Building Empathy

Over the holidays I read Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead. Yeah, some of my stack books have been waiting for years.

It occurred to me as I read that the only thing better than experience for building empathy are good stories. Fiction must be part of the school curriculum. It is essential to building critical thinking skills and it lets students walk in someone else’s shoes.

Nonfiction is important, but it isn’t more important than fiction.

Liar and Spy gave me the same feeling I got the first time I read Harriet, the Spy. I’d never had the run of an apartment building and Harriet probably never watched her grandmother wring a chicken’s neck and fry it up for lunch, but we were the same kid anyway.

If we can’t travel, we can read. If we can’t meet our other selves, we can still find them in a book. Books in the hands of kids are as important to the future of the world as adapting to climate change will be.

Rural Oklahoma kids need to read about a boy in a Brooklyn apartment as much as they need to read about an Afghani girl who must disguise herself as a boy to work in the market. They need to read about a Sudanese boy escaping a civil war and a Midwestern boy surviving the Chicago fire, both coping with loss. They need to know the how and the why of a Somali boy on a pirate ship and of a young slave who will risk her life to learn to read. They need all this to see that we are all as alike as we are different, to understand how circumstances shape each of us.

As for Rebecca Stead, she deserves every award she gets. Read her stories for her storytelling skills and for literary excellence. You’ll even build your vocabulary. Painlessly.

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