Seven super reads for empathy

Published on: 09 February 2023

Author Helen Rutter shares how important it is to empathise with characters in stories, and recommends seven super books to try.

A photo of Helen Rutter and the front cover of her book The Funniest Boy in the World

When I read I want to feel empathy for a character - without that feeling there is no hook into caring for them, and if I don't care about the character, then what's the point in turning the page?

It's no different when I write. My second book The Funniest Boy in the World has characters and themes which hopefully will build empathy in its readers, from Billy, who still struggles with his stammer, to Skyla, who is dealing with a mum who has addiction and mental health problems.

While these issues may feel like large and heavy ones to tackle, I really try to build this empathy with enough humour that it does not feel like it has been laid on too thickly and so that the story does not feel heavily issue-led. I like my stories to be led by their characters. I want to feel everything through them, from joy to pain with humour and heart along the way.

I definitely don't want to be told, or tell people, what they should be thinking and feeling. It is a delicate dance of letting you into a character's brain and then putting that character through enough that the reader feels every moment as if it were their own.

Stepping into other people's shoes

Stories have been doing this for me forever. One of the first authors who made me feel this way and allowed me to experience other people's worlds through their pages was Judy Blume. I read and re-read books like Blubber and Deanie over and over, really feeling like I knew those characters deeply and experienced their highs and lows with them. I am not sure how those books would stand the test of time but maybe it's time to dust them off and read them again to my 10-year-old daughter.

Reading out loud and sharing a feeling of empathy with my kids, as I hear the story through their ears, has been a complete delight for me as a parent. Books which have affected me and my kids, sparked conversations and promoted empathy are hugely important and allow me to explore the world with the children beyond our limited surroundings.

Reading Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman with my son when he was about 12 felt incredibly important. He was moved, shocked and felt the pain and injustice in the story. It was an amazing thing to be able to read and discuss that story with him.

The front covers of Helen Rutter's recommended empathy reads

Some other great empathy reads for 8-12s are...

1. See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
An absorbing and quirky road trip story with a great main character.

2. When I See Blue by Lily Bailey
This book offers an insight into OCD and sparked some interesting conversations with my 10-year-old daughter.

3. A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
The story takes you into the mind of Addie, a young autistic girl who finds a connection with the women who were once tried as witches in her village.

4. Wonder by R J Palacio
I wept buckets reading Auggie's story and I wasn't the only one. Wonder is obviously a huge success around the world, largely down to its empathetic portrayal.

5. When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle
A gorgeous book about a boy and a gorilla. Get the tissues ready.

6. Skellig by David Almond
A magical and moving story about a boy and an unlikely angel.

7. The Rollercoaster Boy by Lisa Thompson
An adventure story with mystery and heart.

These books will make you feel things.

They may make you cry, they may make you smile, but they will allow you to transport yourself into the shoes of someone else, perhaps someone totally different to you.

That is the magic of reading and that is also the magic of empathy.

The Funniest Boy in the World by Helen Rutter is a sequel to The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, and is out now.

Topics: Features

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