The role of books in developing empathy and building emotional resilience in children

by Sam de Lange

At the start of 2016 I knew very little about emotional resilience in children. Things changed in November of that year when my friend, children’s author Jonny Zucker, took his own life. Jonny was an inspirational man who worked for many years as a primary school teacher before becoming a successful children’s author. Even as an author Jonny continued to work with schools up and down the country to promote a love of reading. 

After Jonny’s death we wanted to do something to honour his memory and to raise money for Mind, so that all those still living with a mental health problem could access the support they need. Together with Jonny’s family and Mind, we have republished a special not-for-profit edition of one of Jonny’s very best books, Striker Boy. We have turned the book launch into a mental health awareness campaign and as a result I have been immersed in the world of mental health for the last twelve months.  

I’ve learnt many things on this journey: one of which is the vital role of reading in developing empathy and emotional resilience. 

Experiencing the world through books  

Aside from those fantastic wiggly thumbs, empathy is perhaps the most significant characteristic of what it means to be human; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, even when we have not lived those same experiences. Not only is empathy key in developing morality it’s also what makes reading so engaging.  

Through books, children can experience the lives of millions of different people. Unlike television, which is a passive observation, reading is a distinctly active pastime. When you read a good book, you don’t simply observe the words on the page, you use those words to create every aspect of the story in your mind. You give those characters a room in your own brain, and as anyone who’s ever cohabited knows, it’s unavoidable that some of their traits will rub off on you. Personally, I often find that the protagonist’s mindset filters out into my own life long after I have finished the final chapter.

As a teenager, one of the books which contributed significantly to my own emotional resilience was BC Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’. Without giving the plot away, the book taught me that when life seems to be conspiring against you, you shouldn’t lose faith in humankind or allow the way you have been treated to become the way you treat others. 

This process of ’embodying books’ has two fundamentally important outcomes. Firstly, it develops and strengthens our sense of empathy. This is absolutely essential when it comes to removing stigma and prejudice. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred prejudice and stigma are just ignorance, sadly often willful. As the old adage goes ‘don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes’, books give us a chance to wear those shoes. Just to be clear, that’s a metaphor and obviously books make pretty terrible footwear. 

Secondly, books give us the chance to safely experience traumatic events. When pilots learn to fly, they start with the text books, then they hit the simulator, and finally they get to fly. For children especially, books can act as the simulator. In Striker Boy, the main character Nat loses his mother at a young age. This experience of grief is pivotal in shaping the life of Nat and his father. We all pray that children don’t experience things like grief, but many will and as adults we all do. Not only do books give children some, even if small, preparation for these emotions, but they allow children to see the full process. To see that these feelings won’t last forever and that it’s possible to come out of the other side stronger, and to use that experience as a motivation in life. Remember that first great teenage romance and how you felt when it ended, like you would never be happy again! Often in those times, it’s a great book that shows us there is light at the end of the tunnel, and gives us reassurance that things will get better.  

It is this combination of heightened empathy and preparation for life that I think makes reading so important in developing emotional resilience in children.  

 The Striker Boy campaign in aid of Mind  

Our understanding of mental illness is still in it’s relative infancy, but we do know that just as with physical illnesses there is an interplay between the chemical and the environmental. A healthy diet reduces the risk of heart disease, but it does not remove it, thousands of healthy people get heart disease each year. The same is true with mental illness.

Jonny Zucker and family

Jonny Zucker lived a good life, he was a beloved author and had a wonderful family. He inspired thousands of teachers and children across the country, and brought joy into the lives of everyone he met, but this did not make him immune to mental illness.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem each year. The money we raise for Mind through the sale of Striker Boy will help to ensure that all these people can access support.

Raising money for Mind is a great reason to buy Striker Boy, but it’s not the best reason. The best reason is because it’s a fantastic book that children will adore, and may be the one magical book that ignites a lifelong love of reading.

To support the book’s use in schools we have developed a range of free teacher resources including a pack of emotional resilience activities. There is also a national writing competition in which children can win some fantastic prizes.

Schools can order discounted class sets here.  

Striker Boy is ideal for children aged 8-13.

Finally, if you would like to find out more about the role of books in developing empathy in children check out the Empathy Lab.

This guest blog was provided by Sam de Lange from 2Simple Software and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Sam worked with Jonny for several years developing the online library Serial Mash. 2Simple are funding the Striker Boy campaign and Sam is the campaign manager. If you have any questions, please feel free to email sam@strikerboy.com

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