'Books broaden the heart': Eoin Colfer on how stories build empathy

Published on: 05 February 2018 Author: Eoin Colfer

The brilliant Illegal - a story of a 12-year-old boy trying to make his way to Europe in search of a better life - has just been picked as one of this year's 30 fantastic Empathy Day books.

Eoin Colfer - who collaborated with co-author Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano on Illegal - has now told us why books are such a good way of putting ourselves in someone else's shoes...


Travel broadens the mind.

This is undoubtedly true, but speaking as a teacher, sometimes it is impossible to cram your entire class into a plane and take them on a quick spin down to Tripoli so they can see the devastating effects of migration on African families.

It would be a hard-hearted individual who could stand on a hill overlooking the Libyan port and watch unmoved while parents load their toddlers into patently unseaworthy crafts and send them off in the general direction of Italy in the hopes that they will firstly, survive, and secondly, have a better life.

But a social studies lesson on this scale this would be hugely impractical and would cost the entire year's travel budget for the bus to the airport alone. And can you even imagine attempting to vaccinate an entire class? I was vaccinated myself once and I cried like a baby and had a Popeye arm for three days.

The point I am making with such blatant overkill is that sometimes it is not possible to witness the things we really should know about. Polar ice-caps melting, endangered tigers, displaced villagers in Bangladesh. These are all important issues and blatantly tragic for the people, animals and crystalline solids involved.

And yet there is always some ill-informed person on television shouting about how the tigers brought it on themselves, or the Bangladeshis submerged their own villages and how, in fact, the ice caps are not melting at all - if anything they're un-melting. Sometimes it's hard to know who to believe. We can see the pictures but are not sure how to interpret them.

Erika Meza illustration

This is where books come in.

A good book builds characters from the ground up so that the reader feels a genuine affection (or revulsion) for the characters. The reader goes deeper into the history and psyche of a book's protagonists than most viewing experiences can practically delve.

In a book it is common to spend hundreds of pages skilfully assembling the jigsaw of a character's history and motivations that make the reader feel as if they truly understand the characters.

Stephen King is a master of this skill, and I remember once as a teenager flashing back to this friend of mine called Stu, wondering where that guy was these days... until I remembered he was a character from The Stand.

This only lasted for a second but is still a testament to the skill of Maestro King. Back in the day, Charles Dickens was famed for this exact talent and he is still a hard guy to beat when it comes to world building.

The point is that if you read a skillfully wrought book on what might be an alien topic - alien as in unfamiliar, not as in, 'Oh God, it's eating it's way out of John Hurt's chest cavity' - it is inevitable that you will glean some increased level of understanding of the topic, and providing you're not a Vulcan, then your empathy levels will be up too.

Erika Meza illustration

Books stay with you

How could you read True Grit and not root for the plucky Mattie Ross while also bemoaning the historical pigeonholing of girls and their traditional roles? Having some trouble coming to grips with immigration? Then have a squint at Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn and feel your heart break for Eilis Flood, a young emigrant who feels a longing for home as keenly as she would the loss of a loved one.

In this particular case I banjax my own argument as Saoirse Ronan's portrayal of the Eilis in the movie was as poignant as Tóibín's description. Nevertheless, it is impossible to walk away from a loved book and not bring something of that book away with you wherever you might travel or if indeed you do not travel at all.

  • Harry Potter teaches us to value our friends and not to mess with nasally challenged guys.
  • Moby Dick warns us that while it's good to have hobbies, best not to obsess.
  • And Where's Wally teaches us that grown men in bobble hats are not to be trusted.

In conclusion, I would like to lower myself to a cheesy word-bite for which I apologise in advance, but considering all the sympathies books have nurtured in my cynical old heart, I would contest that: while travel broadens the mind, books broaden the heart.

Soppy, I know. But I'm not going to worry, the editor will probably take it out...

You might also like

Read our review


Author: Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and Illustrator: Giovanni Rigano

Illegal tells the story of Ebo, a 12-year-old boy who flees grinding poverty, zero opportunities and a drunken uncle in his small village in Africa. An absolute must-read, this graphic novel is thought-provoking, profound, sensitive and totally gripping.

Read more about Illegal

More books to foster empathy

Check out our picks

If you're looking for more stories that will help to encourage kindness, compassion and empathy, why not try some of these books?

Become a Friend

Open the magical world of books

Help us make a difference to children throughout the UK. We can all do a bit more when we're supported by our Friends.