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by | Dec 8, 2016

Developing empathy through reading

I’m a children’s writer named Anne Booth, and three of my books (with a fourth coming next year), each beautifully illustrated by Sophy Williams, form the Lucy series for Oxford University Press.

I’ve always loved children’s books, and really enjoyed selling them as a bookseller and studying them for an MA in Children’s Literature. I have four children, the youngest of whom (twins) are now 17. We still reference children’s books and characters in our family conversations, and many are called on again for comfort reads in times of stress.

Why did I feel books were so important for my own children growing up, and why am I so proud to be writing children’s books now?

Children’s books are fun, and they’re fun partly because they open up to us, in a safe way, through words and pictures, both the security of familiar worlds, and new worlds we might not otherwise experience. This in turn, researchers are finding, helps emotional literacy, and the development of empathy, which is essential both for the success of individual relationships, but also for a happy, cooperative and kind society. In books we meet new characters in situations unlike our own and experience a little of what other people feel. This relationship between empathy and literacy is explored in the Guardian article ‘Lost for words? How reading can teach children empathy‘ and by organisations like  https://www.empathylab.uk/ .

As parents, my husband and I knew reading would help our children to flourish academically, but most of all we wanted them to grow up to value kindness and to be kind, and so we wanted them to hear and read stories which reflected those values. As a writer now, I want to write books which children will love, and which will also make kindness attractive. I think the world needs kindness and kind people more than ever!

Empathy in the Lucy books

In the Lucy books, then, empathy is explicitly shown to be a good thing. The heroine Lucy herself is a very kind and thoughtful girl. She loves her toys and she helps her grandmother look after rescued wild animals  in her grandmother’s animal rescue centre.

In the very first book, ‘Lucy’s Secret Reindeer’ , the book begins with Lucy putting herself in Santa’s shoes and writing him a letter asking if he needs help. This empathy is rewarded when he, in turn, asks her to look after his smallest reindeer and make him better for Christmas.

I love hearing from children who after reading the book, have played being Lucy looking after little Starlight, or even being Starlight themselves. Starlight at first seems to be getting worse, not better, under Lucy’s care, but eventually we learn that the only thing which will magically make Starlight better is cuddles  – and that Lucy is particularly good at giving them. Starlight thrives when Lucy realises that all she needs to do is to show him love, and that is something anyone of any age or academic ability can be good at.

Although the following books in the series, ‘Lucy’s Magic Snowglobe’ and ‘Lucy’s Winter Rescue’ have real animals (a wild rabbit and a wild otter) in, and real information for animal-loving readers about them, the theme which runs through all the books is still the importance of kindness. Lucy has no problem empathising with a hurt rabbit, but she has to learn how to empathise with an unwanted human visitor, and although she wants to keep the baby otter for her own pet, she needs to think where he would be happiest, and use the magic snow globe to wish, empathetically, for the best thing  to happen for him.

I’ve enjoyed putting Lucy in the context of an ordinary, squabbling but loving family, and I am particularly fond of her football- mad big brother, who seems at first to not be very empathetic, but shows throughout the books that kindness is not confined to gentle little girls.

Readers of the Lucy books will find a Christmas full of magic but also baking, football, TV, family meals, card making, present giving (including books!), carol singing, visitors, and the love of friends, family, animals and toys!

Anne Booth’s book recommendations

Please note: all book links lead to more information on Amazon.co.uk

There are so many wonderful books out there, and all encourage empathy in one way or another just by involving the child reader in a set of experiences other than their own. My daughter loved ‘Abela’ (about a refugee girl from Tanzania and a girl from Sheffield ) and ‘Street Child’, (about a Victorian child) both by Berlie Doherty.

Shirley Hughes Collection

Shirley Hughes

I think the Shirley Hughes books are great for teaching empathy both by words and pictures because there is so much kindness in them. Shirley Hughes herself has great empathy with small children and how important things like putting shoes on the wrong feet are (Alfie’s Feet) – when ‘Alfie Gets in First’, for example, we see things both though the illustrations and the words, both from the perspective of Alfie, locked indoors, and the adults locked out, so even before they can read, the child onlooker can learn to see different people’s experiences through the pictures. ‘Dogger’ is a wonderful example of empathy in action, when a big sister gets a loved toy back for her little brother, and in her Trotter Street series we see a multicultural neighbourhood and so children are encouraged to identify with families who may or may not be part of their own culture.

Buy on Amazon >

Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat

Ursula Moray Williams

A magical book I loved as a child and then recommended to my children was ‘Gobbolino’ by Ursula Moray Williams, about a kind little witch’s cat who is trying to find a home. I empathised with how lonely he was and how he wanted to change.

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My Henry

Judith Kerr

One which encourages empathy with people who are older is ‘My Henry’ by Judith Kerr. It is a beautifully illustrated and tender story about an elderly widow and how people don’t understand what she is really thinking about. It teaches young children to empathise with someone with a vastly different life experience to them, and is lovely.

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Edwardo the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World

John Burningham

A picture book which helped me as a parent, and helped me empathise with how children can be labelled as ‘naughty’ and then trapped into living up (or down) to our descriptions of them, was ‘Edwardo the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World’ by John Burningham. It actually made me cry and vow to make much more effort to praise my children. It is also, I am glad to say, very funny and full of brilliant illustrations, so lovely to share with a child.

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Anne Booth

I wrote this picture book, illustrated so beautifully by Sam Usher. We are trying to raise money for child refugees being helped by WarChildUk , and by telling the well known Christmas story and the flight into Egypt through the perspective of the donkey, we are trying to raise empathy for today’s refugees. I have found that very small children respond to the words and Sam’s lovely illustrations, and enjoy imagining welcoming the family and chatting to them after their long and dangerous journey.

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