The power of reading for empathy

The power of reading for empathy

By Nikki Gamble

It seems that there was never a more important time or a greater need to develop children’s empathy – the ability not only to feel but also understand different points of view, the need to recognise social injustice, and most importantly to have the drive to effect change.

When I was in primary school, one of my favourite stories was Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. I looked forward to my Dad reading to me each evening, and my most frequent request was for the story with the nightingale. If you know the story, you will know how poignant and how painful it is. A young student wants a red rose to woo his beloved, but as there is no red rose in his garden, he laments and weeps and writhes his hands. A nightingale listening to his woes determines to find a red rose, but when it becomes clear there is no red rose to be found, she pays the ultimate sacrifice, pushing her breast against the thorn of a white rose bush until the rose turns red, and her life expires. The student can’t believe his luck when he finds the rose the next morning, but when he presents it to the object of his desire, she tosses it to one side with disdain. I wept and wept for that nightingale, yet still I kept requesting the story. And even now I vividly recall the hurt. ‘I will never treat anyone like that!’ I cried to my Dad.

Lessons learnt from stories are powerful and lasting. Stories are the ideal vehicle for starting conversations which can nurture empathy because they invite readers to step into the shoes of characters, to see and to feel the world from an alternative perspective.

Written by top children’s authors including Jamila Gavin, Jo Cotterill, Jim Eldridge, Kaye Umansky and John Dougherty, Treetops Reflect is a collection of stories written with heart. The series features emotionally compelling stories that connect children to significant issues in their lives and promote positive values such as kindness, caring, respect and intergenerational understanding.

Some of the stories deal with everyday issues. In Geeks Can’t Dance by Jo Cotterill and Stage Fright by Jane Lawes, the main characters learn about the struggle to maintain friendships as children transition from the upper primary years to secondary school, a time of change and transformation where many children switch friendship groups and some friends get left behind. It’s a difficult time when emotions are fragile.

One of the places where we might begin to learn about empathy is within our own families, fostering connections between generations rather than allowing chasms to open up between the young and old. In Terrible Tales from School by Kaye Umansky and Skyward Bound by Matt Ralphs, the young protagonists discover more about the lives of older generations and develop a new-found respect.

Stories also have the unique capacity to move beyond our own direct experience and to teach us about other lives. In Adam’s Diary by Michaela Morgan, Adam is a refugee trying to start a new life in a new country and experiencing the challenges of adapting to a new culture. And in Ethan the Great, Jon Blake tells a story about a football-loving boy with cerebral palsy and his cousin Nerys, as they investigate a newspaper story.

As teachers will know, the real potential for developing empathy comes not only from reading stories but from talking about them too. It’s easier to empathise with main characters, but take time to consider the viewpoints of minor characters (often parents) or consider the reasons for unlikeable behaviour and what might be done to effect change here. Encourage children to talk in pairs and small groups or take on the role of characters through improvisation or hot seating. Use this to generate discussion and draw up an individual or class set of positive actions.

It’s always a privilege to have the opportunity to work with writers who are passionate about their stories and in the Treetops Reflect collection, use narrative power to communicate positive and empowering messages.

Nikki Gamble is the Founder and Director of Just Imagine and Series Editor for TreeTops Reflect. Formerly a teacher and teacher trainer, Nikki has has worked extensively in schools across the UK and internationally and is passionate about the teaching of reading and writing.

More empathy-boosting resources:
Read Miranda McKearney’s blog on Empathy Day 2020
Find out more about TreeTops Reflect