We’re living through a historical moment unlike any other I’ve experienced before in my (almost) thirty-five years on the planet. The leader of the free world is a man remarkably devoid of empathy. Maybe it’s no surprise that he’s not a reader. Aside from getting to know people from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, how else do we cultivate empathy—in ourselves and in others—than by reading?
This summer, I was fortunate to attend Nerd Camp MI, an annual gathering of teachers, librarians, and authors, in Parma, Michigan. Along with 4 other authors—Brooks Benjamin, Abby Cooper, Elly Swartz, and Elaine Vickers—and Sandy Otto, a teacher and our moderator, we led a discussion on how fiction can be used to promote empathy in the classroom.
Our discussion illuminated that an empathetic reading experience can come about in a variety of ways. There are books that have been widely utilized for this very purpose—most notably Wonder by R.J. Palacio, though it is not without its faults, as many disabled authors and disability rights advocates have pointed out—as well as texts that leave their imprint on the reader in less didactic ways. Books that engender empathy simply by letting us vicariously experience a character’s hardest times—for example, Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin, which allows a reader to learn what it’s like being a sibling to another child with cancer.
Many #ownvoices books came up in our discussion—including Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia, The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla and Amina’s Voice by Hema Khan. We also discussed books that involve a main character on a journey toward becoming a more empathetic person, as in my newest book 14 Hollow Road, where the main character Maddie is at first so focused on the loss of her home that she neglects to notice the pain and suffering of a friend whose family is not so lucky to be able to rebuild and will also have to change schools, on top of everything else.
The small and large ways in which books can engage readers to becoming more empathetic have stuck with me long after Nerd Camp, and when I checked back in with Sandy Otto recently, I found that her experience was similar. She shares, “As a classroom teacher, I was reminded that it’s not always my job to decide which book will appeal or have a positive impact on a specific student. Students will learn empathy through exposure to, and conversations related to, characters in different tough situations. We don’t always know what a child is dealing with in their personal life. Before, I used to think I had to have just the right book for every student at just the right time. However, now I have a better understanding of the need to just have these kind of books available for students to choose as they needed.”
I think what Sandy’s getting at, and what I have been thinking over the past few months, is the way in which no one single book can provide that enriching, empathic experience for young readers. (Sorry, Wonder.) But rather, that for each kid in the right moment, the right book may provide the window into an experience that will enlarge his or her empathic ability. It’s impossible for a teacher or librarian to always know which books to provide at the right time. There’s so much going on in a child’s life that they, or their parents, may keep privates for a variety of reasons. And for that reason, as Sandy said, have a wide range of diverse titles is key.
I keep thinking about two books I’ve read in the past few months that delve into tougher topics for middle grade readers: The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott and All Three Stooges by Erica Perl. Each author takes a slant approach to two of the toughest topics out there. From the point of view of a close friend, they delve into, respectively, sexual abuse and a parent’s suicide. Instead of approaching the topic head-on, they add in a level of distance, removing the immediate trauma from the reader’s POV, and allowing the reader to instead take the empathic journey of a close friend as he tries to understand what his own friend is going through. Perl’s note to the reader at the end of the text speaks volumes. She noted that she hoped her book would provide comfort to kids going through a loss, but that, for each kid, there’s a much wider circle of friends and classmates, who are one more step removed but trying to understand.
In my own writing, for reasons still unclear to me, I find myself circling some of the same themes—loss, displacement, secondary trauma. As a young reader, those themes drew me to the books I cherished most of all, whether it was A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, or L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. These books broadened my understanding not just of the world, but of the human condition. They made me empathetic for a younger sister struggling with her older sister’s illness, for a young girl grieving her mother, and for an orphan with hair the color of carrots.
As an adult, the books that draw me in are still those that provide a window into an experience unlike any I’ve had so far. The fact that the publishing world has in recent years made a more active effort to embrace and publish stories from a wider range of authors only gives me more hope for the future, and for the readers that will be impacted by these stories to themselves become more capable of understanding another’s point of view. If there’s anything the world needs now, it’s not platitudes about kindness but a deepening well of understanding.
Jenn Bishop, a graduate of VCFA and former librarian, lives in Cincinnati, OH (Go Bearcats men’s basketball!). Her two middle grade novels, The Distance to Home (2016) and 14 Hollow Road (2017), are published by Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House. The Distance to Home was named a Junior Library Guild selection, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year title, and a finalist for the Iowa Children’s Choice Award. Find her on Twitter as @buffalojenn, or through her website, http://www.jennbishop.com.