On a recent gray afternoon, during a desultory spin through the Twitter-verse, I came across a tweet that perked me up. It was from Sara Grochowski. To say Sara loves reading is to say flowers lift their faces to the sun. She and I have met at a few book events, and it’s been a deep pleasure to talk with her about my work, and to keep up with what she’s reading and thinking. (You can meet her yourself, at thehidingspot.blogspot.com or @thehidingspot)
The tweet I read the other afternoon said something like, “I always thought it was my parents who taught me empathy, but I’ve come to realize it was books.” This caught my attention for lots of reasons. One is that the need to see through someone else’s eyes, to walk in another’s shoes―lies at the heart of all my work.
Childhood is a self-centered time. Kids have an entire world to learn and process, so it’s no wonder that at first they put themselves at the center of it. Yet a baby gets upset when she hears another baby cry. The capacity for empathy exists from the very beginning, and in my books, that wondrous capacity is what makes characters grow and change, as they come to understand they’re not the center of the world, but are instead an essential, powerful part of it.
There’s another reason I loved Sara’s tweet. Even the best intentioned parents can’t do everything. Neither can teachers. A lot is up to our children themselves. For empathy to grow, they need experience. And next to real-life, a close second to actual experience, is reading.
A 2013 study published in the journal Science proved what most of us already know: reading good fiction increases sensitivity and empathy. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/
To read we need to understand motivation, make connections, note nuances, seek what’s beneath the surface. Picture books, where illustrations and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other, introduce this. And middle grade fiction? Over the last years it’s been growing ever more wonderfully, deeply diverse. A reader, safe in her own familiar world, can have lead many lives vastly different from her own. We’ve all had the experience of feeling as if a writer had x-rayed our hearts, eavesdropped on our thoughts. Reading makes us feel less alone, yes, but more than that. I love the phrase “lost in a book”. When we read about others different from us, boundaries fall. We lose ourselves to become those others.
These days, lots of people are fretting we need empathy more than ever before. I don’t think we need to worry. Empathy and compassion are essential parts of us all, seeds waiting to be nurtured. This spring middle grade writer Shelley Pearsall and I are lucky enough to be doing a workshop at the beloved Virginia Hamilton Conference. http://www.kent.edu/virginiahamiltonconference We are calling it “Seeking a Wider Window”, and we’ll discuss the challenges and rewards of being white, middle class writers creating characters with lives very different from ours. I’ll be sure to report back!
Tricia’s most recent middle grade novel is Every Single Second. The third book in her CODY series, Cody and the Rules of Life, will publish this April (and yes, one of those rules is to always ask yourself, How would you feel if it happened to you??)