How to be Creative

Reading can help build our empathy towards others, says Imogen Bond, TW’s expert on all things creative and owner of Bumblebee Books, an online book subscription service.

When I was little, I absolutely loved the My Naughty Little Sister books written by Dorothy Edwards and beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes – perhaps because I was a naughty little sister myself (although not that naughty, I hasten to add!).

But along with the tales of her antics with Bad Harry, the story that made the greatest impression on me was The Little Book Boy, in which My Naughty Little Sister is given a book of stories treasured by her Aunt. My Naughty Little Sister is shocked to hear the little boy in the book has nothing to eat “no breakfast, no dinner, and no supper!” which she repeats over and over again, saddened by the picture of him all alone in the corner of his room, next to an empty plate.

My Naughty Little Sister is so touched by the boy’s plight that she thinks up a solution to his problem all by herself: she gives her own supper to the little boy, secretly pressing her slice of bread and butter into the pages of the book. It means that the book gets a bit greasy and crumby, but at least the boy now has something to eat. I remember thinking this was a pretty wise thing to do. I mean, I knew it was a bit naughty as it ruined the book, but it also seemed very sensible to me to share what you have with someone who has less.

An empathic response

There’s actually solid scientific evidence for why the character had such a reaction to the boy in the story: reading triggers the same parts of our brain to ‘light up’ as experiencing the real event would. Our brains can’t easily detect the difference between fact and fiction, so a story can trigger an empathic response.

Empathy Lab UK, a brilliant organisation who work with schools and libraries to champion reading to develop empathy, have collated fascinating research showing just how our brains respond to stories. They teach that empathy has three elements:

FEELING: where we resonate with other people’s feelings.

THINKING: where we use reason and imagination to work out how someone else feels.

ACTING: where we are inspired to help others, having experienced what they are feeling ourselves.

The imaginative leaps our brains take to understand how characters feel is what makes reading a creative act – and a hugely potent way of developing empathy for others by experiencing lives different to our own. As it turns out, My Naughty Little Sister’s act of ruining a book follows the three steps of empathy exactly. Maybe not so naughty after all?

If you’d like to find out more about the connection between reading and developing empathy, take a look at where you can find more research on the subject, along with their 2022 Read for Empathy collection, a brilliant list of 60 books for children aged 4 to 16, each selected to do a specific job in developing young people’s empathy.

Imogen Bond

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