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Books, Imagination and Empathy

Written on April 17th, 2014

“You don’t have to teach a child to care about the least of these, that’s something they unlearn later.”

Since attending this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Michigan, that observation from Mitali Perkins has stayed with me. I hastily jotted it down during a session called Writing Towards Justice, which brought together children’s author Mitali Perkins, novelist Uwem Akpan, and playwright Ashley Lucas, to speak about the challenges that come with writing about the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

All three panelists write with the hope of effecting change in the world, and each one had worthwhile insights to offer. As someone who works within the realm of Christian education, I found much of what Perkins had to say about writing for young people to be especially interesting.

Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that many teachers within the OACS community are eager for curriculum that will help students cultivate a concern for the destitute or overlooked members within our communities. Broadly speaking, I think a growing number of teachers within the Christian education system want to help students think about what it means to “live justly,” and equip them to look out for the people that Christ names as “the least of these.”

I suspect there were a few teachers in the room during the Writing Towards Justice session, and I wonder what they make of Perkins’ belief that children are wired to care about the “least of these,” and that the empathy resting in their absorbent, “sponge like” hearts isn’t necessarily something that needs to be instilled (or taught), but simply nurtured.

But how does a writer—or a teacher—do that well?

Although one of Perkins’ goals as a writer for children is to champion marginalized voices (while tackling issues related to prejudice, human rights, power and race), her foremost concern is to let story and character rule. She advises novelists to worry less about communicating a didactic “moral lesson” and more on creating stories that act as “windows and mirrors.” Ideally, readers should see something of themselves in the characters they meet (the mirror), while encountering realities that are outside of experiences they’ve had (the window).

Perkins believes this to be true for any good novelincluding stories of suffering. In her view, authors of such stories enact something she calls “imaginative empathy”—loving deeply and listening well to the communities that they’d like to write about, before offering an outsider’s version of things.

Perkins was addressing fiction writers in her session, but I think many of her reflections are relevant for teachers—especially ones on the lookout for new novels to use in their classrooms. As a student, some of the most meaningful learning for me took place through the reading of novels. This wasn’t because they spelled out a clear “moral” message, but because they were written by authors who listened well to and loved deeply within the communities they were writing about; allowing them to introduce readers to dimensional characters encountering fully realised challenges.

A few books that did that for me in school were Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which draws on the author’s own experience of growing up poor in Brooklyn, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck—an author who lent authenticity to his portrayal of the working class in California, by living and working among that community himself.

Although I’m not in school anymore, I consider it a gift that I can still read fiction, and allow it to restore the empathy that I may have “unlearned” with age.