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Open a Book, Open a World of Empathy and Compassion

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This is a guest post by Echo Rue, a 2021 Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress, former school librarian, and graduate of the Master of Library and Information Studies program at the University of South Florida.

The theme of this year’s National Book Festival is Open a Book, Open the World, and the children’s books featured in it open a world of experiences to readers. Reading them transports us into diverse experiences and can build empathy and bridges of understanding across cultures and communities. Education researchers Heather Reed and Melissa Casswell (2021) define empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Their research supports previous research that suggests using carefully selected literature to discuss emotional responses and perspectives may be a tool for teaching empathy (see Natalia Kucirkova’s 2019 article “How Could Children’s Storybooks Promote Empathy? A Conceptual Framework Based on Developmental Psychology and Literary Theory” as an example).

“Open a Book, Open the World,” 2021 Library of Congress National Book Festival poster by Dana Tanamachi

Many of the stories featured on the National Book Festivals children’s stage this year involve children finding their voices. Some children, such as the main character of I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, are more sure of themselves and proclaim with pride “I am what I say I am” even in the face of fear. Their confidence models positive self-assurance. Other books share a character’s journey to acceptance of themselves and of loved ones, such as in the heartbreaking-yet-hopeful King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, Meg Medina’s Merci Suárez sequel, Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, and Lupita Nyong’o Sulwe.

Other characters demonstrate the importance of advocating for oneself and educating others, as in Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz’s The Chance to Fly. Some invite us to better understand diverse experiences, as in Brayden Harrington’s Brayden Speaks Up: How One Boy Inspired the Nation and Ann Clare LaZotte’s Show Me A Sign and in its companion, Set Me Free, which deal with themes of ableism and intersectionality and share aspects of deaf culture. Many of these characters also blossom by modeling empathy. They consider others’ perspectives and respectfully share their own.  As Sharice David’s Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman simply states, “I discovered the best way to learn about people is to listen to them.”

Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, has stated that a child’s library should include books that provide readers mirrors to reflect characters that are like themselves, windows into worlds of people who are different from them, and sliding glass doors to imagine what it would be like to exist in another’s world. These are concepts reflected within this year’s selection of books presented on the Children’s Stage of the National Book Festival and the overall theme itself.

Natalie Kucirkova’s recent research reinforces the need for diverse books specifically as windows to another perspective and experience.  Narratives dissimilar to a reader’s lived experience encourage both motivation to read, as well as develop an immersive “lost in the book” sensation, engendering empathy. While some, such as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, have been critical of empathy as a biased response or for creating too a narrow spotlight on a singular experience, the deep emotional responses a reader feels for a specific character opens their world to the potential for active compassion. As Kucirkova summarized, “… the cognitive resources that children need to employ to understand a protagonist who is different from their personal experience are higher than those required for identifying with a story character who shares their identity markers.” (2019)  Thus, as parents, caregivers, or educators who seek to nurture compassion alongside literacy development, choosing to include books to provide these windows is vital.

Junior Fellow Mary Murdock, compiled information about events from state and local affiliates comprising the brand-new Festival Near You component of this year’s National Book Festival. Participating states’ and territories’ Great Reads from Great Places selections also encompass a wide range of themes including friendship and compassion, helpful in selecting reading materials recommended across our country. Both of these links provide excellent book suggestions for building a home library collection for children or for the next story you might explore together at your next local library visit.

To read more about the role of empathy in writing, you can check out these past blog posts on encouraging young writers to find their voices and to read like a writer to find that empathic narration that envelops readers, pulling them deeply into a story.

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