Empathy is a vital human force. One that creates happier children, stronger communities and a better world. It’s come into sharp focus during the pandemic and right now, we’ve never needed it more. Empathy is being able to imagine and share someone else’s feelings.
The good news is that it’s a skill you can learn, and Empathy Day on 9th June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. Empathy Day focuses on how we can use books to step into someone else’s shoes. Scientists say that we can train our brain with stories – the more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.
Empathy Day was established by not-for-profit EmpathyLab, who are on a mission to inspire the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement. On 9 June they will host a day of brilliant online events and home-based celebration to help children READ, CONNECTAND ACT using empathy. Children can join in whether they’re at home or at school, and authors, illustrators, schools and libraries across the country will all be taking part.
I am delighted to be hosting a special blog post by author Vanessa Harbour about the importance of developing empathy for (and between) the characters in her World War 2 novel, ‘Flight.’ (published by Firefly Press, 2018)
Stories are a vital part of children and childhood. They might have stories told to them by caring people and create wonderful narratives with their imaginations when playing. As they learn to read, so they can get lost in their own wonderful books. It is through these stories that they learn empathy by having a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is also through these stories that they begin to work out who they are, and just as importantly, who they are not, as they ask questions of the narrative and the characters. Experiencing situations vicariously gives readers a chance to understand how they might react in any given situation too, increasing their empathy.
My novel Flight is a historical adventure story based in Austria at the end of the Second World War. There was a scene, which I knew when writing it that I had to get right. Jakob, the main character, is a teenage Jewish boy whose parents have disappeared during Kristallnacht, and we presume are dead. The reader so far has been able to empathise with him as they’ve seen a lot of what has happened. However, the reader doesn’t know much about Kizzy and her Roma past. She’s quite closed emotionally. In this particular scene she finally opens up and explains what happened to her parents. I needed her to let go so that the reader could understand exactly what she’d been through as it would explain some of her behaviour. Her parents and brother had been brutally murdered by the SS. She had only been saved by her father’s quick thinking telling her to hide up a tree though this meant that she’d seen everything.
As a writer, I wanted this scene to shake Jakob up a bit, to stop him thinking about himself, realising others have suffered too. Initially he is tentative about putting his arm around Kizzy’s shoulder, in a typical teenage, slightly embarrassed, boy way. However, when she starts to get really upset telling the story. He automatically puts his arm around her and asks her to stop, apologising for asking the initial question. He’s desperate to ease her pain. I wanted the reader to see they both had experienced loss but also that they were capable of caring a great deal.
Stories can encourage empathy like this because they help the readers to understand people better, to become aware of the feelings and emotions of others. Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence so should be nurtured; it is part of helping children to appreciate others. The more books they read with empathetic characters in the more empathetic they will become. It is understood that empathetic children will grow into empathetic adults. Books show us the world can be a better place and fill us with hope, showing us things can be different.
Check out #ReadforEmpathy for recommendations and share your recommendations for great empathetic books using the hashtag. Also join in the activities with @EmpathyLabUK on #EmpathyDay on June 9th.
Thank you, Vanessa, for that insightful piece. Stories like yours need to be told so that we can learn from the events of the past and try to understand situations from different perspectives.
If you want to take part at home, families can also download a new Family Activities Pack, featuring 14 writing, drawing, crafting, listening and reading activities to do at home. https://www.empathylab.uk/family-activities-pack
* The full programme can be found HERE https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020 *