What began in the cancer ward of a hospital is now a healing technique being used to help sick and traumatized children

She does not have a magic wand in her hand, but a bag full of colourful books, puppets and a flare for storytelling. Her words transport sick and traumatized children to the world of fairy tales and the animal kingdom, helping them forget their ghosts and their illness.

Vijaylakshmi Nagaraj who has been working with children in crisis and difficult situations for nearly a decade and a half says story telling has the soothing effect of balm on children and helps in relieving pain and healing wounds and scars left by tragic and traumatic events. She uses what is loosely called ‘book therapy’ to make the difference.

It all began in 1997-98 when she visited children undergoing treatment for cancer in an army hospital in Delhi. Her first thought was how to take them away their pain for at least for a few hours. She remembered how as a child when she was suffering from jaundice, her father’s friends would narrate stories to cheer her up. And she knew what to do.

She started by enacting scenes from story books in the hospital ward. “I would jump around like Jojo the monkey puppet or walk like Balaram the elephant.” It worked. The children enjoyed it. She recalls how Lakhbir who was exhausted after a session of chemo-therapy loved the story of the “monkey and the elephant and wanted to read the book”.

In 1999, Vijaylakshmi visited North Kashmir and introduced children to the fascinating world of stories in one of the schools, diverting their young minds away from an atmosphere of terror and violence.

The joy of storytelling to children was rewarded with smiles and magical words “please tell us more stories”. Vijaylakshmi, who has authored several books on children and conducted workshops for teachers on integrating storytelling with textbook learning, used this therapy on children when Tsunami stuck Nagapattinam. Vijaylakshmi went there with her books and puppets. Still in a state of shock the children were hesitant and took time to come out of their cocoon. But gradually, the colourful illustrations attracted them and they started reading and asking questions. The humour made them laugh, the mystery stories excited them, and the books on magic fascinated them.

Vijaylakshmi says, “The first step towards emotional healing had taken wings and the children wanted to fly like “Jhilmil, the Butterfly”. The book by this name is written by her.

It is through the same storytelling that serves as the healing touch to children in ashrams in the Naxal-affected Chhattisgarh. Anirban who works for a project by Metamorphosis says that they try to create a therapeutic environment to nurture the creative talent of these young children. “It is in this creative session once trust has been built that children open up and connect”, he says.

Mrinmoyee also working with children in one of the ashramshalas says the children are more resilient because their method of coping with such situations is creative. “They can quickly create games, songs and make up stories and drama.” Mrinmoyee says that listening to them is as important as storytelling.

Anirban recalls how during a session of ‘story circles’ the children described a thirsty bird and a boy in search of water flying up in the sky to create water from the clouds, as moving from despair to hope.

In Bhopal too book therapy is being used in many of the gas affected areas where even today the third generation children are suffering from respiratory and other health problems and are not able to join regular schools. Teachers and students of Anand Vihar School in the non-affected areas have joined hands with the voluntary organisations Sanjivini and Chingari who work amongst these children. The students led by their teachers visit the kids in their localities, hold story sessions, organise painting sessions and other activities to liven up the atmosphere. Teacher Suniti Jaitley says that these visits serve the dual purpose of bringing cheer to the lives of the children and also sensitising her school children to the suffering of others.

According to Ira Saxena child psychologist, writer and critic of children's books, psychological wounds are sometimes so deep and intense that they push children into what she calls ‘ the security of silence’ and therefore it is first of all important to comprehend what goes on behind the circumstance of the child and the psychological process of problem solving.

Books or the stories draw children out from the depths of their trauma, helping them to in interact with peers and ultimately facilitating them to settle in their circumstances.

Book therapy, she says, seems to have grown naturally from the human inclination to identify with others through their representation in literature and art.