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2016: A Year To Read

Look in the pages of any newspaper, and you are certain to find stories about people who have trouble relating to one another. There is no shortage of conversations about identities, histories, and narratives, and how people use those things to define themselves, both internally and externally. When it comes to sharing those narratives or identities with others, though, there seems to be a failure of communication.

The inability to truly hear another person’s story, to step out of one’s own mindset and empathize with another, causes problems at every level.  They range from gridlock in the U.S. Congress, where one side unilaterally blocks another; to the fear inspired by refugees, whose stories are so unimaginable to those living in peace and prosperity; to school bullies, who often don’t understand the pain that they cause; to issues of white or male or wealthy privilege, where a dominant narrative that negates or sidelines the experiences of a group of people prevents injustices from being remedied. How can a problem be fixed if it is not recognized as such?

Movements like Black Lives Matter, Yes All Women, and others are, in many ways, movements to get stories heard, to diversify the perspectives and voices that shape national opinion. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her now-famous TED talk, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Imagine a world in which empathy was a skill, taught and valued like spelling or the multiplication tables. Imagine that a diverse chorus of stories composed the national conversation. Imagine if we practiced reacting to unfairness with grace and grit, considering multiple perspectives and solutions and trying to fix what went wrong. There is a tool that exists to teach these skills to children: books.

Several TEDxBeaconStreet speakers have shared their experiences of books and their remarkable power. Award-winning author Linda Sue Park spoke about how books engage people, especially children, with problems and solutions. Children empathize with a story’s characters, experiencing different realities in an immersive way that goes beyond just learning facts. They practice facing unfairness and adversity with patience and goodwill. “You never again love a book the way you do when you’re a child,” she says, and that love for a story or a character teaches children to empathize with the experiences of another.

Recently, the knowledge-based journalism site The Conversation featured a study showing how stories convey cultural values when children internalize the roles and narratives presented to to them. Research shows that children recognize behavioral patterns and develop general categories of identity such as race or gender by age five – which is why, as TEDxBeaconStreet speaker Rebecca Bellingham explains, it’s important to read aloud to them. Reading aloud to kids demonstrates for kids how to engage with a text and make it come alive, which is when we really practice empathy. “Reading aloud gives kids a special kind of access to the transformative power of story,” Ms. Bellingham explains, “and to the experience of what real reading is all about, which is to deeply understand.” Some students struggle with reading, and the effort to decode the language can sometimes prevent them from accessing the characters’ emotions and motivations. When we read aloud, we decode the language for them and lead them into involvement with the story.

The New York Times reported that reading literature markedly improved social skills, such as decoding others’ emotions or predicting their beliefs; when children practice these skills at a young age, they have the opportunity to grow into adults who are aware of how the stories of others might differ from their own. As Ms. Park and Ms. Bellingham remind us, children’s books can have a powerful impact on the way children understand the world; if we read a little more, maybe we’d communicate a little better – and that might help us solve a whole host of problems. Watch their talks to learn more about the magic of children’s stories!