Empathy Day: A guest post from Susin Neilsen

I’m delighted to be taking part in EmpathyLab’s “Empathy Day” and to read about the great work they are doing.

Some days it can feel really discouraging, witnessing how quick people are to leap to outrage and anger, on social media and beyond. Some days it feels like we have a lot of truly terrible role models in our political leaders. We are barraged with their often narcissistic, cruel, self-serving ways; we despair as they belittle people who don’t agree with them, who stand up to them, or who are merely different from them in any way.

When they go low, it can be easy for us to go low, too. I’ve been guilty of it myself. And it’s why it’s more important than ever for us to work hard to  foster empathy in ourselves and in each other. It’s something we as individuals can do, to affect real, positive change. It’s empowering!

Susin Nielsen

Literature has always been a powerful place to foster empathy. Books are a wonderful place to explore new ideas, and walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, and see the world from a perspective not necessarily our own. It’s why I love reading (even more than I love writing!).

With my own work, I never sit down to write about an “issue,” because I think that would make my books boring. Instead, I start with a character. A kid who I begin to imagine in my brain. I want my readers to engage with that kid – to feel what they’re going through, to live their (sometimes harrowing) journey in the safe space of a book. So that by the end of the book my readers can care for and have compassion for a kid who is perhaps very different from them.  Or who happens to be homeless. Or a kid whose brother committed a terrible act of violence.

Sometimes, if I’m honest, I take on a certain story so that I can gain empathy for a person I never thought I could muster empathy for. For example, when school shootings occur, I never used to think about the perpetrator’s family, or if I did, I thought, “They are monsters who created a monster.” I wrote The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen as a way to dispel my own biases and fears in some ways, because I knew in my heart that there was no earthly way it was that simple.

I hope that readers have empathy for almost all of my characters at the end of one of my books. With the exception of one or two people who are, and remain, jerks, I hope that I slowly peel back the layers of the empathy onion on each of my characters, however flawed they may appear. Because – as one of my titles sums up rather neatly, if I do say so myself: We Are All Made of Molecules! 

A book I would recommend for #ReadforEmpathy would probably be The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, which I loved. Another would be S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits, which brought me into the world of a Muslim teenager and helped me gain some new perspectives.

This is a guest post by Susin Nielsen and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of FCBG. Use EmpathyLab’s Read For Empathy Guides for young people – 45 amazing books for 4-16 year olds. Please do join in on Empathy Day itself – 11 June – by sharing your #ReadforEmpathy books.

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