What Is Bibliotherapy—And How Can It Help You Heal?

The modality was created by a Black woman, who has rarely received credit for her work, and it has intersectional benefits.

A man reads in an office.

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Parenting can be pure joy. But it can also be demanding and overwhelming, especially if a parent faces challenges in their own personal growth and development. Stress, anxiety, and depression may fuel a parent’s concerns about their ability to nurture their child effectively. Add being Black in America, witnessing racial violence, having financial concerns, employment blues, or co-parenting challenges and a person may wonder if there are professional options for help.

Thirty-year-old single co-parent Kim Greene faced this question. She decided to try bibliotherapy—the use of books as therapy—to help with her depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a Black and Puerto Rican mother of 5-year-old Brayden, it was difficult for her to find a therapist who could address her concerns. “I’ve gone through lots of therapists who couldn’t relate to my situation, who viewed me as a number with insurance,” she said. “I need someone who is culturally literate and has actual steps for me to heal my inner self.” 

Greene searched and found Emely Rumble, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and bibliotherapist, on Instagram. Rumble, a Black and Boricua bilingual bibliotherapist with 12 years of experience, uses books to help her clients heal. It was important for Greene to continue her healing journey with someone who understood how her racial and cultural identities interacted with her beliefs and behavior. with one’s beliefs and behavior.  She also wanted to learn how to strengthen her bond with her son. Rumble and bibliotherapy seemed like a perfect match.

What is Bibliotherapy? Is it new?

Bibliotherapy, the practice of using books for their healing power and mental health support, has been around since ancient Greeks believed libraries were “sacred structures with curative powers.” Bibliotherapy made a resurgence in the 20th century as social workers and psychotherapists helped people explore their feelings and change their behaviors.  

Lucy Foggle, in her blog Tolstoy Therapy, gathered 30+ bibliotherapy statistics about how books help us feel better." From easing depression and anxiety to increasing mental resilience and changing static attitudes, reading books becomes a “radical act” leading to inner transformation.

The term “bibliotherapy” was coined by Samuel McChord Crothers in 1916, and by 1920 was listed in medical texts as a method to guide clients back to health. Although Crothers, a white minister, popularized the term a Black woman, Sadie Peterson Delaney, holds the title of “Godmother of Bibliotherapy.”

The Black Godmother of Bibliotherapy

Delaney was trained at the New York Public Library between 1920 and 1921, where she was instrumental in developing an African American collection. Later she used bibliotherapy to match patients at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, with books that would help them address their issues. Librarians from around the world went to Tuskegee to learn about bibliotherapy and then collaborated with physicians to prescribe appropriate books for patients.

“Delaney is not given the credit she is due in terms of her influence on the programmatic aspects of bibliotherapy,” says bibliotherapist Rumble. “Her blueprints were used to inform the treatment of veterans using literature, but her legacy is rarely mentioned.”

Rumble, however, discovered the nonprofit organization Words Heal, which she feels honors Delaney appropriately. Words Heal’s mission is to “impact loneliness and social isolation through bibliotherapy.” In 2015, the organization, located in Villa Park, Illinois, added "The Sadie Peterson Delaney Literary Collaborative" to its name, following Delaney’s example of creating and supporting “access to resources that reflect the lived experiences of people of color, of faith, of advanced age or who live with disabilities.” 

How Bibliotherapy Can Help Today

As the world moves past the COVID-19 pandemic and its isolation and at-home trauma; virulent, out-in-the-open racism; and bullying in schools, the workplace, and even grocery stores, the need for creative arts therapy is needed, even more, notes Rumble. 

Parents can find a bibliotherapist by googling “bibliotherapist + your city.” Rumble cautions, however, that people who use the term bibliotherapist may not necessarily be mental health professionals. “You can be trained and credentialed as a bibliotherapist or just be someone who is familiar with the techniques.” She suggests that the best way to research the licensure of a therapist is through each state’s online verification system. 

Rumble says, for her, bibliotherapy is not a replacement for mental health therapy, she says. She uses a developmental approach to bibliotherapy in educational settings and a clinical approach in conjunction with other therapists for patients’ mental health needs.

 Sessions begin with a questionnaire and discussion about the client’s reading styles, preferences, and intersectional identities. “I consider these concepts in tandem with the current themes showing up in their lives before I make tailored recommendations that I feel will address their needs,” she says. “Developing trust is also very important.”

Rumble always recommends literature by Black, Indigenous, and people of color for all her clients. “You just gotta read Morrison, Angelou, and Baldwin. You aren’t doing healing work if you’re not,” she says with a chuckle.

Kim Green's Rx

Kim Greene’s remote session with Rumble focused on what she called the “hardships” of Black motherhood and the stress of trying to heal from her past relationship while co-parenting with her son’s father, she says. “Emely Rumble reassures me I’m strong and doing a good job for myself and my son.” Greene is learning that “motherhood is not about perfection, and that writers like Toni Morrison give realistic reflections of motherhood in their novels,” which is something Greene appreciates.

Rumble’s book Rx for Greene includes several books: “Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, is one I’ve wanted to read for a while,” she says.

Greene will read the book and check back in with Rumble to discuss aspects that pertain to her feelings and experiences. “The book becomes a healthy mirror for thoughts, questions, fears, and doubts to rise to the surface for healing,” says Rumble.

Greene feels optimistic that she will be able to take the bandage off of her wounds and be more present for herself and her son. “Reading is a form of my self-care—even more so now—and if I’m better, my son also benefits.”

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  1. Seawright, Gentri, "Childrens' Responses to Storybook Reading" (2009). Undergraduate Honors Capstone Projects. 25. 

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