Sarah Mears' empathy-boosting children's books.

Sarah Mears: finding empathy-boosting books

SLS UKInterview

November is Empathy Action Month. Here Sarah Mears, a career librarian and past chair of ASCEL, shares the many ways that EmpathyLab is helping tackle a societal empathy deficit by promoting reading. Interview by Nicola Baird

“Small things can make a big difference. In one school children wrote poems and dropped them through doors of their local community – that’s an act of empathy and kindness,” says Essex-based Sarah Mears, who was awarded an MBE for her services to children and young people. She’s also one of the four founders of EmpathyLab, which is the first organisation to build children’s empathy, literacy and social activism through a systematic use of high-quality literature. As the website, which is full of research links and classroom materials, makes clear their, “strategy builds on new scientific evidence showing the power of reading to build real-life empathy skills. We believe that empathy is a beacon of hope in a divided world.”

As well as working at Libraries Connected, a national libraries charity, Sarah has been involved in a busy 2023 for EmpathyLab. Highlights included publication by Quarto in May of a handbook for kids to build their empathy superpower, We’ve Got This, written by Rashmi Sirdeshpande.

“Rashmi did a great job writing We’ve Got This. We shared our knowledge, and she was brilliant at turning that into something very child-friendly and fun. Empathy should be fun, it’s not just worthy issues about making everyone happier,” says Sarah happily adding that the Croatian edition came out in October.

Talking to Sarah over Zoom in November she’s keen to promote the Educating for Empathy online conference on 5 December, part of a new affiliate schools programme. It’s run, “with one of our research partners Prof Robin Banerjee from the University of Sussex whose research looks at reading and empathy in primary schools. He’s half-way through and will be sharing interim findings,” says Sarah. Other partners include Sonia Thompson from St Matthew’s Research School, Birmingham talking about practical applications of an empathy education and a speaker from the Open University, Prof Teresa Cremin sharing work on using empathy when reading in the classroom.

EmpathyLab has built up a following with two annual events for schools, an Empathy Day held in midsummer (6 June 2024) “to focus on the importance of reading and empathy. On that day we ask everyone to make an empathy resolution that will make a difference in families and schools and then in November ask people to revisit it,” explains Sarah. “We want to get the message across that every day should be an empathy day.”

“In reading, you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

Neil Gaiman

One way that’s achieved is by promoting EmpathyLab’s empathy book collection, which already has 300 titles including fiction, graphic novels, poetry, non-fiction and longer novels. “We usually add 60-65 titles each year. For 2023 there will be 40 in the primary and 25 in the secondary collection,” says Sarah explaining that as one of 12 judges she can’t even hint at what she’s reading now, in case titles are revealed too soon (actual launch is 8 February 2024).

“We’re looking at the books for the quality of characterisation: can children step into the characters’ shoes? Will it give children experience beyond their own worlds (or characters) or specific issues that children may face, such as divorce or bereavement or homelessness? We are also looking for authenticity, so lived experience and people writing from their own experience or if their families or friends have had in depth experience – it’s got to come out in the writing.”

In the seven years since EmpathyLab started releasing the Read For Empathy annual collection Sarah feels that, “Publishers are really taking empathy seriously and looking at books with that empathy lens. You see the word empathy in the blurbs quite a bit.”

She’s also impressed with how titles submitted have a wider diversity of authors and characters better reflecting the children who will be reading them. “There’s also diversity in terms of publishing, with lots more small independent publishers providing high quality books for our collection,” she says.

When she isn’t selecting empathy-boosting titles, perhaps the most interesting part of the EmpathyLab’s mission for Sarah is, “our work with authors and illustrators. We run empathy masterclasses where we share any new research about what happens in the brain when we read. Authors and illustrators have been wonderful supporters of our work on Empathy Day and beyond, building an empathy focus into school visits for example and doing special  events for us. For example on Empathy Day 2023, Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho  recorded a wonderful Empathy Day assembly including a brand new Empathy poem.”

Q: What’s your empathy resolution?

“Mine is to focus and listen more. Taking time to really listen to people is a key empathy skill – people feel it when you listen to them. Another one is not to be judgemental!”

Q: Tell us three of your favourite empathy book bank titles

“There are books I return to again and again, Tom Percival’s book, Perfectly Norman, about being different and hiding that difference away, and then realising that difference is to be celebrated. That was in one of our early empathy collections for children.

“The Last Human, by Lee Bacon is a longer novel about a world where robots have taken over the world and driven humans underground. It’s about the relationship between robots and a 12-year-old girl. It is actually an exploration of what it means to be human and have compassion, empathy and build connection. It’s beautifully written and really appeals to readers in Years 6, 7 and 8.

“In Wonder, by R J Palacio, the situation is told from perspectives of lots of different people, so you build up your picture of that story (in 2017 it was made into a film). Teachers often say this is their favourite empathy read.”

Q: Do children follow up empathy with social action?

“All research shows that empathy grows the more you use it, so if you can, use stories to build empathy and then give children opportunities to practise and embed empathy skills by taking action. One school was reading Amara and the Bats by Emma Reynolds and then making bat boxes – the children were living what was happening in the story and supporting their bats. At another school very little children went to the beach to do a clean up, just like Clean Up! illustrated by Dapo Adeola.

“Children have gone on to meet with refugees and written a letter to a child refugee from Syria as part of Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign. There’s also been engagement with homeless charities, after reading stories with homeless characters and understanding their feelings and situation,” adds Sarah.