The Empathy Builders: A More Compassionate World Through Stories | Editorial

When was the last time you read beyond your comfort zone—whether in point of view, genre, or format? Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has focused on doing just that from his platform as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position to which he was named in early 2016. It’s a cause that’s natural for libraries to promote to patrons but also for each of us to consider in our own approach to our personal and professional reading.

When was the last time you read beyond your comfort zone—whether in point of view, genre, or format? Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has focused on doing just that from his platform as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position to which he was named in early 2016. It’s a cause that’s natural for libraries to promote to patrons but also for each of us to consider in our own approach to our personal and professional reading.

Long a fan of Yang’s work, it was a pleasure for me to hear him reflect on his life and his role at the recent Day of Dialog event hosted by LJ sister publication School Library Journal. He built a compelling argument for the importance of recognizing when we have a limited perspective, either because our preferences have narrowed what we experience or because we have come to assume we don’t like something.

There was a time when Yang’s format of choice was a strange new world for many librarians—LJ launched an ongoing column focusing on graphic novels back in 2002 to spotlight the riches for readers there—but as “Comics Cross Over” shows, libraries now embrace them.

Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge urges kids to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun. This might be a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, a picture book, or a hybrid book.

He gives special props to those who read something that hits all three. (Also, a resource kit for librarians is available.)

Just as graphic novels reach across age ranges, so can Yang’s challenge—this isn’t just kid stuff. Since we can get pretty rooted in our ways as adults, it is useful for anyone. To his three criteria, I might add one about reading a book that offers a counterargument to your point of view on a topic. Also, commit to persisting with a new format or genre to learn the ins and outs of its conventions before deciding if it suits. Insight doesn’t come from skating on the surface.

Understanding, as a panel of five nonfiction authors reinforced at LJ’s own Day of Dialog event, comes from the deep dive required by writing and reading books. It comes from dwelling in the minds of others. For Khizr Khan, who famously offered then-candidate Donald Trump his own copy of the U.S. Constitution, relating his story in An American Family (Random) is a way to build perspective about American culture. Several other panelists, including Joanna Scutts (The Extra Woman, Liveright: Norton), Kate Moore (The Radium Girls, Sourcebooks), and Danielle Allen (Cuz, Liveright: Norton), each offer stories about misunderstood or mistreated people and, along the way, build our awareness of the human loss behind injustices large and small. They reclaim power for their protagonists by making their stories known.

Apart from sitting down and talking to someone who is different from or disagrees with you, witnessing their world through a story may be the best way to find compassion for them, if not common ground, by acknowledging their realities and fears and what shaped and drives them.

We often, especially recently, emphasize the role of libraries in fighting fake news and information illiteracy. We must continue to do so. However, we should also remember to foreground the steadfast contribution libraries make every day, one checkout or download at a time, in creating a deeper grasp of our world and the vast range of human experience. This core work, pairing readers with books—both through inherent access to library collections or more actively via readers’ advisory—is powerful, perhaps underestimated, and worthy of celebration and our continued investment.

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