A witch’s guide to bibliotherapy

What if librarians were really witches whose sole purpose was to magically put the right books into the right hands at the right time?

That’s the premise of a great short story by American writer Alix Harrow. The story, A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A practical compendium of portal fantasies, appeared in a recent issue of Apex Magazine. A teenage boy starts voraciously reading fantasy books, and the librarian knows that he needs to escape.

“There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches.”

Librarians of the second sort are able to tell what sort of book a person needs by “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine.”

Well, you can see why I like this story.

If you’d like to read it, head on over to the Apex site here: and there’s also an audio podcast version available here.

It seems to me that bibliotherapy is exactly the same as being a witchy librarian! In a spirit of biblio-witchy comraderie then, I reached out to the author Alix Harrow, to ask her some questions about her story and about bibliotherapy.

Questions for Alix:

It’s a beautiful story and you touch on a lot of themes. The importance of libraries, racial divisions in the American South, broken homes, the power of reading… How did you fit it all in without being didactical or creating a black hole?

Ha, thanks! I definitely didn’t sit down and think, “This story is going to be about escapism, stories, rebellion, and Kentucky’s broken foster system.” Themes like that just sort of pop up, zombie-style, as you write your story. I think King’s On Writing has something to say about that–how he doesn’t often know what a book is Really About until he’s written it, and reads back over it to see what kinds of hyjinks his back-brain was working on while he was focused on plots and characters. So, this story started with call numbers, and the super deep philosophical question: “What if librarians were like, witches?”

You say in your story that some people think ‘escapism’ is a mental failing. I love that you say that actually, escapism is magic, like true love. Do you think we need a bit more escapism in the world?

Absolutely. Although some people say “escapism” when they really mean “stuffing your head in the sand, ostrich-style, and hoping all the bad news goes away.” I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for that–I’m hoping for something a little grander and wilder. I’m cheering for the runaways and jail-breakers and con artists, the people who refuse to be hemmed in by all the ugly of the world.

When I told you about bibliotherapy, you said you’d been self-prescribing all your life without knowing it! What are some books you would prescribe to other people?

Oh, that depends! There are books I love–ardently, whole-heartedly, absurdly–that are actually not fantastic books, objectively. They’re just my books, books I read at some formative or critical point in my life, that imprinted on the inside of my skull, that I’ll be stuck with forever. So the only book I’d ever prescribe to someone is one of their books–something they read when they were thirteen that made them feel winged and weightless; something they read when they were seventeen and made them stop missing their stupid ex-boyfriend; something they read when they were thirty-something that made them feel like a fulcrum between the past and future, in perfect balance.

That, and the Vorkosigan Saga, because every person alive needs more fast-paced heartfelt space opera in their lives.

We all know that libraries and librarians are pretty amazing. But Alix, do you really believe in the magical power of libraries and librarians?

My closest friend and I write each other lots of emails, and one of our longest-running in-jokes is to say “Obviously I don’t believe in magic (I do), but it felt…” or “Now that’s all hokey superstitious nonsense (it isn’t)…” We both believe in magic, in our way, but it always has to be parenthetical, slant-wise, half-glimpsed at dusk. If you look right at it and ask it if it exists, it vanishes.