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.

(Next page: Boy versus girl fiction; embracing diversity)

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Boy Books’ and ‘Girl Books’

Students’ fictional explorations can sometimes be limited by societal pressures.

One thing I’ve encountered a lot is the gendered expectations imposed on kids (especially boys) when it comes to choosing reading material. Girls who are voracious readers are still considered to be “normal,” but a boy who is voracious reader is viewed as wasting his time, or acting childish when he should be out doing something more productive.

There’s still a mindset that “boy books” have to be action-packed with little to no emotion, while “girl books” are more emotional and relational. However, at the events I’ve done, I’ve had boys tell me they like emotional books, and girls say they like action books. I think our society is beginning to realize this and move towards declassifying certain books as “boy books” or “girl books,” but there is still plenty of room for growth.

For instance, I was volunteering at a Back to School book event at a department store when I saw a family come in with two young boys dressed for baseball practice. There was a popular book series at the time called The Sisters Grimm (like the Brothers Grimm, but with a pair of girls instead). When the younger boy got excited about seeing this book series he liked in the store, the father insisted that those weren’t the kind of books he should be reading.

When we limit children to what kind of books they are “allowed” to read because of their gender (or other factors), we are limiting their ability to experience the world from a different point of view, a point of view that may teach them something incredibly valuable.

Embracing Diversity

Despite instances like that, I still believe our culture is moving in a very positive direction when it comes to encouraging children to read and explore a variety of books from a variety of viewpoints. I see a growing desire for diverse characters in books—which my publisher, Capstone, embraces fully—and more openness to let children read the books they want, regardless of stereotypes.

One thing I love about writing (and reading) children’s fiction is that it’s so optimistic. The characters are admirable, good is rewarded, and there’s this sense of innocence and wonder that reflects what children are like as a readership. They engage so intensely with the stories they read, because they’re still eager to learn and excited about reading.

That’s how I know that fiction can make a difference when teaching children how to treat each other. When children see our diverse world displayed in the fiction they read, they learn that we’re all not that different from each other. When they see how the heroic characters they act towards others, they begin to find the hero within themselves, who is full of empathy, compassion, and respect.

About the Author:

Michael Dahl is the author of more than 100 books for children and young adults, specializing in the mystery and creepy fiction genre. He speaks at schools, libraries, and conferences across the country, and has been a featured speaker at ALA, AASL, NYAEC, TLA, NOLA, EncycloMedia and IRA. He is a three-time winner of the AEP Distinguished Achievement Award. Find him online at michaeldahlwrites.com.