The fourth national Empathy Day takes place on Tuesday 9th June 2020. We first heard Miranda McKearney OBE talk about her new initiative, EmpathyLab, at the 2015 Patron of Reading conference and have followed its progress with huge interest ever since. We are delighted to share again this wonderful blog post about the importance of empathy from author Mel Darbon, written especially for Empathy Day 2019.
Mel Darbon, author of Rosie Loves Jack
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus Finch – To Kill a Mockingbird
I was truly honoured that Rosie Loves Jack was included in the 2019 Read for Empathy collection of books for eleven to sixteen-year-olds. The need for empathy is so important because it keeps us in touch with our humanity. Reading helps us find that empathy and step into the shoes of others and see the world through different eyes, so that we can learn to be the best person we can possibly be. A great book can change a child’s perspective of the world, encouraging them to look outwards and not inwards in this self-involved world that we live in.
Since EmpathyLab was created three years ago, its Read for Empathy collections have done much to promote the power of stories to build empathy and to endow children with the ability to understand different perspectives to their own. From this, children will learn how to interact with other human beings; how to form relationships and how to navigate complex emotions, which in turn will enable these children to not only understand other people’s lives but to understand themselves better as well. The work that EmpathyLab has done to make this possible means they are helping to build a world that is one of patience, kindness and compassion.
When I set out to write my story it was because I wanted to change the way that we saw someone with a learning disability, so that people like Rosie, who has Down’s syndrome, can be seen and heard. People with a learning disability are hugely overlooked and under-represented in books, but we need books to normalise and acknowledge all of us and show us what the world is really like, because we are all as important as each other. The right sort of book can show a child that he or she is not alone.
The seed for my story Rosie Loves Jack began with the birth of my brother when I was four years old. It soon became apparent that my brother had severe learning disabilities, which years later were diagnosed as autism. I grew up overnight, I was no longer that carefree child before he was born; but what I learned instead was selflessness, compassion, patience and empathy – and it was this that I wanted to pass on to my readers. We have so much to learn from the inclusion of people like my brother in books and it will help bring about a new generation of acceptance.
It was when I was nine years old that an episode occurred which had a huge impact on me. I was out with my mother shopping when my brother exploded in a tantrum, shouting, kicking and screaming. Several people came up to us, not to offer help, but to tell my mother she was a disgrace, that my brother’s behaviour was disgusting and that he ought to be put away. I wanted to tell them to put my brother’s shoes on and try and comprehend what it must be like to be him, locked in a frightening world that made no sense, where even tackling a flight of stairs can paralyse him.
I knew then that one day I would give my brother a voice - and as I grew older so did my desire to help build a world where people with a learning disability are valued equally, listened to and included.
My work later on as a teaching assistant with teenagers with Down’s syndrome validated this ambition, as every one of these young people had a voice inside them, which needed to be heard.
It was at this time that I met the girl who was to help bring about my character Rosie in Rosie Loves Jack. She was kind, funny and fiercely independent, determined to get a job, fall in love and one day get married. I learned from her how much people with Down’s syndrome are attuned to other’s feelings. They have incredible empathy – and always see the good in the world. I realised how much we all had to learn from them and I wanted my character Rosie to show this through her innocent but brave eyes - for the reader to wonder at the world with her and to learn through her that kindness and compassion are so important.
My recommendation for a great #ReadforEmpathy book:
Penny Joelson’s I Have No Secrets - a heart-rending YA story told through fourteen-year-old Jemma who has severe cerebral palsy.
Also see: The Book Trust - 12 new books with positive images of disability - https://www.booktrust.org.uk/booklists/b/bookmark-disability-childrens-books-of-the-year/