The 2016 summer reading assignment for Whitman College freshmen is to read the book Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It is a collection of essays that explore empathy, beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. Jamison’s essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: Why should we care about each other? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? How can my child become more empathetic? How important is reading fiction in socializing children? How does reading literature move people in a different way than non-fiction reading?
Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. And a Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva, professor of education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think.” Finding the right book is the first step to helping children understand what their peers may be thinking and feeling.
I once had a father who wanted a book for his young son who was starting to bully another boy in preschool partly because the new boy was from another country. I came up with I’m New Here by Anne O’Brien, in which three children from Somalia, Guatemala, and Korea struggle to adjust to their new home and school in the United States. It is positive and uplifting, as they do all make new friends and succeed at the end of the book.
The book that I thought of after the father had walked away was Children Just Like Me by Anabel Kindersley. Photographs and text depict the homes, schools, family lives, and cultures of young people from around the world. Children will enjoy reading about the dreams and beliefs, hopes and fears, and day-to-day events of other children’s lives. Children are encouraged to participate in a special pen pal arrangement, so they may share their own experiences with children in other countries.
Another book along these lines is A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World by DK Publishing. Wonderful photos show children from all over the world leading their lives in completely different and fascinating ways. They speak different languages, look different, and face all kinds of challenges every day. Although they live thousands of miles apart, in so many ways their needs and hopes are alike. Meet these special children in this book and other books created by UNICEF and DK Publishing.
A fascinating ‘look-at’ book is What the World Eats by Peter Menzel. This is a photographic collection exploring what the world eats featuring portraits of twenty-five families from twenty-one countries surrounded by a week’s worth of food. The resulting family portraits give an interesting glimpse into the cultural similarities and differences served on dinner plates around the world.
One of my favorite picture books is Stella’s Starliner by Rosemary Wells. Stella is perfectly happy living in her silver home until a group of weasels tease her for living in an air stream trailer. Her bubble is burst but her parents help her by moving the trailer to a new setting where she meets two bunnies who think that her home is awesome and that she must be really rich to live in a silver home. You’ll just love Stella and her story.
Last Stop on Market Street won both the Caldecott Honor Award and the Newberry Medal this year. Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don’t own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty–and fun–in their routine and the world around them.
Reading is a great way to understand another’s situation or feelings. When you read, you walk a mile in another’s shoes and get an idea of his feelings and situation. I hope that these books (and others that we have at the library) will help your child empathize with others.