E is for Entertainment — And Empathy

by Linda Sue Park

Can books make readers better human beings? New York Times bestselling author and Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park believes they can.

When I write my stories, my first job is to entertain. If readers aren’t compelled by the story, they’ll close the book. (And if it’s assigned reading that they have to finish, they’ll hate the book!) No matter what else I want to accomplish with a story, it has no chance to succeed unless I can interest and engage the reader.

Let’s say that I have hopefully achieved that aim, and I’ve hooked the reader. My next goal is the same, for every one of my novels. I want to show young readers that life is unfair — and that it’s up to each one of us to try to make it a little fairer. Dealing with the unfairness of life without bitterness or vitriol is a crucial skill to learn, and a difficult one.

I also want young readers to know that as they learn this tough lesson, they’re not alone. I hope they’ll identify with the emotional experiences depicted in the story, no matter how exotic or unfamiliar the setting. I’ve felt that way too! is a powerful realization, a moment of recognition and connection, both of which are vital to anyone’s social and personal well-being.

Those moments are the first step toward empathy, which may be the most important emotion we human beings can experience. Without empathy, we cannot connect to those around us. Without empathy, acts of kindness are patronizing gestures that lack true meaning and depth. Without empathy, there is no lasting change for the better.

In my book FOREST OF WONDERS (The Wing & Claw Series, Book One), the main character is a boy named Raffa. He has several important relationships throughout the story, whether with family members he has known all his life or with people he meets for the first time. When Raffa has problems in these relationships, he must learn to see things from the other person’s viewpoint before he can reach a solution.

For example, his cousin Garith is a year older than he is, and handsomer, more confident, and more charming as well (not fair!). Raffa feels that Garith has everything going for him. Two-thirds of the way through the story, the cousins have a terrible argument. Raffa does not know how to make things better between them. He is stunned to learn that his cousin is envious of him — of his talent as a young apothecary. Only by trying to empathize with Garith can Raffa make a start at mending their relationship.

And there’s the most important thing about empathy: We might think of it as helping others, but most crucially, it helps ourselves.

When young readers empathize with a girl living in World-War II Korea, or a Lost Boy refugee from Sudan, or a boy character training to become an apothecary in a fantasy world, they are practicing for life. By reading, they learn that they have much in common — emotions, desires, problems — with characters who at first might seem quite different from themselves. Reading, especially reading books with characters whose lives are unlike our own, can make us bigger-hearted, more generous, more understanding of others. And every study on the subject shows that people more concerned with others than with themselves ultimately experience more happiness in their lives.

It’s simple, in the end. If we want kids to grow into adults who are both compassionate and joyful, we need to expose them to books in every way that we can: reading to them, reading with them, providing lots and lots of books for them to choose and read themselves. Filling our homes with books — free, from your local library! — and our classrooms too, is the most cost-effective and fun way to raise kids to be better citizens and happier human beings.

Linda Sue Park, recipient of the Newbery Medal for A Single Shard, is the acclaimed author of numerous books for young readers, including the longstanding New York Times bestseller A Long Walk to Water. Born in Illinois, Ms. Park has also lived in California, England, and Ireland. She and her husband, a journalist, now live in Rochester, New York, and have two grown children. Learn more at www.lindasuepark.com.

You can also watch Linda Sue Park’s TED talk on this topic here.

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