The Healing Power of Books: Using Reading to Address Social and Emotional Needs

8 min read

| By Jessica Klinker |

Reading has long been recognized as a means to escape or experience adventures of the imagination. As many of us who serve in libraries are exploring resources to provide our students and patrons with trauma-informed care and social and emotional learning, we find that we can once again turn to our long-trusted source of comfort and inspiration: books.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, social and emotional learning is the “process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”1 In the safe pages of a book, readers can explore different viewpoints and navigate diverse challenges as they walk in the footsteps of numerous characters. Books can serve as mirrors, allowing readers to see themselves reflected in characters who might be experiencing situations or challenges similar to their own. This provides encouragement, showing them they aren’t alone, giving them confidence in seeing conflicts resolved on the page—and hope that they’ll also overcome similar challenges.

Books can also serve as lenses, opening readers up to different insights, cultures, and experiences they may not otherwise experience, deepening their empathy for others. They provide a critical foundation for conversations that extend into political and social contexts and that focus on unity and healing rather than division and destruction.

Whether seeking to provide books as mirrors or lenses, the solution is the same: Ensure readers have access to a diverse selection of reading materials. Every reader has a niche of go-to books. As librarians, we must be diligent in actively seeking titles to meet the needs of all our patrons, ensuring readers have access to a variety of viewpoints, styles, and experiences. Some of my favorite resources for finding diverse books are:

  • We Need Diverse BooksThis is a “non-profit and a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry . . . to help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”2 Check out their “Where to Find Diverse Books” list to find book lists that represent various cultures, religions, and abilities.
  • ALA award lists The American Library Association and its divisions place a high priority on advocating for equity and dialogue. Several divisions, including the Association for Library Service to Children, the Young Adult Library Services Association, and the American Association of School Librarians, have several awards and reading lists that highlight the best in recent titles for young people. Some of the awards that focus specifically on different cultures are the Pura Belpré, Coretta Scott King, and the Stonewall book awards, and the Over the Rainbow Project book lists. See the complete list of ALA book and media awards.
  • #ownvoices — Use this hashtag in search engines and on social media to find titles about diverse groups by people who are from that group. The #ownvoices conversation highlights diverse authors and ensures representations of different experiences are portrayed authentically and realistically.
  • Project LIT — This movement, started by Jarred Amato, represents thousands of teachers and librarians across the country who have pledged to actively end book deserts and provide readers access to books representing many styles, voices, and cultures. Learn more about Project LIT.

Along with searching for diverse titles, teachers and librarians should advocate for providing access to different formats for reading. Traditional book lovers often speak of the treasured experience of curling up with a good book, savoring the smell of the print, and relishing the physical flipping of pages. It’s easy to fall into the assumption that every reading experience must be the same for our students and patrons and that all people have the same access to reading materials. However, one of our biggest concerns as practitioners must be How do we reach the people who aren’t already reading? According to Pew Research Center, 27 percent of U.S. adults reported they hadn’t read a book in any format in 2018, and that percentage was significantly higher for people who hadn’t graduated from high school; made less than $30,000 a year; or who were from minority groups, such black and Hispanic cultures.3 The article Ending Book Deserts: The Role We Can All Play in Putting More Books in More Hands highlights the literacy divide caused when children don’t have access to books. It states, “Forty-five percent of children in the U.S. live in neighborhoods that lack public libraries and stores that sell books or in homes where books are not present . . . As a result, 32.4 million children go without books.4  

While we definitely need to embrace efforts for increasing access to print titles, we also need to use the blessings of the digital age to help us meet the needs of every reader. Consider:

  • Audiobooks — They can help readers comprehend stories many levels above their print literacy, increase their fluency, expand vocabulary, and increase reading and listening skills. Many adults find that audiobooks provide the only way to fit reading into their busy lives, as they’re able to read in the car, during a workout, or while doing chores. Digital audiobooks also provide tools such as speeding up or slowing down text, bookmarking, and syncing across devices, which allows readers to individualize their reading experiences.
  • e-Books — In situations where physical distance or access prevents users from being able to select new print titles, eBooks can be available 24/7, 365 days a year, to users with some type of internet access. For teachers, this is significant in conversations about fighting the summer slide. The digital format also provides functionality that allows readers to personalize the reading experience to fit their needs. Readers can change background colors, font styles (including the dyslexia font), and sizes; add bookmarks and notes; use text to speech; and access linked dictionaries and search engines. For many, a digital book also provides a confidential reading experience. When readers feel the reading level or content of the book might draw unwanted attention on a bus commute, airplane, at the beach, or in the classroom, a digital book allows them to confidently read without fear of censure.
  • Large Print Recently, research has brought attention to how large print books provide a better reading experience, not only for readers with visual processing challenges, but for all. For example, research from Thorndike Press and Project Tomorrow® found that “43% of 3‒12 graders reported a reduction in feelings of anxiety about reading [and] 60% of 6‒8 graders said they could focus better and didn’t lose their place due to distractions” when they were reading large print.5
  • Languages — How many of us could read a novel for pleasure in a second language? While we’re helping our English learners build their fluency with English, we must also consider providing access to quality books that can build literacy and reading pleasure in their first language.

One book does not fit all—there isn’t one magical book, or even canon, that will speak to every reader. The answer is access and choice. Let’s work together to increase access to a wide variety of books, expand the opportunities for choice reading in schools, and use choice reading as a launch pad for facilitating discussions based in empathy and compassion in order to build the social and emotional capacity of all learners. Our world desperately needs the healing power of books!

View available large print collections for Social and Emotional Learning and Project LIT.

1. “Social and Emotional Learning Standards,” Learning in Ohio, Ohio Department of Education, last modified October 4, 2019.
2. “Who We Are,” About WBDB, We Need Diverse Books, accessed July 9, 2020.
3. Andrew Perrin, “Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?” Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, September 26, 2019.
4. “Ending Book Deserts: The Role We Can All Play in Putting More Books in More Hands,” Literacy Today (Vol. 37, Issue 5). Gale In  Context: High School.
5. “Advancing Literacy with Large Print,” Tech & Learning, October 2019. Gale In Context: High School.

Tara Atterberry

Meet the Author

Jessica Klinker is teacher librarian at Franklin Heights High School in Columbus, Ohio, and is celebrating her 20th year as an educator, serving students in grades K‒12. She believes in the power of reading and access to information to change lives and create equity—and is a leader for the Ohio Educational Library Media Association, advocating for licensed school librarians and well-stocked libraries in every school.

Some #ownvoices titles Jessica’s enjoyed this summer: Jackpot (as an audiobook, read by the author) and Dear Martin by Nic Stone; Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary; Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin; My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (audiobook); and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. Jessica’s preferred reading format is eBooks, because they fall asleep when she does and she can carry hundreds of books with her wherever she goes!

Air Jordan

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