Stories from Deep in the Heart of Texas: The Empathy Playground

Why book banners’ focus on fiction threatens our children’s future

It was a cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday this year, and my family and I puttered around the house, snacking, working on puzzles, and reading library books. I had just sat down with a cup of coffee when my eight-year-old son walked up behind me and said in a quiet voice, “I just read about what happened to the Jews in Germany.”

I hadn’t actually planned to discuss the Holocaust in between Wordle guesses, but I did my best. We sat together and talked about what he had learned, how it made him feel, and what questions he had. When he said, “I just want to know why people would do that,” I brought up the holiday and Martin Luther King’s fight against racism in the United States. My son showed me the book he had been reading, I Survived: The Nazi Invasion, by Lauren Tarshis. We hugged. I cried, as my children know I often do in such moments. It’s so hard to see our kids learning hard truths about human life.

At the same time, looking back, it was so good to see my kid encounter hard truths, talk through his reactions, and connect that new information with his values. What I saw in my son’s reaction to this new knowledge was one of our family’s most important values: empathy for those whose experiences we don’t share. And it’s not surprising that this reaction was provoked by reading a work of fiction.

University of Michigan psychology professor William Chopik has called fiction “a playground for exercising empathetic skills.” When we read stories, more than when we read articles or non-fiction books, we become engaged with the characters on the page, considering how their backgrounds, experiences, and identities inform their decisions. Often, we react emotionally to our fictional counterparts’ experiences. Like running and playing at recess, these considerations and reactions build the empathetic muscles we need to risk new experiences, cooperate with those who have different backgrounds than we do, and, as in my son’s experience, understand history and its impact on the present.

This is why it is so concerning that, according to PEN America, seventy-five percent of books banned in 2021-22, as book bans across the United States and particularly in the state of Texas began a precipitous rise, were works of fiction. It makes sense—stories evoke powerful emotions in readers, and sometimes those emotions can be frightening, especially when they challenge the assumptions of people who have been used to consider their own perspectives the only ones that matter.

However, the unique danger of the focus of book-banners on fiction books is that in banning these titles, they risk stunting not only children’s enjoyment of reading but also the strength and range of their ability to empathize across differences. This lack will impact students’ futures. In 2021, a journalist at Forbes reviewed social science and business research and concluded that empathy is the most important skill for leaders in the workplace. Even the U.S. Army recently created a curriculum to educate its leaders about the importance of empathy. In the diverse, interconnected world for which today’s students are preparing, the importance of building their empathy muscles will only grow, and it must be protected.

Moreover, the focus of book bans on fiction books has a unique impact on students with marginalized identities. According to PEN America, 41% of books banned in schools in 2021-22 featured LGBTQ themes or characters, and 40% featured characters of color as protagonists, numbers that are especially striking because characters of color and LGBTQ characters are underrepresented in children’s and YA literature as a whole. As these characters are removed from our bookshelves, not only do real young people of color and LGBTQ young people lose the opportunity to see themselves in literature, but they also feel the impact of their peers’ missed opportunity to build empathy around narratives that reflect those experiences. Since Christian nationalist groups are driving this current wave of book bans, it shouldn’t be surprising that the bans disproportionately short-circuit empathy for marginalized groups; however, it should be alarming and galvanizing for all of us who care about supporting all kids in our diverse communities.

Last night I was cooking dinner when my son stopped in for a snack, holding a new school library book under his arm. “What are you reading now?” I asked, and he held up the cover: Essie and the March on Selma, a Girls Survive story by Anitra Butler-Ngugi about Selma’s 1965 Bloody Sunday civil rights march. Turns out, reading leads to more reading. Empathy building leads to an interest in learning about more people’s stories. Giving our kids the freedom to do both leads to a better future for us all.

Layne Parish Craig is a teaching faculty member in the English department at Texas Christian University. She grew up attending Texas public schools, and she has been a parent and volunteer in Fort Worth ISD since 2015.

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