Turn a new leaf

Would little Emily be less of a brat if she meditated? Could Billy be a better boy if he tackled his low self-esteem? Well, publishers think so. Eva Gizowska investigates the boom in self-help books for kids
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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time, if little Johnny was finding life hard, you would sit him down with a copy of Oliver Twist or The Little Prince and hope that he got the message. But we live in less subtle times. Increasingly, therapy-savvy parents are seeking out personal development books to deal with problems that arise even before the onset of the tricky teens. It's become such a phenomenon that children's self-help books are now one of the fastest expanding markets in publishing.

Once upon a time, if little Johnny was finding life hard, you would sit him down with a copy of Oliver Twist or The Little Prince and hope that he got the message. But we live in less subtle times. Increasingly, therapy-savvy parents are seeking out personal development books to deal with problems that arise even before the onset of the tricky teens. It's become such a phenomenon that children's self-help books are now one of the fastest expanding markets in publishing.

"There is a growing demand for self-help books that deal with children's issues," says Jenny Heller, non-fiction buyer at Waterstone's Books. "We're finding that, increasingly, children and parents are looking to them for guidance on everything from how to deal with bullying at school and exams, through to mind-spirit subjects such as meditation."

There are also guides to making friends and losing them; feeling scared, lonely, angry or bored; and coping with the pressure to be thin. Some are aimed at children as young as four and even Madonna has got a slice of the action with the publication of The English Roses, her morality tale that teaches children basic spiritual principles, such as not to judge people by their appearance. We haven't got to the point yet where children have designated self-help sections in bookshops but that day is not far off.

"We are so much more aware of the psychological needs of children, and this focuses interest on how certain problems can be prevented or reduced," says Paul Stallard, a child psychologist at the Royal United Hospital in Bath. Stallard won an award from the British Medical Association last year for his book, Think Good, Feel Good which uses cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to help children aged seven to 17 to deal with a range of everyday emotional problems. Exercises such as "positive self talk" encourage children to become aware of, and tackle, negative thought patterns that can lead to low self-esteem and depression. It suggests to its young readers that instead of thinking: "I've only answered one question, I'll never be able to answer all 10", to try: "That's the first question finished - now for the next one."

Some of these new therapy-in-disguise books are based around a story with a not-too-subtle message; others jump straight into exercises, activities, tips and techniques to help children learn to cope with different emotions. How To Take The Grrrr Out of Anger, by Elizabeth Verdick and Marjorie Lisovskis, uses jokes and cartoons to show eight to 13-year-olds how to manage strong feelings. Hands Are Not For Hitting by Martine Agassi teaches children how to channel their tantrums into helping, drawing or making music. While hyper children of all ages are the target market for Meditation for Kids (and Other Beings), by Laurie Fisher Huck.

Other books target children with more serious problems. An estimated one in four children experience mental-health problems including depression, out-of-control behaviour or anxiety disorder and problems are most likely to kick in between the ages nine and 12. Until recently, 11-year-old Lucy Bradley's (not her real name) behaviour was out of control. She had tantrums and would kick and punch other children at school. At one stage she was prescribed Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it didn't work.

Instead, salvation came from a self-help book called Bubblegum Guy, which is written by Joost Drost, a clinical psychologist at North Essex Mental Health Trust. Bradley joined a study by Drost involving 40 children aged nine to 13 with a variety of behavioural problems. The behaviour of 25 of the children improved dramatically. Drost's book has a number of exercises woven into a story, which combine a range of psychological techniques, including cognitive behavioural therapy and guided imagery. "The idea is to help children develop self-control, identify problems better and learn to relax," he says.

As might be expected, the children's self-help trend started in the US, which continues to lead the way. "But it won't be long before the rest of the world catches up," says Judy Galbraith, president of Free Spirit Publishing, the leading US publisher in this area. "Children are facing the same types of fears, worries and problems all over the world - lack of confidence, anger, frustration, isolation, bullying. Our books are being translated into 15 languages, including Chinese, Korean and Finnish. It is a very fast growing area."

A reader writes

Imogen McSmith, 12, reviews two of the best-selling self-help books

I read two chapters of Bubblegum Guy. This book began with a five-chapter-long story about a boy named Guy who was born with a piece of bubblegum stuck in his mouth. The story tells us about all the problems he encountered before an old man found him on the street and managed to get permission from Guy's parents to take him into the sea to learn to control his breathing.

A more realistic birth defect may be preferred by the readers of this book and obviously Joost Drost [the book's author] didn't think about the parents in this story allowing a stranger to take their son deep into the ocean without anyone else there to make sure he wasn't attempting something much worse than teaching Guy how to dive. She surely should have changed this to avoid conveying the message that it's safe to trust a stranger with your child.

I found this story confusing. It says Guy was born with a piece of gum inside his mouth, but why didn't they just take it out? And he kept blowing bubbles without meaning to but to blow a bubble with a piece of bubblegum you have to spread it over your tongue and blow. So how can you blow a bubble without meaning to? I think it's safe to say that I was not a fan of this story.

I also read "Activity 7: lessons in self-control" from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. It consisted of 20 strange and unusual exercises in self-control; such as tying a chocolate bar to a piece of string, sticking it to your head and walking around with it like that all day without eating it; also caring for an uncooked egg all day.

When reading this, I couldn't help thinking, "Who do they think is going to actually do these exercises?" No one would carry a chocolate bar on their head for a whole day without eating it. Nor would they put Smartie after Smartie in their mouth and never bite or swallow. It's just not going to happen. I didn't read all of this book (I have more interesting things to do in my life) but from the bits I did read, I would say it was complete rubbish.

Waterstone's top self-help sellers

Meditation for Kids by Laurie Fisher Huck, £3.99, Weatherhill Publishers An introduction to meditation and the workings of the mind

Nightlife edited by David Fontana, £10.99, Duncan Baird Stories to encourage calm, confidence and creativity

Over It by Carol Emery Normandi and Lauralee Rourk, £11.99, New World Library A teenager's guide to getting over obsessions

Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurie Krasny and Marc Brown, £4.99, Time Warner Illustrations and text on the causes and effects of divorce

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey, £9.99, Simon and Schuster Real-life stories designed to help communication

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