Friday, 9 May 2014


Paula Rawsthorne discusses the importance of empathy in stories.


Over the last couple of years there has been research published showing that children who read books voluntarily (i.e. outside of set books in school) do better academically across a range of subjects.  However, reading books comes with a multitude of benefits aside from the academic.  First and foremost is the pleasure that can be gained from being engrossed in a great story but also, an important and powerful benefit is when a story produces empathy in the reader.

We may spend our whole lives trying to make sense of the world, however, the teenage years can be a particularly intense and questioning time and having powerful, accessible stories can help in the process of trying to understand ourselves and others.

Empathy is the ability to feel someone else’s emotions or experience.  The ability to cultivate empathy in the reader seems particularly strong in many stories written for Young Adults. 

Creating empathy can help break down prejudice and lazy stereotypes that surround us.  Within a gripping story, the best Young Adult books can create an emotional connection between the reader and the main protagonist (who is usually also a teenager).  The reader is allowed inside the protagonist’s head to feel what they are feeling and to hear their inner thoughts.  This can be especially powerful when the protagonist is in a place or situation that the reader has never experienced; this then offers the reader the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see the world from another perspective, to gain insight and understanding of why people may behave the way they do and so be more understanding and accepting.  It can also show that, no matter how different people’s cultures, upbringing or situations may be, there are also similarities between us and aspects that connect us.   

The YA books that do this successfully, do it organically, through the story and characters, without being forced, preachy or ‘worthy’.  The empathy developed when reading a powerful story can remain and hopefully, be carried over from the world of the book to be used in everyday life.

Here’s a small selection of the many novels YA readers cite as producing a strong sense of empathy;

The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

To Kill A Mocking Bird – Harper Lee

In Darkness - Nick Lake

Before I Die – Jenny Downham

Please let me know which novels you’d select and why.


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