Education Opinion

Using Bibliotherapy with Gifted Children

By Tamara Fisher — March 15, 2009 9 min read
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Hopefully we’ve all had that experience of reading a book that powerfully “spoke” to us, a book whose characters we could relate to, and whose struggles and triumphs we identified with. Taking this experience a step farther is the strategy of bibliotherapy, the process of helping the reader learn about and cope with any social or emotional struggles or developmental needs by identifying with a character in a book who shares a similar struggle or need. The reading is typically followed up by discussion with a trusted adult.

Bibliotherapy of course can be done with all students, particularly students who might be experiencing a divorce in the family, a learning disability, adoption, etc. Today I want to talk a bit about using developmental bibliotherapy specifically with gifted students. A fair amount has been written already (see links at the bottom of this post) about what bibliotherapy is and why it’s important to do with gifted students. Essentially, by having gifted students read literature and/or biographies featuring gifted children or adults, the students can gain insights into their own giftedness. Through bibliotherapeutic reading, the gifted kids are presented with ideas for how to cope with some of the struggles they encounter because they are gifted. These struggles can include trouble finding meaningful friendships, existential depression, dealing with high expectations (whether internal or external), and being a unique learner when most around them don’t learn as they do.

In addition to helping them learn new strategies for dealing with their various social and emotional issues, bibliotherapy with gifted kids can help them to better understand themselves, their sensitivity, and their quirks. It can allow them to learn about themselves vicariously and to know that they’re not alone, that others have - and have had - the same concerns or problems. It can expose them to new ways of thinking about and seeing the world around them. And it can help them gain insight into themselves by connecting with or identifying with a character in a book who is similar to them or who has similar obstacles to overcome.

The reality is that gifted kids don’t always have everything going for them, despite what others may mis-perceive about them in that regard. They’re certainly not all in need of clinical therapy, either, but - as I point out to the parents of my students - raising (or teaching) a gifted child is usually not the cakewalk that everyone else assumes it to be... because they come packaged with all these worries, sensitivities, quirks, and surprises, together with their unique intelligence. (I’ve had parents’ eyes tear up when I say that to them... It’s often their first acknowledgement from someone outside the family that raising their gifted child is far more of a challenge than others realize.)

My angle today is to offer a concrete example of how I’m using this strategy with my students, with the aim of perhaps giving the rest of you some ideas for how to use this strategy with your own gifted students or children.

There are certainly millions of books out there that gifted kids would love reading, but I know that “just any ol’ book” wouldn’t qualify for the purpose I have in mind. So I set some criteria for creating a booklist for this lesson:

First, in my case I am doing this with my 5th and 6th graders, so criteria #1 is that the content of the books has to be appropriate for them. While on my hunt for books to add to the list, I came across many that would be excellent to use in this way with older gifted kids, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting them on the list for my 5th & 6th graders.

Secondly, I wanted books with a reading level of about 5th grade or higher, preferably higher if possible. Most of my 5th & 6th graders read on a high school level and I want the vocabulary and sentence structure to be challenging enough for them. [Yet, as any parent or teacher of a gifted child can tell you, getting criteria #1 and criteria #2 here to mesh together is not always easy!]

Third, I wanted books that have at least one main character who is relatively obviously gifted AND their giftedness is a relevant factor in the storyline. Again, I eliminated many otherwise-awesome books as candidates for the list because they didn’t meet this criteria. But I stuck to it because what I have in mind for the students to do with their books wouldn’t be nearly so relevant or even possible if the book didn’t match this criteria. The exploration of giftedness (or some of its concomitant issues) had to be a factor of the book.

And fourth, I wanted a variety of books on the list, to meet the varying interests of my students. So some of them have a boy main character, some have a girl main character. Some are historical fiction, some are realistic fiction, some are science fiction, some are biographies, some are poetry, some are first-person accounts of real-life events, some are non-fiction, some are mysteries, and together they feature main characters from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds, as well as different periods in time.

The kids have read through the list of books and each has chosen which book he or she wants to read. And I have given the kids bookmarks to use that have the following questions on them:

* Who in the book do you identify with and why?
* What situations/events/problems do you identify with and why?
* Do you agree or disagree with the significant decisions the main character(s) made? Why?
* How did being gifted impact the character’s life? (in positive and/or negative ways)
* In what ways was the character gifted? How did you know he or she was gifted? (i.e. What, to you, were the identifiable characteristics?)
* What do you think are the messages the author is trying to send with this book? (Or: What do you think was the author’s purpose for writing this book?)
* Do you agree or disagree with the author’s message? Why?

Their reading will be followed up with some group discussion of gifted characteristics and issues, and the kids will also have time to create some sort of project on their book that answers all or most of the above questions. What kind of project they do is very open-ended (write an essay, do a PowerPoint, give a speech, write a play or poem or song, do a poster or diagram, etc.)

This is not an exhaustive booklist by any means, but it’s a start. I fully expect this list to grow as the years go by, and a few of these books could potentially even be taken off the list if they don’t fit the criteria as well as I had thought they would. Feel free to add your own ideas and recommendations, keeping in mind criteria #3 most of all. (A special shout out of “thanks” goes to the librarians in my district whose expertise was invaluable in helping me put together this list!)

Alvin Webster’s Surefire Plan for Success and How it Failed by Sheila Greenwald.

Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry.

Apollo 13 by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.

Arilla Sun Down by Virginia Hamilton.

The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell. (For this purpose, an excellent book to combine with “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” listed below.)

Been Clever Forever by Bruce Stone.

Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Curtis.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham.

Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson.

Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

Deliver Us From Normal by Kate Klise.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex and Brett Harris.

Einstein: A Life in Science by John Gribbin and Michael White.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis.

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald Sobol.

The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan.

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

Forever Changes by Brendan Halpin.

Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho by Jon Katz.

Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story by Ben Carson.

Good Enough by Paula Yoo.

The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind.

Ida B: . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.

Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors by Susan Casey.

The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs.

Leonardo’s Notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci (edited by Anna Suh).

Letters From Rapunzel by Sara Lewis Holmes.

Libby on Wednesday by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

Maizon at Blue Hill by Jacqueline Woodson.

Matilda by Roald Dahl.

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee.

More Than a Test Score: Teens Talk About Being Gifted, Talented, and Otherwise Extra-ordinary by Robert Schultz and James Delisle.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

The Mysterious Case of the Allbright Academy by Diane Stanley.

My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel. (I had the opportunity to see Samantha Abeel give a keynote address at Edufest a couple of summers ago. It was absolutely fascinating to hear her real-life account of what it’s like to be both gifted and learning disabled, or “twice exceptional.”)

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Pride of the Peacock by Stephanie Tolan.

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam (also titled “October Sky”). (Also an AWESOME movie!)

Saving Lilly by Peg Kehret.

The School for Cool by P. G. Kain.

Seeing Emily by Joyce Lee Wong.

Smart Talk: What Kids Say About Growing Up Gifted by Robert Schultz and James Delisle.

The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley by Duncan Blanchard.

Some Day Angeline by Louis Sachar.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan.

The Teenagers’ Guide to School Outside the Box by Rebecca Greene.

The Triple Chocolate Brownie Genius by Deborah Sherman.

The View From Saturday by E. L. Konisburg.

Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas.

The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

More good lists of other possible books for this purpose can be found at the following links:

Hoagies’ List of Books Featuring Gifted Children

Gifted Kids, Gifted Characters, and Great Books

Books for Gifted Children Featuring Gifted Children

Film and Fiction Dealing with Giftedness

GT World Reading Lists (click the “Books” link)

Mind the Gap: Engaging Gifted Readers

Juvenile & Young Adult Fiction & Biography: Giftedness

Resources for Students

To learn more about using bibliotherapy with gifted children, try these articles:

Nurturing Social and Emotional Development in Gifted Teenagers Through Young Adult Literature

Using Biography to Counsel Gifted Young Women

Guiding the Gifted Reader

Using Books to Heal and Enthuse Gifted Students

Role Models in Books and Movies

Gifted Fictional Characters

And check out this great book as a further resource: Some of My Best Friends Are Books by Judith Wynn Halsted.

Happy reading!

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.