the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
"Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is an empathy engine." - Chris Riddell
If our wonderful former children's laureate is right (he is), every good book can help it's reader to understand and share the feelings of another because every good book introduces us to new and different characters. Whenever a reader immerses themselves in a new world, fictional or firmly based in reality, they open themselves up to the thoughts, feelings and ideas of another. For children, whose life experiences are limited by their years, books are the portal to limitless experiences that their short lives couldn't realistically provide.
And that's why EmpathyLab, a new organisation with a mission to use stories to help us understand each other better, have set up Empathy Day on June 13th. As well as encouraging everyone to share their favourite books which develop empathy with the hashtag #ReadForEmpathy they will be publishing their Read for Empathy guide for 4-11 year-olds - a selection of 21 books which help to build children's empathy.
In the wake of events such as the London Bridge and Manchester Arena attacks and their surrounding media attention, children need safe spaces to explore the issues they are faced with - that safe space can be found within the pages of a book.
With that in mind I'd like to share with you 6 children's novels that, as they feel empathy for book characters, will develop children's empathy for people in real life:
As featured in the Read for Empathy guide, this simple but wonderful story will leave you questioning where the line between reality and imagination lies. The reader joins Julie as she remembers how, as a year 6 child, she was brought into the fascinating world of two Mongolian brothers seeking refuge in Liverpool. The journal-like presentation and its Polaroid pictures bring the story squarely into the realms of a 10-year-old and provide children with the chance to understand from a child's perspective what it's like to be on the run from the authorities.
Set in Lebanon, this short novel introduces children to the life of an orphaned girl who, whilst in charge of her siblings and grandmother, navigates the bombed-out streets of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The horrors of being a child in a war-torn country are laid bare as Ayesha attempts to cross no-man's-land into enemy territory to find a doctor. At a time when children may very well be living alongside those displaced by war it is so important that books like this exist to help children understand what it is so many are fleeing. Elizabeth Laird's 'Welcome to Nowhere' features on the EmpathyLab Read for Empathy guide.
One of my favourite books this year, The Goldfish Boy, is also featured in the Read for Empathy guide. Set in a typical street in a typical English town is this mystery thriller for kids. It features no refugees, foreign countries or racism but it does feature a boy house-bound by his obsessive compulsive disorder. Whilst in the grips of a brilliantly-told whodunnit, children will gain a unique insight into the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness. Read my full review here.
My 7-year-old daughter loved this short book by Skelling author David Almond. It's a whacky tale describing a father-daughter relationship which is attempting to cope with the loss of a wife/mother. I suspect adults and children will read into this very differently but it is a great starting point for helping children to think outside of the box when it comes to dealing with grief and loss. The fact that this is also a very funny story is testament to Almond's ability to perfectly walk the fine line between contrasting emotions.
This easy-to-read story for year 6 - 8 children tells the tale of how a half-brother and sister meet for the first time, and how they learn to love one another despite their differences. Teenagers Andi and Bernardo meet for the first time when Bernardo, who at 8 feet tall is affected by gigantism, travels from the Philippines to come to live in London with his mum. The story weaves folk tales of giants into a story of modern life in two very different parts of the world and would be a perfect accompaniment to RJ Palacio's 'Wonder'.
Blurring the boundaries between fairy tales and real life, John Boyne, author of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', invites his reader to explore the escapist world of a boy struggling to come to terms with (spoiler alert) what turns out to be his mother's terminal illness. Written from an innocent point of view the adult reader will understand more than a child, yet it is entirely accessible to children at their own level. For those who long to use Patrick Ness' 'A Monster Calls' in the primary classroom but feel it is too grown up, this is the book you are waiting for.
I've chosen my #ReadForEmpathy books - what would yours be? Please share on social media using the hashtag.
To find out more about EmpathyLab's experimental work in primary schools, go to: http://www.empathylab.uk/empathylab-school-trial
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman