If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
Atticus Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
As teachers and librarians, we know that a truly great story has transformative powers. The words take us to new places, expose us to different people, and give us experiences beyond our own lives. In so doing, a story has the might to develop empathy for humans whose lives are very much different from our own.
I believe in the power of a story to break down bias, cultivate inclusiveness and bring people together
In reading and sharing those stories, we often find ourselves transported into the shoes of another, and we rarely exit the pages untouched. For me, that is where the richness of a reading life finds its root. It is the power that digs deep in the soul.
I have witnessed a powerful story giving rise to a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of others. I have seen kids’ behavior patterns shift toward protectiveness and camaraderie after exploring a novel in which someone is bullied. I have helped teachers choose class read alouds that build community around a shared narrative. I believe in the power of a story to break down bias, cultivate inclusiveness and bring people together.
In our world, we need much more of that.
Simply by reflecting on my own practice with students and with stories, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that stories build empathy, but it recently occurred to me that I really do not know exactly how that shift happens.
As I began to explore that idea, I stumbled onto some fascinating research.
In 2013, P. Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp, researchers from the Netherlands, sought to answer the question of how reading fiction influences empathy. What they discovered helped me articulate the “how” of the work we do as educators to engage kids with transformative text.
According to Bal and Veltkamp, the key is in the transportation of the reader. When we are transported across time and space, we become engrossed in a simulation of a social experience and our emotions are triggered. Those emotions lead us to infer what the characters are “thinking, feeling or intending” which in turn gives rise to our taking on a character’s perspective. Once we re-engage with the world beyond the story, the newfound understanding of a different perspective is integrated into our own life and presents itself as empathy.
It’s worth noting, also, that Bal and Veltkamp cited the work of well-known psychologist Jerome Bruner, which articulates that it is the narrative structure of a text that has the potential for transporting the reader, and ergo making the empathy connection. Narrative nonfiction, therefore, also has the potential for building empathy as well. In the realm of nonfiction, biographies, memoirs and narrative explorations of distant people, places and cultures all have the potential to shift understanding and engage the heart.
In our modern world, it seems we could do with a bit more empathy, a little more understanding of perspectives different than our own. When we learn the stories of our fellow humans that newfound understanding lends itself to compassion, connection and grace.
I also ponder tying in the work of Rudine Sims Bishop—providing both mirrors and windows for our readers. To that end, I have begun the work of expanding the offerings in my preschool and elementary libraries to reflect the faces of my students. My students have taken notice of those titles, and there is this beautiful instant of joyful surprise when a kid who hasn’t been used to finding books with characters that look like her sees one on the shelf. It is an almost indescribable moment to witness—as if you can see her whole body open up, her head lifts higher, her back is straighter and her smile… there’s nothing like it!
But Sims’ work goes beyond the mirrors to include windows, a glimpse into the lives of others and the opportunity to understand another’s experience. Perhaps that is one way to bridge the divide.
Imagine the power of story that transports us into the shoes of a young black man—complete with the challenge to infer what he might be thinking, feeling or intending. Or a tale that shows us the life of an immigrant, again with the potential to show us her thoughts, feelings and aspirations. Consider the power of seeing life through the lens of a transgendered teen—the thoughts that flutter through his mind, the feelings that cross his heart and how he navigates the world.
Here are just a few of my favorite titles with the power to build empathy:
- “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers
- “I Am Human” by Verde
- “The Invisible Boy” by Tracy Ludwig
- “The Harmonica” by Tony Johnston
- “The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World” by Katie Smith Milway
- “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio
- “Save Me a Seat” by Gita Varadarjan and Sarah Weeks
- “Harbor Me” by Jacqueline Woodson
- “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds
- “Refugee” by Alan Gratz
- “Lily and Dunkin” by Donna Gephart
A great story evokes empathy—not of the I-feel-sorry-for-you kind, but the thanks-for-showing-me-what-it’s-like-to-walk-a-mile-in-your-shoes kind. It’s not about sympathy and pity, it’s about understanding. I’d wager to say, too, that in addition to finding empathy, we will also find common ground.