Feeling fiction

6th July 2001 at 01:00

Willy and the Wobbly House. A Wibble called Bipley (and a few Honks). A Pea Called Mildred. A Nifflenoo Called Nevermind The Frog who Longed for the Moon to Smile. By Margot Sunderland. Illustrated by Nicky ArmstrongWinslow Press. Storybooks pound;6.95Storybook with Guidebook pound;19.95 each Available from TES Direct Teachers and parents can often remember a child in their class or family who returned again and again to a book such as Not Now Bernard or Owl Babies, patently identifying with characters and events in these powerful children's texts. However, can story telling go far beyond this and be used as a therapeutic tool with children, to help eradicate their fears? Margot Sunderland, founding director of the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, writing about her experience as a therapist, shows that it can.

Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool is primarily aimed at professionals and to some extent at parents, and is accompanied by five storybooks for children.

Sunderland's thesis is that for children, the natural language of feeling is not the language of everyday, but rather that of image and metaphor, the language of the imagination as encountered in stories and dreams. She states that stories can reach children when everyday language does not. When a mother says to her child: "Now look, Sally, we've got to talk about how you've been biting Sophie," she gets nowhere. This is because her everyday language fails to reach Sally and does not give her a way of "imagining the feelings which made her bite Sophie in the first place".

Sunderland's work reflects that of Bruno Bettleheim (The Uses of Enchantment, 1975), who also found that stories can provide children with time to think about their situations and feelings. Stories, according to Sunderland, can help children to think about their "unthought known" and provide important opportunities to talk about problems indirectly. Her book is peppered with case studies illustrating how stories have helped children to changetheir lives.

The five accompanying children's picture books each focus on a specific problem. A Nifflenoo called Nevermind is described as "a story for children who bottle up their feelings". There are guidance notes for each story.

The packs will be of value to counsellors and therapists, but taking on the role of therapist in this way could prove problematic for teachers and parents. And stories written with such explicit therapeutic intent do not really work as convincing narratives.

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