by Kate Milner
I was once asked what I consider to be the most important human quality. My answer was: imagination. I did not mean the sort of wild and wonderful imagination a writer uses to come up with new stories and characters, though I certainly value that too. I meant the ordinary, everyday imagination which lets us understand how another person might be feeling. Imagination was probably not the right word; a better one would have been empathy. Empathy is a really under-rated virtue because it is so ordinary, it is something our Mums do for us rather than our heroes, but it is the basis for kindness, sensitivity, generosity and caring. It provokes us to make connections, to reach out a hand to another. It also helps us feel entitled to ask for help from those around us. It is the glue that connects us.
Empathy is like a muscle that needs to be exercised, and reading provides the best exercise. Following Harry Potter, or Tracy Beaker, or Jane Eyre means getting inside their head and seeing the world through their eyes. There is so much pressure in our country at the moment to categorise people as “the other”, “the foreigner”, the “not-entitled”. Things might not be as bad as they were in the 1930s but the way the Nazis defined Slavs, homosexuals, gypsies and Jews as the enemy, the foreigner, the not-entitled is not a million miles from our own public discourse. That is why we should all be reading. No one who reads Anne Frank’s diaries can really believe a Nazi ideology, no one who reads Mark Haddon’s wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time can really despise people with autism. You cannot hate what you understand. In fact if you want to be a serious bully, or a racist, or an exploiter of other people’s bodies and minds then you had better avoid fiction, especially the good stuff. Stories, and the empathy they create, are a painless way of vaccinating our children against simple-minded tribalism that is so dangerous for our communal life.
I have frequently tried to talk about my book without being political but somehow I always fail. I wrote My Name is Not Refugee because I wanted to provoke children into thinking about what it must be like to have to leave your home because of war. I wanted to create empathy with the plight of refugees in a world which seemed happy to see them as a threat. To quote Donald Trump on the subject, “They’re not people they’re animals”. In the early days of working on the book I was contacted via social media by a woman who runs a nursery in Turkey, such a brave, energetic and caring person. Turkey has taken in more refugees from Syria than any other country and she explained how hard it was for the Turkish children in her care to understand just what the Syrian children, who now played alongside them, had been through. There was my challenge, a problem I could fix. A book can explain and start a discussion. It can get empathy muscles flexing.
For the past few decades we have been living with an ideology that sees society as a seething mass of isolated individuals who are driven to fight each other for dominance. It is such a banal and ridiculous idea. Watching people compete makes great entertainment. Who does not like to watch Strictly Come Dancing or the 100 metres Olympic Final? But if you want something done in the real world, from raising a building to raising a child, people need to work together and rely on each other. The every day business of being human means co-operation and that starts with empathy. So I hope everyone takes this opportunity to read for empathy. Think about the stories that have taught you something about human experience you would not have encountered otherwise. Add your own recommendations to #ReadForEmpathy on Twitter and explain what you have learnt.
Please do join in on Empathy Day itself – 12 June – by sharing your #ReadforEmpathy books.
How to join in
- Share ideas for empathy-boosting books using #ReadForEmpathy @EmpathyLabUK
- Use the free Read For Empathy Guide to 30 children’s books – at empathylab.uk
- Follow this blog tour to hear the powerful voices of the authors and illustrators involved
- Hundreds of schools and libraries are already taking part. Gt a free toolkit from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Use the ideas and free downloadable resources at http://www.empathylab.uk/empathy-day-resources
This is a guest post by Kate Milner, author of My Name Is Not Refugee. You can find Kate on Twitter here @ABagForKatie. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG.