I attended a conference yesterday for Empathy Lab, the new organisation using books to help children understand about empathy. One of the speakers was Prof. Robin Banerjee of the University of Sussex. He’s done a lot of work exploring the impact a lack of empathy can have on children’s social and emotional needs. One of the most affecting things he showed us was a diagram of a Y6 class’s friendship patterns (slide 4 on the study). Children were asked to nominate those they most like to spend time with. Instantly you could see the popular kids, the kids with a few friends and those without any (the ‘rejected’). These rejected classmates were shown by black dots and the diagram had two black dots – ‘Alex’ and ‘Emily’ with no arrows going towards them, even though their arrows reached out to others. No one wanted to spend time with them in other words. What must life be like for Alex and Emily? Why do they find it so hard to connect with others and vice versa?
Following Dr Banerjee was Teresa Cremin. Teresa did that thing – that magical thing – of reading a book out loud. She chose Nicola Davies’s King of the Sky. The way she read it made me want to cry. The lonely, nameless Italian boy with no one to talk to or look after him would have been a black dot on the diagram. He hadn’t done anything wrong; he just didn’t know how to communicate with his classmates (language barrier?) and they didn’t seem to want to communicate with him. As in many of Nicola Davies’ picture books, wildlife healed him. And as with many picture books, it was Laura Carlin’s powerful illustrations that made the story deeply moving, as well as Teresa Cremin’s skilful delivery.
So why was I there? Because Miranda McKearney of Empathy Lab approached the Patron of Reading gang, of whom I’m one, and asked if patrons might help deliver Empathy Lab programmes in schools. ‘After all, ‘ she said, ‘authors are the masters of empathy.’ She’s right. Our books are full of characters who are outsiders. From classic ‘loners’ to ‘oddballs’ to ‘geeks’ to ‘sociopaths’ – you name ’em, we’ve covered ’em. Why? Because they’re the most challenging to write and the most interesting to read. We’re also good at showing why these outsiders have no friends or don’t ‘fit in.’ What makes them so unpopular or alien? Are they simply vile people who don’t deserve to be liked? Sometimes, but then again Draco Malfoy is an extremely nasty character in the Harry Potter books and he has friends; Draco would not appear as a black dot on Dr Banerjee’s chart.
Then there are the issues stories explore. Bullying, homelessness, loneliness, racism, disability, sexuality, pollution, divorce, bereavement, animal cruelty… basically, whatever is going on in the world, books have got it covered. They don’t always have a happy ending – that would be fake – but they do, mostly, offer hope. That’s why books such as Wonder by RJ Palacio and Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian are so popular. They’re not easy reads but they show the reader that, no matter how bad things seem, there’s always someone or something to help you through. So it makes perfect sense that EmpathyLab would enlist authors to support the cause. Check out this list of ’empathy-boosting books’ here.
A brilliant example of why children need empathy skills can be found on this blog by a mum called Hayley writing about loneliness. ‘It started in primary school,’ she writes. The blog shows that the bullying Hayley endured at school has stayed with her into her adult life. What’s interesting and heart-breaking at the same time is the number of comments from others relating to her experience. Hayley could well be the Suzanne character in my book, Saturday Girl, only I hope I gave Suzanne enough ammo in my story to allow her to grow into a confident adult. Perhaps if EmpathyLab had been around in Laura’s primary school, she would have led a more emotionally-stable life.
So bring on the empathy and bring on using books and authors to show children how to make the world kinder, safer and a better place for us all to share.
PS: Sorry no pics with this post – my server won’t download any – back soon once it’s sorted.