Empathy. I talk about empathy quite a bit. I remember my course if Literature for Children with Dick Abrahamson (some 30 years ago) and his lecture on why we share literature with children. The first reason was because it is FUN (and I still lead off my own course with that as well.), but soon after came the discussion of empathy. We share literature with kids because it develops empathy. Empathy is stronger than sympathy. I think many of us demonstrate sympathy readily. We offer condolences, express dismay. But those who are empathetic go one step further. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We don't just understand, we share. And in that sharing, something deeper occurs. Empathetic individuals do not act without considering the feelings of others. Empathy. How do we develop empathy through reading and sharing books?
Examples of texts that forge empathetic bonds between text and reader are too numerous to mention. However, I will pull a few into this post to illustrate the important role books play here. I think everyone who reads this blog has also read WONDER by R.J. Palacio (if not, please do take care of that ASAP). How can someone read WONDER and not FEEL what Augie must feel? There are few pieces of fiction that do not create some manner of empathetic bond with me as a reader. Even flights of fantasy develop empathy. In Patrick Ness' incredibly moving Chaos Walking series, I bond with Viola and Todd (Manchee!). In ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, I want to gather Anne in my arms when she loses her beloved Matthew. I bond with She-Who-Is-Alone as she becomes One-Who-Dearly-Loved-Her-People and with Max when eh wants to be back home where someone loves his best of all. I even bond with real figures from books: the Port Chicago 50, Claudette Colvin, Anne Frank, and more.
I think that each time we share a story with kids, we hold out the possibilities for those empathetic bonds to form, bonds that might pull them through difficult times, too. Instead of pushing kids to move to tougher and more challenging books all the time, perhaps it might be best to let them linger and hang out with Augie, Albie, Anne, Ophelia, and the other characters who populate books. I know that empathy cannot be measured, made more rigorous, or tested. But how much more important is it that someone be empathetic?