emp day

With ‘Empathy Day’ fast approaching on June 9, I thought we could explore the relationship between reading and empathy and have a look at some of this year’s #ReadForEmpathy recommendations from Empathy Lab UK.

What is Empathy & Empathy Day?

Empathy Lab UK describe empathy and the purpose of ‘Empathy Day’ as follows:

Empathy is our ability to understand another person and feel their emotions. It’s a force for change because it makes us want to help people. 

‘Empathy Day’ helps us understand each other better by using books to step into someone else’s shoes. When you read, your brain reacts as it would to real events. This makes books the perfect empathy boosting vehicle. Train your brain with stories!

I think that reading is such a great force for teaching empathy, not only because I have read the research but because every time I’m angry or sad because of a plot line in my book or I smile at an ending, I am relating to those characters, feeling what they are feeling and understanding things from their perspective. Reading allows us a window into other people’s lives and experiences, whether fictional or real – it gives us the opportunity to experience something outside of our frame of reference and we can start to imagine how others might live, think and feel.

Here’s a few links to some of the research on the subject, for those who are interested:

Research Bank – Empathy Lab

Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?  – BBC article from May 2019

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improved well being– The Reading Agency

Before we move on to some recommended titles, I thought it was worth saying that I actually think that all stories help teach empathy. Reading with children, even in their earliest days, can start the development of empathy with others. Picture book stories about love and friendship, featuring characters that don’t judge others by appearances, who help look for lost toys and look after others when they are scared of the unknown demonstrate empathy.

My son said recently that the best books were the ones that were packed full of feelings and I couldn’t agree more. Have you ever been in a bad mood because you’re annoyed with a character in a book? How about so sad or moved by the events in a book that you’re still thinking about the story for months, even years after you have read it? ‘Wuthering Heights’ is that book for me – I can’t stand all the angst, cruelty and misunderstanding and yet I think it is one of the most gripping, visceral love stories ever written! I love and hate it and whilst I feel sorry (and sad) for Cathy, I emphasise mostly with Heathcliff, strangely.

Books for Younger Children

As mentioned above, books aimed at children can tell fantastic stories with empathy and communicate important lessons through their words and pictures. I do, of course, have some picture book recommendations for you – some of which have been included in the ‘Empathy Day’ collections bought together for this year’s celebration (or last year’s)  – browse the 2020 Read For Empathy Collections here.

  • The Pip and Posy series by Axel Scheffler – these stories are gently told but really focus on feelings and help youngsters not only to understand their own emotions but to consider those of others.
  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
  • Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour – watch Wendy reading this on Youtube
  • I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst (obviously this title goes against all my sensibilities but it would be churlish to leave it off my list just because of that…)
  • Super Duper You by Sophy Henn – watch Sophie reading this on Youtube for ‘Empathy Day 2020’.

These are but a few! There are so many to choose from and I’m sure most of you could recommend a couple just from your own childhood – books that spoke to you when you were younger. A great example for me is Eeyore from ‘Winnie the Pooh’. I am always sad when I think of Eeyore – I remember the story of him not getting any birthday presents and then his balloon bursting!

Books for Children and Young Adults

Moving on to Children’s and Young Adult Fiction where again, I do think that just about every book written teaches us something of empathy, I also recognise that some do more than others! The books pictured above are all from the 2020 ‘Read For Empathy’ collection and are available in eBook format on BorrowBox.

The book from this list that spoke to me the most is ‘Somebody Give This Heart a Pen’ by Sophia Thakur:

“From acclaimed performance poet Sophia Thakur comes a powerful first collection of poems exploring issues of identity, difference, faith, relationships, fear, loss and joy. Intricate, evocative and dazzling – these are poems that explore the experiences that connect people; they encourage readers to look within and explore the tendencies of the heart.”

I don’t say this lightly when I say that I was genuinely blown away by this collection after hearing Sophia reading some of her poems in November 2019 and subsequently reading the whole collection. I have a strange relationship with poetry and it is not that often that I get excited about modern collections (Silly Rhymes and new editions of old masters excepted) and I like this book so much I actually own a copy!

All of these titles are powerful ones, even ‘Charlie Changes into a Chicken’, which might seem like the odd one out from the outset but is actually a really clever study of stress and anxiety:

“Every time Charlie is stressed or worried, he changes into an animal, with hugely inconvenient consequences. Highly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud read – an easy way to open up an exploration of what anxiety feels like.”

We have arrived at the end of this foray into reading and empathy and I just wanted to give an honourable mention to some authors who I believe always fly the flag for empathy. I would recommend all of their books to you: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Robin Stevens, Bali Rai, Anthony McGowan, Matt Haig, Malorie Blackman, Joseph Coelho and Jacqueline Wilson. I won’t give specific recommendations as I don’t want this post to be too long but you’ll find a selection of their titles available on BorrowBox so you can dip into their writing straight away!

I’ll be back soon – keep on reading and increasing your empathy. I would love to know which one book you would recommend to me on this theme (leave a comment or send a #ReadForEmpathy tweet to @warkslibraries.)