Guest post by Kelly Brooks, creator and teacher of Curative Reading
What if there was a doorway you could open to spark new and imaginative ways to help your child with anxiety that not only soothed and comforted them, but could bring these benefits to you, too?
And what if you could know it would have a cumulative effect – building up over time, even lasting well into their adulthood?
Enter the imaginative world of children’s literature and Charlotte’s Web.
A Spider, A Pig, and Anxiety
This literary classic not only stands as #1 in all of children’s literature in a poll conducted by Publisher’s Weekly, but it was also voted 7th in America’s 100 Best Loved Novels for all ages in the 2019 PBS television series, The Great American Read.
You may be wondering how sitting down to a story of a little girl who believes in talking farm animals and a wise and compassionate spider who saves the life of an anxious, yet terrific pig could possibly take on the immense task of calming an anxious child?
The answer is: It worked for E.B. White.
If he could face a childhood of anxiety and loneliness and go on to write Charlotte’s Web in his fifties—surely his story might open a door to sooth fears and anxieties in children.
Keep in mind, all stories are written for the story-maker as well as the reader, and the best writers write about what they know.
And E.B. White? Well, he knew about childhood anxiety.
So what drove E.B. White to create Charlotte’s Web, and why have so many children and parents fallen under the spell of this redeeming story?
The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims tells us of how E.B. White came to write his epic children’s tale.
According to Sims, as a very young boy, White discovered that his fondness for animals and love of nature were antidotes for his anxieties and fears.
“From childhood to adulthood (White) was painfully shy, terrified of speaking in public or before a microphone—yet hugely ambitious and willing to try almost anything when no one was looking.”
White’s classic character – Charlotte the spider – is ferocious but compassionate. She sees a way forward for Wilbur the pig beyond the winter harvest, when most pigs meet their fate to become bacon.
She lovingly walks him through his fears and builds him up so that he can handle life even after she is gone.
“You must try to build yourself up. I want you to get plenty of sleep, and stop worrying. Never hurry and never worry! … Keep fit and don’t lose your nerve.”
The voice of Charlotte – like the voice of any mentor – ultimately becomes a voice that a child hears in his own head.
“You can do it. I believe in you. You are brave.”
Over time, this becomes: “I can do it. I believe in myself. I am brave.“
We see this played out with Wilbur – at first he told Charlotte he was “not terrific”, but by the time the humans found Charlotte’s word TERRIFIC in her web and began calling Wilbur this, he not only believed it, “he really felt terrific.”
Like the best mentors, stories help children develop the voice in their own heads – a voice they’ll need to navigate the world, and their insecurities.
These voices of empathy – whether garnered from fiction, a great teacher, or a caring parent – walk with a child on their journey.
Kids who, like Wilbur, are prone to worry.
Kids who, like Wilbur, must face their own challenges in the real world.
Kids who, like Wilbur, could use a “Charlotte” to guide them through their fears.
And thanks to great fiction, kids do indeed have that guide.
It is the important job of parents and educators to expose kids to this rich world of books, so that they can find empathic guides, and so that they can see their own fears expressed through the lives of their favorite characters.
Remember: a cornerstone of all literary fiction is empathy.
Charlotte’s Web teaches empathy to its young readers as it walks them through the story in the different shoes of its cast of colorful characters.
When children are able to feel empathy for fictional characters, it really pulls them out of their own anxieties and helps them to see others’ struggles, too.
And empathy is something even very young minds are capable of developing.
Young readers, or story-time listeners, learn to see the world outside of themselves, their worries and their needs and begin to understand the thoughts and desires of others that differ from their own.
It is also from this place, where their imaginations are sparked, that they can begin to make connections from the story to their own lives—anxieties and all.
Benefits of Fiction for Anxious Kids
In a study conducted by the University of Sussex, reading in general was proven to reduce stress by 68% after only six minutes of reading.
According the University of Cambridge, children’s fiction can “stimulate attention, imagination, memory, and other aspects of cognitive activity.”
And children’s books (from the best books for toddlers and picture books for pre-schoolers right on up through novels for older kids) build your child’s vocabulary by exposing them to 50% more rare words than prime time television.
Good fiction is giving kids a potent dose of protection against anxiety just through the very act of reading. At the same time it’s giving them a cognitive boost in other areas.
Reading fiction can be an antidote to anxiety in children and adults.
When we can imagine something, it can bring about a feeling of inspiration and positivity. Reading fiction builds imagination muscles and opens a doorway to positivity and inspiration—a place where anxiety steps aside.
The benefits here for children are enormous, particularly those with anxiety.
So, why not believe in talking farm animals and the power of imagination?
After all, if Charlotte could instill peace and create a bright future for Wilbur, perhaps she can do it for your child too.
To find book suggestions for children struggling with anxiety, Book Riot has put together a good resource. And for a comprehensive list of some of the best overall books for early elementary school aged kids, check out the 100 best books for Kindergarten list.
About Kelly Brooks
Kelly Brooks is the creator and steward of Curative Reading. She teaches the value of reading literary fiction in the Curative Reading Communities she creates in bookstores, libraries, and hospitals as a tool for adapting to change in challenging times. She has a B.A. in psychology, and a background in hospitality and mind-body event planning. She has received formal training from Boston College, The University of Massachusetts, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and The Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General Hospital. Curative Reading is her contribution and her cure.