and the ways in which we often cannot control our impact on others. Kundera captures the crux of the matter when he says that “every event, no matter how trivial, conceals within itself the possibility of sooner or later becoming the cause of other events and thus changing into a story or an adventure.” The novel can be used by bibliotherapists as a launching pad for discussing the human connection and reciprocal effect we have on each other. This is a complex novel that distils in-depth insights. The well-orchestrated and readable philosophical bursts are its primary strength. For reflective readers, the novel offers many opportunities for philosophical contemplation of such topics as individuality and egocentrism, the nature of tragedy, shame, experience vs. ideology, and our perceptions of others.

LeGuin, U.K. (2008). The lathe of heaven. New York: Scribner.

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A science fiction classic of the “what if” variety, this novel stars the quiet and unassuming George Orr, a draftsman who has been arrested for drug abuse and transferred to the care of a therapist and sleep researcher named William Haber. As it turns out, for years, George has been plagued by “effective” dreams that he cannot control other than by using copious amounts of drugs. The reality dreamed by George becomes the only conceivable reality for the rest of the universe, while he is the only one who remembers the existence of multiple realities. Fascinated by George’s gift, Haber manipulates the patient to secure his own rise to power. Although much chaos ensues when Haber tries to control George’s dreams, order is ultimately restored at the end, and the world is saved. George is a sympathetic protagonist whose actions are reactions to his environment. He struggles against those who misperceive and label him as a drug user and psychiatric patient; i.e., two descriptors that do not capture his true identity at all. This might be a challenging book to use in bibliotherapy because it does involve a scenario of a patient manipulated by a therapist; however, the story might prove useful in discussing the wildly different goals which patients and therapists may have in the process.

Martin, S. (2004). The pleasure of my company. New York: Hachette Books.

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Daniel Pecan Cambridge is an eccentric thirty-something genius living with obsessive compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. He leads a carefully constructed life, and his world consists of his home, an elaborate route to a pharmacy that bypasses road curbs, the rigorous maintenance of precise wattage in his apartment, and various distant infatuations with women he doesn’t know. Unable to hold a job, he subsists on the generosity of his grandmother’s mailed cheques and sees a student therapist once a week to whom he relentlessly lies. This extremely compact novel, which can be read in a single sitting, outlines the gradual opening of Daniel’s rigidly fashioned world as he lets others in. This brief story of his emotional growth is fun despite the somewhat tired premise. David is an endearing and self-deprecating character with whom readers can identify because, as David himself asserts, we all live to an extent by our own secret rules. This is a playful and original narrative with a positive resolution for all involved. However, uncritical use with people who suffer similar symptoms or diagnosed with similar conditions should be avoided because some may feel that the novel is under-appreciative or dismissive of their difficulties and issues. .

Maugham, W.S. (2006). The moon and sixpence. Mineola, NY: Dover.

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This short and powerful novel tells the story of Charles Strickland, a respectable, middle-aged stockbroker, who unexpectedly leaves his wife and children to fulfill a dream of being a painter. Unflinchingly, he embraces the life of a penniless artist, owning nothing and having no tangible or emotional attachments. As he moves from dilapidated Parisian hotels to a Tahitian hut, he is driven not by fame, recognition, or financial gain, but by the sole purpose of creating art for its own sake. The novel examines the idea of genius by following one character who would have never reached his potential, had he not extracted himself from the binds of social conventions. In the process, however, Strickland’s dogged pursuit of art and beauty leaves behind no shortage of emotional casualties and real human tragedies. This might be an interesting book to explore with readers who feel that circumstances have prevented them from fulfilling their potential. While Strickland’s actions are rash, they may provide a vicarious experience for readers who experience the lack of self-realization. This novel should be used carefully with readers who are uncomfortable with unlikeable characters or who themselves have suffered abandonment.

Moore. A. & Gibbons, D. (1986). Watchmen. New York: DC Comics.

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Moore and Gibbon’s classic 1986 graphic novel presents an alternate history that has seen the heyday of costumed vigilante superheroes. In present, these superheroes have been outlawed; a few of those who still operate are doing so either under governmental contract or outside of the law. As America inches toward nuclear war against the Soviet Union and one former superhero is mysteriously murdered, the costumed vigilantes re-emerge from retirement and find themselves grappling with their inadequacies as protectors. This powerfully illustrated story examines the true idea of the superhero and challenges the sort of uncritical belief that we often place in heroes or leaders. In a bibliotherapy setting, readers may discuss the nature of heroics and the interplay between the hero and the human. They may also explore the story’s outcome, which involves superheroes (unheroically, some might argue) helping to conceal a momentous lie from the rest of America. Because the story is not morally prescriptive, readers could identify with a variety of perspectives. The novel also lends itself well to re-reading, which could also provide the comfort of familiarity to readers.

Nadzam, B. (2011). Lamb. New York: Other Press.

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Lamb tells the story of David Lamb, a recently-divorced middle-aged man who, following the death of his father and a half-hearted affair with a young woman from work, meets by chance an unpopular eleven-year-old girl named Tommie. Following their initial encounter, David, using a false name, conspires to meet with her again and again, eventually convincing Tommie to take a road trip with him. Charismatic, conniving, and narcissistic, David is drawn by Tommie’s helplessness and, sensing a lack of goodness in his life, turns his efforts to meeting her basic needs for food, shelter, and warmth. David solidly asserts his place in Tommie’s life, although even he has flashes of awareness that some day, in her memory, “he’d be a monster.” Used cautiously and judiciously by a skilled professional, this novel has the potential to have an impact on survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is a story of an 11-year-old child who never explicitly says “no,” but who goes through gross and obvious manipulations at the hands of an adult. Although Tommie’s feelings to David fluctuate between fear and comfort, dependence and love, she is always a victim. And although David’s advances toward Tommie are not always explicitly sexual, they are always manifested as the urge to dominate. Lamb is an extremely unsettling novel without a traditionally satisfactory ending, but may have substantial meaning for certain readers if mediated by a sensitive and trained professional.▲ 

Palahniuk, C. (2001). Choke. New York: Doubleday.

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Victor Mancini is a scam artist who pretends to choke in restaurants and then lives off the cheques sent to him by those who have “saved” him. Despite this, the reader finds him likable: not only does Victor show a degree of altruism, believing he is helping to give his saviors a purpose in life, but he also does this out of need. His mother is an Alzheimer’s patient living in a nursing home and near the end of her life, with no savings to pay the mounting medical bills. Her poverty is a result of the life on the run. Chronically mentally ill, she was always escaping hospitals and kidnapping Victor from a series of foster homes. By turns hilariously funny and truly depressing, this novel gives us a no-holds-barred view of society, including life’s extreme highs and lows. Palahniuk comments on issues most people choose not to think about, although they should. The author is a great satirist, pointing out the inherent flaws in the American socio-political system with deadpan humor and frankness. However, this quality also can make Choke a less than ideal read for someone whose loved ones have suffered mental illness or been institutionalized, and a less than ideal choice for those who have been touched by mental illness themselves. Such readers may find that it brings back traumatic memories and does not treat the issues with due sensitivity.▲ 

Peake, M. (1968). Titus groan. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

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Inside the sublime and enormous castle of Gormenghast lives the Groan family and their servants. They are all enchantingly eccentric, and their lives are governed by a set of elaborate and arbitrary rituals that have defined the Groan family since its conception. This novel, the first in a trilogy, chronicles the two main events, which herald change in the stagnant Groan house: the birth and early years of Titus Groan, the heir to Gormenghast, and the arson of the family’s library by an upstart bent on controlling the castle. Considered a fantasy, the novel nonetheless lacks magical elements, typical fantasy characters, and, most notably, a definite hero or heroine. A challenging read, this novel is so original and nonconforming that it might work for a reader who simply does not want to be reminded of other books they have read. The characters are both distinctly human and idiosyncratic. Readers can explore what makes the characters lovable, interesting, or puzzling, without necessarily or fully identifying with any of them. Titus Groan might be of value to readers who seek evocative characterizations and an immersive storylines but are not quite ready to analyze their own lives in the context of a literary work.▲ 

Richler, M. (2010). Barney’s version. New York: Vintage Books.

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Barney’s Version is a memoir of the fictitious character Barney Panofsky, an aging, loud-mouthed, politically incorrect, deceitful, and often cruel former producer of trash television. He is writing both to salvage his reputation and to reach out to his children; the memoir is edited, through footnotes and an afterword, by Barney’s adult son Michael. The narrative is structured into three sections, each using one of Barney’s three marriages as a frame. These sections and the images of Barney’s three wives provide structure for a narrator who is otherwise prone to tangents, memory lapses, and detailed recollections. The unsolved murder of Barney’s best friend, for which Barney is briefly accused to the lifelong detriment of his reputation, underlies and informs the story, as does the gradual loss of Barney’s memory to Alzheimer’s disease. In typical Richler fashion, the novel is hilarious, but it also offers insight into the progression of dementia. The story and its irresistible characters are moving and ultimately uplifting, and might strike a chord with readers connected in some way to dementia. As with any novel, particularly one that addresses a difficult subject so directly, trained professionals should assess the reader’s needs and disposition to determine whether a humorously-told story with a tear-jerking conclusion is the right fit.▲ 

Shields, C. (2006). Unless. New York: Harper Perennial.

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The contentment of Rita Winters, a successful writer living in a comfortable house with a steadfast partner and three teenage daughters, has recently been disturbed. Without warning or apparent reason, Norah, her eldest daughter, has dropped out of university to sit on a street corner begging for change. The placard around her neck reads “GOODNESS”; she will not speak or consider coming home. Her devastated family grapples with this inexplicable situation, and they can only guess the kind of trauma that lies behind Norah’s actions. As the story inches toward this revelation, Rita ruminates on the female otherness and exclusion, examining the effects of systemic powerlessness. Anger is an emotion Rita usually tries to avoid, but her anguish, and the anger it has produced, lends her a new clarity and a different understanding of the world. The story shows that anyone, regardless of their circumstances, can fall into despair; in learning how to survive, one might even become wiser. The book examines the effects of trauma, the plight of women in a patronizing world, and a family coping with adversity. In a bibliotherapy scenario, Rita’s coping strategies might present an opportunity to discuss the more productive qualities of anger.▲ 

Tartt, D. (2004). The secret history. New York: Vintage Books.

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This novel tells the story of an elite group of six students studying Ancient Greek at a small New England liberal arts college. The plot is built around a murder, for which the narrator—one of the six students—considers himself partially responsible. The novel then begins to slowly unveil the details leading up to the murder, and the reader enjoys a sense of apprehension and inevitability reminiscent of Greek tragedy. Although the outcome of events is far from positive, the structure of this novel and its evocation of the beauty and mythology of ancient Greece can be riveting. There are a numerous human traits and behaviors that could be explored in the context of therapy, such as different ways in which people cope with secrets they are forced to keep. The narrator, coming from a working-class background, often finds himself at odds with the wealthy university campus, and his sense of displacement and alienation may resonate with some readers. In a broader context, readers could reflect on how famous classical narratives affect our perceptions of everyday events.▲ 

Vonnegut Jr., K. (2004). The sirens of Titan. London: Gollancz.

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Malachi Constant, the luckiest and richest man in America, receives a prophecy that sets his life on a different course. His interplanetary adventures, which involve living in Mercurian caves, training for a Martian war, and performing as an anti-hero to a new Earthling religion, eventually land him on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. He learns that he and the rest of humanity have been pawns in a grand scheme orchestrated by a race of aliens trying to deliver a missing space ship part to one of their explorers stranded on Titan. Free will and the fickleness of destiny are the main themes in this novel, as the characters learn that their life is but manipulation at the hands of aliens. Ironically, despite their pointlessness in the larger context, characters still manage to live happy and personally meaningful lives. This novel presents a humorous scenario that asks “Does it even matter if our lives are predetermined? What if the ‘grand scheme of things’ turns out to be two-dimensional and inane?” As Sirens of Titan is both whimsical and emotionally resonant, it may provide comfort to some readers facing questions about meaning.▲ 

CHILDREN

While our annotations take a more narrative approach, we suggest that our users also consult the searchable and browsable database of children’s and young adult materials available through the Bibliotherapy Education Project. Bibliographic records in this database include less extensive plot summaries but more detailed evaluations of the therapeutic value and age appropriateness of books. In annotating books for children and young adults, we tried to highlight their potential therapeutic and educational value through plot summaries and main themes. We do not want to discourage librarians from using these books in RA work with children who struggle with normal developmental challenges and overcome common developmental difficulties. However, we encourage librarians to consider the potential effect of some themes (e.g., loss, grief, divorce, etc.) on children in crises and vulnerable youth and to refrain from recommending these books to young readers as a “cure.” Highlighting the possible sensitive moments in every story, librarians may recommend these books to therapy professionals with whom they collaborate and who treat children in traumatic situations. We also urge librarians to refer to this set of Considerations & Cautions integrated into the Bibliotherapy Educational Project (reviewed under “BT Projects“).

The Mighty Miss Malone Baker, N. (1999). The everlasting story of Nory. New York: Vintage Books.

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Baker, a writer known for his attention to minutia of experience, writes about childhood with sharp focus in this lightly comic novel told from the frank perspective of a nine year-old child. Nory is an American girl who has relocated to England for a semester with her parents, and is now making her way in a new school. Nory is a curious, eager, and good-hearted child who leads a very untroubled life, despite the teasing she faces at school on account of her American accent and her choice to befriend an intensely unpopular girl. This novel is not plot-driven and is told through a series of vignettes exploring the experiences, dreams, insights, discoveries, and somewhat random thoughts of a nine year-old girl. This book is written for adults, but allows for a re-inhabitation of a comfortable, non-disruptive childhood. A relaxing and immersive read, this book might be used to revisit or reconnect with the curiosity and creativity of the childhood, void of any threatening undertones and drama.

Ramona and Her Father Cleary, B. (1977). Ramona and her father. New York: William Morrow.

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In this Newberry Honor winner, Ramona Geraldine Quimby uses her characteristic spunk and creativity to help her family cope with the loss of her father’s job. With her keen insight into the world of children, Cleary creates a true-to-life character who admits to the frightening things of the world and faces them with courage and wit. The character serves as a role model for children dealing with life challenges.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 Cleary, B. (1981). Ramona Quimby, age 8. New York: HarperCollins.

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With Ramona’s father returning to college to become a teacher, finances in the Quimby household are again tight, and Mr. and Mrs. Quimby seem tired and discouraged. In addition to these worries, Ramona faces everyday problems at school, while her patience after school is tried by Willa Jean Kemp. Despite these difficulties, moments of grace appear, reminding all readers that joy can be found in the most unexpected places – even at the local “Whopperburger.”

The Mighty Miss Malone Curtis, C.P. (2012). The mighty Miss Malone. New York: Wendy Lamb Books.

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On the pages of this book, the reader meets the mighty Miss Deza Malone, whose “first pet peeve is when people don’t pronounce…[her] name right…” and who belongs to the Malone family – a family on a “journey to a place called wonderful.” Yet, the family’s journey is filled with much economic struggle and racial injustice. Nothing comes easy. The disappearance of Deza’s father on Lake Michigan sets off a series of challenging events, and the reader is inspired by the strength and tenacity of Deza’s character.

Watsons_Go_to_Birmingham Curtis, C.P. (2000). The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963. New York: Dell Laurel Leaf.

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It’s 1963 and Kenny Watson and his family are on an adventure to Birmingham, Alabama to visit Grandma Sands. While there, they meet with a deadly racism that leaves Kenny not only scared but also ashamed of his fear. Although the issue of racism is not about to go away and “things ain’t ever going to be fair,” Kenny learns, with support from his family, that life goes on and “you just gotta…keep on steppin’.” In this character, young readers can find a role model of courage in the face of great injustice.

desperaux DiCamillo, K. (2006). The tale of Despereaux. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

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“The world is dark, and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.” So begins DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal-winning tale of an unlikely hero named Despereaux Tilling—a big-eared mouse born with a fascination for light. Despereaux’s love for Princess Pea—something that is “simply not done!” in the mouse community—sends him on an adventure that will test his courage. Perfect for a read-aloud, this is a wonderful story for all who need to be reminded that, in the midst of great darkness, “Stories are light.” 

Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane DiCamillo, K. (2006). The miraculous journey of Edward Tulane. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

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“Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit” named Edward Tulane. Edward was a beautiful rabbit, dearly loved by ten-year-old-girl Abilene Tulane, but he was a rabbit who loved no one. This inability to love sends Edward on a journey that is most certainly miraculous. It is a journey marked by heartbreak after heartbreak, where Edward discovers that life has meaning when you can keep a sense of wonder, when you are “filled with expectancy” and “awash in hope,” and when you are able to love.

flora DiCamillo, K. (2013). Flora and Ulysses: The illuminated adventures. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

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Flora Belle Buckman was “a natural-born cynic.” She religiously read the comic strip “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” which equipped her to respond to every disaster imaginable; every disaster except administering CPR to a squirrel that had just been sucked up and spat out by a Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner. This unanticipated accident sends Flora Belle and Ulysses the squirrel on a journey where they discover that Flora Belle is, in fact, not a cynic, but a girl with a “capacious” heart.

pictures of hollis woods Giff, P.R. (2002). Pictures of Hollis Woods. New York: Wendy Lamb Books.

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In this book the reader meets 12-year-old Hollis Woods, an orphan who is moved from foster home to foster home. Life is not easy for Hollis, nor has it ever been; yet there emerges a portrait of a child who, like all children, wants to belong. This is a moving tale about the importance of family.

a wrinkle in time L’Engle, M. (1962). A Wrinkle in time. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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Meg Murry is having troubles at school. Her grades are so low she might have to repeat a year, and she gets into fights defending her younger brother, Charles Wallace. The arrival of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which, however, sets off a chain of events through which Meg learns the power of loving and being loved. This is the first book in the author’s Time Quintet.

a wind in the door L’Engle, M. (1973). A wind in the door. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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In the second installment of Time Quintet comes the story of Meg Murray; Calvin O’Keefe; and Proginoskes, a cherubim made of wings, eyes, fire, and smoke. Together they set out to save Charles Wallace’s life. In doing so, Meg not only relearns the redemptive quality of love, but also discovers the restorative power of “naming” in a world that seeks to “un-name” and create emptiness. This is a book about the courage to choose, love, and make a difference.

the lion the witch and the wardrobe Lewis, C.S. (1950). The chronicles of Narnia. New York: HarperCollins.

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In the seven books that make up the Narnia series, Lewis takes his readers on many adventures, showing them the origins of Narnia (The Magician’s Nephew), the search for missing Narnians (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair), and epic battles between good and evil (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Horse and His Boy, The Last Battle). These books are not just a must-read for fantasy fans; they are also books about courage and the value of community that help the characters face difficult and dangerous situations. They are also books about dreaming and believing.

Mrs frisby and the rats of nimh O’Brien, R.C. (1971). Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH. New York, NY: Atheneum.

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Meet Mrs. Frisby—a brave widowed mouse who seeks the help of owls and rats to stop the farmers from plowing her family’s winter home. In this tale of resourcefulness and valor, children may be inspired by a character who, albeit small in statue, is capable of great things.

wonder Palacio, R.J. (2012). Wonder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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Auggie Pullman, born with severe facial defects, wants nothing more than to blend in. As he enters middle school, he and the community around him learn the meaning of living courageously and being a true friend. This is a powerful story for anyone who has ever longed to be “normal.”

bridge to terabithia Paterson, K. (1977). Bridge to Terabithia. New York: T.Y. Crowell.

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In this remarkable novel, Jess Aarons, a sensitive, artistic fifth grader, meets Leslie Burke, a bold, imaginative tomboy. Together they create and rule a magical kingdom, defeating “hostile savages” and inducting princes. Together they can do anything, but when tragedy strikes, Jess alone must draw on the strength that Leslie has given him—a strength that builds bridges “to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.” This is a story about conquering fears and about the power of friendship.

Day of the pelican Paterson, K. (2009). The Day of the Pelican. Boston, MA: Clarion Books.

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Living as Albanians in Serbian-run Kosovo presents a constant threat for Meli Lleshi and her family. When Meli’s brother Mehmet is arrested, beaten, and left for dead, the Lleshi family uproot their lives and decide to move to a safer place. Alas, no such place is found, and thus begins a long and harsh journey through Kosovo to a refugee camp and then to the United States.

great gilly hopkins Paterson, K. (1978). The great Gilly Hopkins. New York: HarperCollins.

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The great Galadriel Hopkins (Gilly for short) is “famous across this entire country” for her brilliance, cleverness, and uncanny ability to be “too hard to manage.” After moving from foster home to foster home, Gilly is placed with a “nice” lady named Maime Trotter. Her time with Trotter sets off a chain of events that, at the end, has Gilly realize the paradoxical truth: while never easy, life is still good.

jip his story Paterson, K. (1996). Jip, his story. New York: Lodestar Books.

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Like Dickon in Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Jip, an orphan living on the town poor farm, has a gentle spirit and a way with animals. When caged lunatic Put is brought to the farm, Jip’s sensitivity and sagacity help him recognize Put’s wisdom and life experience. They form a friendship that brings Jip to a difficult understanding of his past. This is an absorbing story of courage and companionship.

lyddie Paterson, K. (1991). Lyddie. New York: Lodestar Books.

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Lyddie Worthen knows what it means to work hard. She has shot rabbits, made maple syrup, peeled bark for soup, and sold calves on her family farm. Working at the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts was no different for Lyddie. Up at 4:30 every morning to run multiple looms in a loud and dangerous mill, Lyddie works doggedly in an attempt to make enough money to pay back her debt so that her family can be reunited on the farm. Pursuing this goal, Lyddie meets friends that change her life forever. This is not only a fascinating read for lovers of historical fiction but also a story of hope and new beginnings.

sign of the chrysanthemum Paterson, K. (1973). The sign of the chrysanthemum. New York: Crowell.

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In this novel, set in 12th century Japan, the reader meets Muna, a teenage boy searching for his name, his identity, and his father. Certain that all will be well when he finds his father, and knowing only that his father has the sign of the chrysanthemum on his shoulder, Muna journeys to the capital of Japan. On his quest he learns a lesson that true familial love is neither flashy nor public, but a quiet, steadfast love shown day after day.

Higher Power of lucky Patron, S. (2006). The higher power of Lucky. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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In this Newbery-winning book, 10-year-old Lucky is in search of Higher Powers that will enable her to stay in Hard Pan, California, with her legal guardian Brigitte. In this tale of friendship and hope, Lucky discovers that the Higher Powers are closer than she ever imagined.

Swamplandia! Russell, K. (2011). Swamplandia! New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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Swamplandia! is a novel about a family of alligator wrestlers that owns and operates an amusement park in the Florida swamps, and that loses its center when the mother dies of cancer. Each of the four remaining family members copes with this staggering loss in different and not entirely functional ways. The father, in order to keep the park financially afloat, takes a secret job on the mainland; teenaged Osceola starts having what she believes are romantic liaisons with ghosts; older brother Kiwi defects to a competitor park in order to raise money for the family and secure himself a better education; and the thirteen year-old protagonist Ava remains behind, alone and vulnerable, to set off on her own emotional odyssey in the swamp.

As a family drama, adventure tale, ghost story, and bildungsroman in one, this is an absorbing read with the right amount of humor. This novel can be interpreted as a story of family perseverance after a terrible and bewildering break, and may be uplifting for readers who are concerned about their own coping strategies. However, readers, librarians, and bibliotherapists should be warned that the novel darkens considerably in the second half, and gives way to an upsetting scene of sexual abuse, the insufficient handling of which may be one of the book’s weaknesses. As with all bibliotherapy engagements, reading alone may or may not be therapeutic, especially considering the heaviness of the subject matter; reading should be accompanied by a skilfully guided professional discussion. .

okay for now Schmidt, G.D. (2011). Okay for now. New York: Clarion Books.

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Holling Hoodhood, a seventh grader, is convinced that his teacher hates his guts. But several Wednesday afternoons and a few Shakespeare plays later, Holling discovers that the same teacher has given him the knowledge and the strength to face life challenges. Like in Shakespearean comedies, he becomes a boy who dares “choose a happy ending after all.” This book is a reminder that our choices define who we are.

wednesday wars Schmidt, G.D. (2007). The Wednesday wars. New York: Clarion Books.

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Doug Swieteck hates his new home in upstate New York. One of his brothers is fighting in Vietnam; his other brother is a bully; and his father is often violent. Amid this chaos stands his strong but gentle mother and Lil Spicer, a girl every bit as rambunctious as the sound of her name. With the help of Lil, Mr. Powell, and drawings from Audubon’s Birds of America, Doug discovers that “when you find something that’s whole, you do what you can to keep it that way. And when you find something that isn’t, then maybe it’s not a bad idea to try to make it whole again.”

invention of hugo cabret Selznick, B. (2007). The invention of Hugo Cabret. New York: Scholastic Press.

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In this Caldecott-winning novel, Hugo Cabret, an orphan who looks after the clocks in a Paris train station, meets a toy-maker and his goddaughter. Thus begins a process of self-discovery and a new beginning in a story told creatively through both text and images.

Miracles boys Woodson, J. (2000). Miracle’s boys. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

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This is a story of three inner-city brothers struggling to make sense of the death of their mother amid the poverty and violence around them. With all their difficulties, moments of grace shine through when they stand together.

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