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.
The good news is that it’s a skill you can learn, and Empathy Day on 9 June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. Empathy Day 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 Rebecca Westcott, whose book Can You See Me?, co-authored with Libby Scott, is included in EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy Collection, has chosen an extract from the sequel, Do You Know Me? and tells us why it’s a powerful read to develop empathy.
I’ve personally loved both books detailing Tally’s story as she moves from Primary to Secondary, and the daily challenges she faces along the way. Tally has autism and proud of it, but she wants everyone to see who she really is rather than just having their own preconceptions.
Both books are incredible for helping children and adults alike develop empathy and emotional literacy; they’re stories I recommend everyone to read at least once.
Books are brilliant at doing many things. They can open a window and show you a different world and they can take you on a journey. They can reflect your own experiences back at you and help you learn more about yourself. They are also one of the best ways to learn about other people. When Libby and I wrote Can You See Me? which tells the story of 11 year old autistic Tally as she starts secondary school, we wanted to create a main character who was fierce and feisty – and utterly identifiable. We wanted our readers to meet Tally and, by the time they got to the end of the book, understand her a little better. Libby wanted to write a story that would help other autistic readers to be seen while enabling neuro-typical readers to empathise with Tally’s challenges and hopes and successes.
In the sequel, Do You Know Me? we built on Tally’s story and introduced some new characters who, for different reasons, sometimes find things tough. One of my favourite scenes is towards the end of the story, when Tally’s friends have just invited a boisterous, noisy boy called Gory to join their group. Tally isn’t sure what she thinks about this. It’s taken her a while to find her own tribe of people and she wonders if it might be spoilt if they just let anyone join them.
“I don’t have to stay here if you don’t want me to.” Tally doesn’t notice Gory approaching and now he’s standing a few feet away from her, the tiny kitten in his arms. “I get it. This is your place.”
Tally glances over at him. He isn’t looking at her, his gaze is firmly centred on the wriggling bundle of fur that he is holding as gently as if it was an actual baby.
“I like you, Tally.” He strokes the kitten’s head with his finger. “You don’t look at me like I’m the most annoying person on the planet, and you’re not always telling me that I talk too much. I don’t have to pretend that I’m the same as you. I can just be me.”
It is not what Tally is expecting to hear and the words swirl around her head. She knows all about people looking at her like she’s different and acting like her different is somehow not right.
Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she does know Gory, just like she knows Layla and Jade. He’s just another kid, after all – trying to figure out where he’s supposed to be going when everyone else seems to have the map and they aren’t prepared to share it with you.
What I love most about this scene is that Tally sees Gory properly for the first time. She understands that he is more than a first impression and that he has his own story, just like she has hers.
Now, more than ever, we all need to have empathy. We need to try and understand how other people are feeling and listen to their stories. This year on #EmpathyDay share your own #ReadForEmpathy recommendations and don’t forget to tag @EmpathyLabUK.
For the first time this year, EmpathyLab will host its Empathy Day programme online to support families at home. Schools and libraries across the country will also be offering a wide range of home learning and story-time activities.
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, before rounding up the day with 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.
The full programme can be found HERE https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020