Today I am delighted to welcome Onjali Rauf to the blog for a special guest post about her award winning book, ‘The Boy at the Back of the Class,’ illustrated by Pippa Curnick. In celebration of Reading for Empathy Day on June 11th this year, this incredible book features in the 2019 Read for Empathy guide. There used to be an empty chair at the back of the class but one day it’s filled by a new boy called Ahmet who seems very strange. He doesn’t want to talk to the rest of the children, he spends his breaks in seclusion with the adults and he seems lost and all alone. But they soon discover that Ahmet isn’t strange, he’s a refugee who has fled to London from a terrible war where bullies have dropped bombs on his friends and families. The more they discover about Ahmet the more they want to help him and together they come up with a grand plan to beat all other plans to try and restore happiness in Ahmet’s life. Thought-provoking and powerful this has to be one of my stand out reads of the year, I can’t recommend it enough.
Empathy Day – Onjali Rauf
It’s arrived! Empathy Day is here! And I couldn’t be more glad! A movement founded by EmpathyLab, it’s a day that serves to remind us of just how powerful our imaginations – and our emotions – can be in the conscious effort we all need to make to tear down the barriers that create an ‘other’ out of someone else. Barriers that might be built from our intrinsic and very human instinct to judge, and topped up and added to by negative narratives, images and whirlwinds of fear created by outer, stronger forces too.
For a short brown Asian feminist wielding a headscarf, I often travel through the world feeling as though empathy is a gift that is in staggeringly short supply. With racial tensions and sentiments manifesting themselves into far-right marches in Germany to the awful Christchurch shootings in New Zealand to Brexit and antisemitic or Islamophobic hate crimes here in the UK, the very act of switching on the news channels or my Facebook feed is one that often fills me with dread. After all, the ‘hate’ narrative seems to be so strong, and the ‘hey, let’s not do this – let’s understand, empathise and do away with these fears’ narrative seems barely able to limp along or even on some days, be alive and breathing.
I know I am not alone in feeling this. Dear friends of Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and other ‘perceived’ visible differences, as well as the refugee families and children I have the honour of meeting and working with, are keenly aware of a bubbling hostility that can exist where empathy has failed to find a footing. It makes the world a perpetually scary, and sometimes inhabitable place to exist – because to be misunderstood, labelled or even hated simply for existing is unbearable. Regardless of who we are, or what our age or sex or faith may be, or the colour of our skin, we all want – and need to be understood by our fellow wo/men, and treated with dignity and respect. But those two gifts cannot be given without the basic foundation of understanding deeply where the person standing before us is coming from. Like a steamer used to strip walls bare of the layers of paper used to cover them, empathy helps strip away differences and works to remind us that at the end of the day, we are all of us at our core, simply human.
In The Boy at the Back of the Class, the narrator feels keenly the loneliness and need for a friend Ahmet – a refugee boy – has – and feels it deeply. They go out of their way to explore this ‘other’ boy’s story, and find out the truth behind his silence and lion eye stares, and on doing so, is desperate to help. In short, they empathise fully with a tale that is so different to their own. I have been so fortunate as to see this happening in real time with the book itself, with children and adults alike writing in daily to say the book has opened their eyes to what it means to be a refugee, and asking how they too can help. This almost natural capacity and instinct amongst children especially to empathise, is one of the most staggeringly beautiful abilities to behold, and I often wonder at what age, at what part of our journey, that is lost and even forsaken by the time we reach adulthood – and the forces that make it so.
Ongoing research has shown time and time again, that reading builds empathy. For those of us who love reading, this will be something we already know – and it will probably be why we love reading in the first place. Whether it’s thrillers or romances, children’s classics or Marvel comics, our ability to empathise and step into the word-shaped shoes of the characters being offered to us is not only joyous, it is revealing, educational and potentially transformative. I’m not at all ashamed to say that I still shed tears over Charlotte’s Web and Black Beauty and Frodo’s last words in The Lord of the Rings – and don’t even get met started on the fates of Dobby and Dumbledore in Harry Potter, because they literally continue to floor me. List your most favourite books, and I’ll bet my last ten pence they will be the ones that did just that – floor you in some way, move that inner core and enhance your understanding of what it means to be human, or flawed and vulnerable and nevertheless to persevere.
In a world where narratives of difference and fear seem to reign, Empathy Day is here to remind us of the inestimable power of books to help us dismantle them. So come join in, #ReadforEmpathy, and share with us the books you’re reading to help fight back.
Thank you to Onjali for this really thoughtful and moving post about Emapthy Day and her award winning book. To find out more about this wonderful book you can read my review on the blog. ‘The Boy at the Back of the Class,’ is available to buy on online or from any good bookshop.
Empathy Day June 11th 2019 – Ideas on how you can join in
Empathy Day will focus on using books – and talking about them – to shine a light on the ‘superpower’ of empathy. As well as running Elmer the Elephant empathy-themed events for young children, 98 participating library services will be trialling intergenerational meet-ups. The Empathy Conversation will bring different community groups together to connect and talk at a deeper level, using prompts written by children from one of EmpathyLab’s pioneer primary schools. Schools nationwide are hosting author visits, Empathy Awards and more. Publishers are launching bespoke initiatives for their channels and networks to amplify the message of the Day and everyone is encouraged to join in a mass crowd-sharing of empathy book recommendations through a social media #ReadForEmpathy campaign.
READ – because stories and book characters build our real-life empathy
CONNECT – make new connections with people, inspired by sharing stories
DO – put empathy into action and make a difference in your home and your community
- Get new ideas for empathy-boosting books, and share your own, by joining in the massive social media #ReadForEmpathy campaign
- Use EmpathyLab’s Read For Empathy Guides for young people – 45 amazing books for 4-16 year olds –http://www.empathylab.uk/readfor-empathy-guide
- Librarians: sign up and get your Empathy Day toolkit – email firstname.lastname@example.org; pilot Empathy Conversation events
- Teachers: sign up; use our training, booklists, major Empathy Day resources bank at www.empathylab.uk.
Why not join in with the rest of the blog tour for more guest posts from an amazing range of authors and illustrators.
Thank you to Fritha and Miranda for inviting me to join in with the Empathy Day blog tour.