When you read, you become another person, if only for a short while. You see how that person lives and how they think. You experience their hopes and fears, and you see how they’ve come to be who they are. If you read five different books, you have a window into the lives of five different people. That’s what empathy is: to feel for that other person, and it opens you up to different experiences you may never have otherwise been able to share.
There have been numerous studies showing that people who read fiction have increased empathy. This is why fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have to combat bullying and intolerance.
When you see the world through another person’s eyes, you realize how similar you are to them, even if that person might seem very different from you.
If the hero of a story is poor, or bullied, or nerdy, or a refugee, you imagine what it’s like to be that kind of person, and you remember that next time you meet a person like that in real life. If there’s a kid in your class who wears shabby clothes, you may remember how Harry Potter had to sleep underneath the stairs, so maybe this kid is like that too. And just like Harry, there’s probably more to him than his outward appearance.
Fiction and Bullying
A lot of bullying comes from fear, and much of that fear comes from ignorance. This is why it’s so important that the fiction we give kids reflects the kind of diversity they will encounter in real life. We can even do this for early readers by giving them picture books that are inclusive of characters of varying races, backgrounds, and abilities.
For example, kids in 1st grade often read about community helpers (such as doctors, police officers, and firefighters), so we must make sure we’re giving them books that show our helpers in their true-life variety rather than a generalized or stereotypical view. Think about if kids only had access to books that showed white male police officers, and what a disservice that limited access does on every level. What we read becomes part of how we think. Fictional models that adhere to dreary-at-best, harmful-at-worst stereotypes rob kids of opportunities to grow, discover, and explore.
In a way, reading is practice for real life. If you encounter people who are different from you in books, you’ll be less surprised when you encounter them in real life. There’s safety in reading. Kids self-censor when reading a scary book: They know they can close it at any time. Through reading, they can control their exposure to things (or people) that make them uncomfortable, while still being exposed to them. If a child is afraid of going to the doctor or standing up to a bully, they can see how people in books have dealt with those situations. The ability to explore and rehearse in fiction gives kids the courage to explore in real life.