There have been articles written and research performed in the last few years about how reading builds empathy for others. Parents, teachers, and readers know this is true – we don’t need research to tell us that. When I read books with my students in class, I can practically see their empathetic brain cells growing when they feel sadness or outrage for a character in a story. It’s great to watch them feel all the feelings with a character in a difficult or impossible situation, to watch these middle schoolers transform right before my eyes. There’s a saying about how people may forget what you say or do, but will always remember how you make them feel. My students never forget how things make them feel – they are chock full of BIG FEELINGS because that is just the nature of middle school kids. What a perfect age to tap into that bottomless well of emotions and pour in some empathy using stories!
Feeling big feelings can be fun, as well. It’s exciting to rage about something you’re passionate about, or feel anger and indignation for someone else’s situation. I have these things living inside my head that I call my Social Justice Monsters. I picture them as an angry mob of Muppet-like creatures in my brain who band together to shout curse words and other outraged nonsense whenever I read a story where something that is happening to the characters is NOT RIGHT or UNFAIR. My SJ Monsters frequently rise up and make some noise when unfair things happen in the real world, too. One thing that happens IRL that they love to be outraged about is a book challenge.
Book challenges really set off my SJ Monsters, mainly because if a challenge in a school district is successful, then students will miss out on an opportunity to read about someone different from themselves, or read about someone in a similar situation to their own, which builds empathy and acceptance in their young brains. All year long I keep up with book challenges that make the news across the country, and the ALA just released the list of most challenged books from 2015. The list woke up my SJ Monsters because the titles that make the list always seem to contain marginalized characters that are going through a tough time. I teach in a diverse Title 1 middle school, and most of my students have a very narrow life experience. We talk about books being windows and mirrors, but when a challenged book is successfully removed from a curriculum or school library, we cover a mirror and shutter a window for students. When we take stories away from kids, we lose an opportunity to build empathy in their developing brains. My students are going to grow up and live in a world full of people who have lived through or come from many different life experiences. If their empathy well is full, even when their personal life experiences have been limited, they are more likely to find and give acceptance as adults.
The parents who challenge books in schools are feeling a big feeling, too – fear. Parents are either afraid their children will be emotionally damaged OR that they will question and abandon the beliefs and values that have been taught in their homes. Movies are not challenged (usually). Video games are not challenged. The internet is widely available to kids on their smartphones, and that is accepted as a normal part of modern society. But books are powerful. They have the power to change people. On some level parents who challenge books know this, and they feel fear. My students may never travel the world or experience cultures very different from their own. They cannot travel back in time or know what it’s like to be in someone else’s life situation. The one thing they can do is read, and by reading, their empathy for others in situations they can never imagine or experience will grow, and as humans they will be changed for the good and will have the power to change their world. Students who feel empathy for others will be adults who promote equality and tolerance for all people living in our world. Reading can open the shutters on the windows, uncover the mirrors, and help students build empathy by feeling all the feelings for someone else.
And then, when my young readers grow up and spread their empathy and acceptance across the land, maybe, just maybe, parents will stop challenging books, and my Social Justice Monsters will shut the hell up.