Literary Fiction Helps Build Children’s Real-Life Empathy

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While all books can help widen a children’s world, literary fiction also has the power to build their empathy. Ann Truesdell, mother of four, author of 11 children’s books, and a school librarian for 15 years, shows why this genre can have such a profound impact on empathy development:

“A librarian harping on the transformative power of books may seem cliché,” says Truesdell, “but science seems to be on my side, considering findings such as those in the 2013 study, ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,’ by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, which not only provided insight into the actual power of the written word to shape a person’s social emotional growth, but also found that all books are not equally as life-changing.”

The study asked participants to read nonfiction, popular or “genre fiction,” and literary fiction, then take a test “that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.” It found that while nonfiction and popular fiction did little to change the way a person might consider others’ emotions, reading literary fiction seemed to increase the person’s capacity for empathy.

Truesdell also cites Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, who “lists reading literary fiction as one of nine habits that is essential to raising an empathetic child. She emphasizes that reading is not only a child’s key to academic and future economic success, it also makes kids kinder—but it is strong literary fiction such as Charlotte’s Web or To Kill a Mockingbird that causes kids to be more empathetic.”

In her own survey of students in grades 3-8, Truesdell found that 70% of the 165 respondents answered ‘yes’ when asked “if reading makes you a kinder, more empathetic person. Their reasons affirmed what the researchers found—they felt what the character was feeling, they imagined what it would be like to live someone else’s life, they knew what it would be like to be in a situation they’d never been, etc. 

“They affirmed other parts of the studies, too,” says Truesdell. “Several students responded that it would depend on what type of book they read, and one student answered that reading did not make him kinder because he only reads nonfiction….Without any prompting, my students confirmed that reading does seem to build empathy, depending on the type of books a person reads.”

Why does literary fiction have the ability to build empathy? Truesdell explains that popular or “genre” fiction is “formulaic. The character development is likely weaker than in literary fiction; instead it is typically plot driven. An article in Scientific American explains that literary fiction ‘prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues’ and that ‘this psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.’ 

“Through literary fiction, readers put themselves into another person’s shoes and consider their decisions, actions, and emotions. While genre fiction can be great writing and is often a welcome escape, literary fiction inspires readers to reflect on one’s own life and character.”

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