Empathy is a vital human force. One that creates happier children, stronger communities and a better world. It’s come into sharp focus during the pandemic and right now, we’ve never needed it more. Empathy is being able to imagine and share someone else’s feelings.
Empathy Day on 9 June focuses on how we can use books to step into someone else’s shoes. Scientists say that we can train our brain with stories – the more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.
Empathy Day was established by not-for-profit EmpathyLab, who are on a mission to inspire the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement. On 9 June, they will host a day of brilliant online events and home-based celebrations to help children READ, CONNECT AND ACT using empathy. Children can join in whether they’re at home or at school, and authors, illustrators, schools and libraries across the country will all be taking part.
To mark the countdown to Empathy Day, I have the utter joy of hosting Alice Oseman, whose book Heartstopper is included in EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy Collection, on my blog. She has chosen an extract from her book and is here to tell us why she feels it’s a powerful read to develop empathy.
From early 2016, when I first started planning Heartstopper, I knew that I wanted to show a coming out scene in the story. It’s a classic scene in LGBTQ+ YA fiction, and writers have explored all sorts of outcomes: good, bad, and somewhere in the middle. But I knew that I wanted Nick’s coming out scene in Heartstopper to have a positive outcome.
Much of Heartstopper: Volume Two explores Nick’s feelings about his sexuality. Prior to meeting Charlie, Nick wholly believed that he was straight; his new feelings for Charlie are a surprise, and, at first, they’re scary and confusing. It takes time for Nick to feel confident enough to tell anyone, even Charlie, that he’s bisexual, but through the events of the book, Nick slowly grows in confidence, and the book ends with Nick coming out to his mum.
Still, coming out to a parent is no easy feat! I begin the scene by showing how nervous Nick is. Throughout Heartstopper, Nick is shown to have a great relationship with his mum, but she doesn’t know that he’s bisexual and has a boyfriend. I show Nick’s dog sitting next to him for moral support while he builds up the courage to tell her!
The moment where Nick tells his mum that he has a boyfriend is a big moment, so I dedicated a whole page to it in this scene. I designed the page so that it feels like the world is exploding outwards from that statement, because in that moment Nick’s world really is exploding.
Nick immediately breaks down in tears, feeling a mix of fear of his mum’s reaction and relief that he’s finally been able to tell her. I wanted the reader to be feeling so much empathy for Nick here – he’s so terrified of her reaction and how this new information might change his relationship with his mum.
Nick’s mum’s reaction is the most important part of this scene. She thanks him for opening up to her, and then she apologises for creating an environment where it had to take so much courage for Nick to tell her.
This scene in Heartstopper is all about empathy. It invites the reader to feel empathy for Nick, but it also shows the reader an empathetic way to react to someone coming out to you. It questions why a family member or friend might feel so much fear about coming out to you in the first place – have you spoken about LGBTQ+ issues with them? Have you expressed your support for LGBTQ+ people in some way? Have you made that person feel safe and able to open up to you about personal issues? Have you made that person feel that you will accept and love them?
If more people in the world showed the empathy Nick’s mum shows here, or even more, the world would certainly be a better place for LGBTQ+ folks. So this #EmpathyDay, think about how you can show the people around you that you love and support them, even about things that they may not feel ready to talk about yet!
Prior to the big day, EmpathyLab are hosting a Countdown Fortnight on their social media channels (26 May-8 June). Highlights include brand-new empathy-themed illustrations from leading artists, short stories from favourite authors and video readings of empathy-boosting books and poems from the writers themselves. Families can also download a new Family Activities Pack, featuring 14 writing, drawing, crafting, listening and reading activities to do at home. https://www.empathylab.uk/family-activities-pack
Events on 9 June will begin at 9:30am with Children’s Laureate and best-selling author Cressida Cowell, who will introduce Empathy Day. The day’s activities, designed to introduce children to the concept and importance of empathy and how to put it into action, include:
- a draw-along with Rob Biddulph,
- a poetry challenge with Sarah Crossan,
- Empathy Charades with Joseph Coelho,
- exercises on listening with Jo Cotterill and Robin Stevens,
- an activity on putting empathy into action with Onjali Rauf and Sita Brahmachari.
Finally, an evening event with Cressida Cowell, Muhammad Khan and psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee aimed at parents, teachers and librarians will address the science that drives EmpathyLab.
If you’d like to know more, you can find the full programme here: https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020
A massive thank you to Alice for taking the time to write this guest post! Shining a light on empathy and some of my favourite authors is one of my favourite things! Go check out the rest of the Empathy Day Blog Tour and check out the amazing activities on Empathy Day!