From My Naughty Little Sister to Boris Johnson – How to Grow Your Own Empathy

When I was little, I absolutely loved My Naughty Little Sister books by Dorothy Edwards, beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes – perhaps because I was a (not always that naughty) naughty little sister myself.

But aside from tales of her antics with Bad Harry, the story that has always stuck with me is The Little Book Boy, in which my naughty little sister is given a story book treasured by her Aunt. My naughty little sister is shocked to hear the little boy in the book has nothing to eat “no breakfast, no dinner, and no supper!” she repeats over and over again, saddened by the picture of him all alone in the corner of his room, next to an empty plate.

My naughty little sister is so touched by the boy’s plight, that she thinks up a solution to his problem all by herself: she gives her own supper to the little boy, by secretly pressing her slice of bread and butter into the pages of the book. It means that the book gets a bit greasy and crumby, but at least the boy now has something to eat.

When I was little, I remember thinking this was a pretty wise thing to do. I mean, I knew it was a bit naughty as it ruined the book, but it also seemed very sensible to me to share what you have with someone who has less.

This week I came across EmpathyLab UK who have just launched this year’s Read for Empathy collection, 50 books for 4-16 year olds, each selected to do a specific job in building young people’s ability to empathise with others. The books cover a vast range of genres, and 42% are by writers or illustrators of colour. EmpathyLab aims to promote how reading develops empathy, by working with schools and creating resources for families. Since 2014 they have been researching empathy, and have found that empathic people are made not born – in fact just 10% of our empathic ability is genetic. They’ve found that 98% of us can improve our empathy skills at any point in our lives. They found that empathy is prized by employers – 94% say that they value social and emotional skills more than qualifications, and for young people, research shows that these skills are more significant to their academic attainment than their IQ is. It’s clear that our empathy needs nurturing, at every stage of our lives.

So how do you grow your own? What’s the best recipe? EmpathyLab are right to recommend reading – as brilliant children’s author Malorie Blackman says:  “Reading allows us to view the world – and ourselves – through another’s eyes and to walk in their shoes for a while, developing understanding. This is the very essence of connecting and communicating with others. Reading is such a wonderful way to bring people together in a world that increasingly seeks to build walls and barriers between people.”

Taking part in creative activities inspired by what you’re reading develops your understanding even further – to write a story, or create a piece of art based on what you’ve read, requires you to think more deeply about the characters, and consider them in relation to your own experiences, developing your imaginative response, your curiosity about how others live and love, and therefore, encouraging your empathy. Very young children do this naturally as they play – their imaginative games enable them to step into another’s shoes. They can easily pretend to be something or someone they are not. As our embarrassment at pretending grows, this imaginative play is a skill we might lose, but nurtured in the right way this ability to imagine from someone else’s point of view could become stronger, more nuanced – and be an incredibly powerful resource to help build a kinder and fairer society.

Right now we have a Government seemingly bent on not thinking outside of their own limited experiences of the world – you only have to look at their ongoing failure to provide food for hungry children, or support the disabled, or to fully consider the impact on individual families who have lost loved ones to Covid, to see that they rarely walk in the shoes of others or empathise with experiences that differ to their own. Boris Johnson may be well versed when it comes to Classical references, but he could definitely do with a refresher from My Naughty Little Sister.

With so much division and hardship in the world right now, it feels like growing your own empathy might be a little pointless – it’s just a drop in the ocean, isn’t it? It is, but we need to start somewhere, don’t we? So here is the Bumblebee recipe:

Read, imagine, create, share.

It’s worth a go.

If you’re able to – subscribe to get a monthly empathy boost direct to your letter box, and to help support our free workshops for children struggling with literacy, ensuring that all children have access to reading and creativity, no matter what.

For February, with any adult’s subscription (gifted or monthly) you’ll also receive a free make your own origami heart-shaped bookmark, created specially for us by Little.B as shown in the picture attached to this blog.

Find out more about EmpathyLab’s research here.

See you next week,

Love, Imogen at Bumblebee HQ

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Imogen Bond

Bumblebee’s chief book chooser, creative activity thinker-upper and all round busy bee 🐝
Imogen started out as a theatre director, mainly making productions for young audiences, as well as teaching creative workshops to all ages from primary schools to post grads!

The Liszts by Kyo Maclear
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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