Judging for EmpathyLab

Nicky Parker

By Nicky Parker, Publisher, Amnesty International UK

Today, EmpathyLab announces the 45 books chosen for the 2019 Read for Empathy Guides. I can vouch for them, as I was one of the judges.

I have to admit that there were times during the judging process when I wondered why I’d agreed to take it on. Reading and reflecting on over 70 books – on top of the day job – was quite a commitment. But my work at Amnesty has for years focused on the transformative power of children’s books, so this was a very tempting invitation.

And EmpathyLab founder Miranda McKearney is famously persuasive.

So I and the other judges launched into our reading.  There were so many submissions that we were paired off, each pair having a different set of books. Our recommendations were then analysed by the great minds at EmpathyLab and some weeks later more boxes arrived. And more. It was a big longlist. I comforted myself with the thought that at least I’d read some of them already.

From these we had to whittle down to a shortlist, always applying EmpathyLab’s criteria. Eventually all the judges met together in early December, hosted by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. Our books were spread out before us on a table groaning under their weight. We debated the merits and potential impact of every book, each judge bringing their own experience to the discussion. I’m sure we’ll all remember forever Paul Harris’ moving account of the profound and transformative effect of Kwame Alexander’s verse novel, Booked, on a young man with autism. Paul teaches at a school linked to a mental health hospital.

Eventually we agreed on a list that we then checked and rechecked to try and ensure a balance of author and protagonist gender and ethnicity, genre and subject matter.

At last we reached consensus.  As we surveyed the sweep of books before us we agreed we were content.

Why does all this matter? From my perspective, it’s because we know that good books – from picture books for tiny people onwards – build knowledge and awareness of the world around us. They entertain and take readers on an imaginative journey. They expand minds, raise awareness and – through the multitude of diverse characters and settings – they help us develop empathy.

It’s so much harder to engage with bigotry and hate if you can imagine what it might be like to be the other person. Empathy is the opposite of indifference and psychopathy and is vital to the upholding of human rights. At Amnesty we rely on people’s willingness to act in solidarity with strangers. Empathy is key to the social side of being human. It’s a first step in standing up and making a difference.

In 2019 children are experiencing toxic, hate-fuelled messages across the news, on social media, on the streets and in playgrounds. We need to equip them with the knowledge and empathy to stand up for themselves and for others.

EmpathyLab’s 2019 Read For Empathy list is a very good place to start.

This is a guest post from Nicky Parker and the views do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Nicky Parker, together with the other judges, Nicolette Jones, Jon Biddle, Paul Harris, Aimee Felone, and Farrah Serroukh chose 45 books to strengthen children’s empathy skills and inspire them to put empathy into action. There are 30 books for 4-11 year olds and a trial 15 books for 11-16 year olds. Both guides are available on EmpathyLab’s website. EmpathyLab saw an increased number of publisher submissions from BAME authors this year, resulting in 29% by BAME creators, and 44% of the books featuring a BAME protagonist or cast of characters.


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