June 12th is Empathy Day. If you’re not totally sure what that entails, this famous quotation from Harper Lee’s wonderful novel To Kill a Mockingbird is an interesting place to start...
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
It was Atticus Finch who said that. Now I love Atticus and he said A LOT OF WISE THINGS but in this particular instance, I’ve always felt that his use of imagery is distracting. Actually, if you really overthink it, it’s downright creepy and disturbing. So rather than taking the advice of Atticus, take the advice of the good people at www.empathylab.uk instead and simply read a thought-provoking book. Here are my Top Five recommendations for Empathy Day.
Coming to England by Floella Benjamin
This book is beautiful. And if you are lucky enough to get hold of the big colour illustrated edition, it’s even more beautiful. Floella Benjamin tells us about her early life in Trinidad and about her big noisy family and her inspirational mother and the Caribbean food she remembers eating and about her long and exciting voyage to England as one of the Windrush generation. After that, the story darkens somewhat. We hear of the hostility that is waiting to greet the family in England and about the unfair treatment Floella frequently encounters at school. Luckily, and with the support of her brilliant mum, Floella keeps her chin up and finds a way through it all. This is an inspiring little book and an important one.
by Benjamin Zephaniah
by Benjamin Zephaniah
I’ve written about this novel before but I’m writing about it again here. Alem is a 14-year-old boy from Ethiopia. His dad is Ethiopian and his mum is Eritrean and that makes life very complicated because Ethiopia and Eritrea are at war. One day, Alem’s dad takes him on a surprise trip to London. And then his dad just vanishes leaving Alem all alone and in the care of UK social services. It’s not difficult to read this book and think, What if that were me? Or my son? Or my brother? Or whatever. And it’s not hard to read this story and make sense of the truly desperate lengths that human beings will go to in order to get themselves or their children to a place of apparent safety.
Two Weeks with the Queen by Maurice Gleitzman
I stumbled upon this when I was doing my teaching practice way back in the last millennium. It’s a story about a 12 year-old Australian boy called Colin who is sent to England to live with relatives while his brother has treatment for cancer. Colin decides that the most useful thing he can do while he is in the UK is ask the Queen to recommend a good doctor. Colin doesn’t get to meet the queen but he does meet a gay Welshman called Ted. A lot happens and I don’t want to spoil anything by giving too much away. But basically, this book is about cancer and AIDS and homophobia and grief and it’s.... often really, really funny. It really is! Go and read it. However old you are.
The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger
by J.D. Salinger
J.D Salinger’s ground-breaking novel about a 16-year-old boy who goes AWOL for three days in New York City may seem like a strange addition to this list. Holden Caulfield is a boy with a wealthy and privileged background. On every page, he whines and sneers and boasts and lies and contradicts himself. In spite of being arguably the most famous teenager in fiction, Holden isn’t an easy person to get on with. But Salinger isn’t asking us to like his protagonist. I’m not even sure that he desperately wants every reader to understand Holden either because Holden’s bravado is so unrelenting, it’s very easy to chuck the book aside and miss the clues that make this novel so powerful. But look carefully at Chapter Five where Holden tells us about Old Allie’s baseball mitt. And then ask yourself if you still think Holden Caulfield is just a spoilt whining pain in the arse.
The Diary of a Young Girl / The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
This book should need no introduction. I borrowed it from my school library when I was a teenager and the thing that struck me most about it was the ordinariness of it all. Anne moaned about her mum and her sister, thought her father was the cat’s whiskers, wrote a reasonably detailed description of her own foof and had a slow burning thing for Peter van Pels. Except, of course, that nothing was ordinary. This is a true story from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and Anne was a Jewish girl hiding in an attic for over two years. And then the diary abruptly ends because the people hiding in the attic are betrayed and everyone is carted off to concentration camps. Of the nine people in the attic, only Anne’s father survived the war. I think everyone should read Anne’s diary at some point in their lives.