Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Message from Me: John Green, Neil Gaiman and Myself on Empathy

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of John Green and Neil Gaiman, not just as authors, but as heroes and far away mentors. They are both passionate and articulate about the power of reading, especially when discussing how reading engenders empathy. Here are two speeches, one by John Green and one by Neil Gaiman, about empathy and reading (both, coincidentally given at the BookExpo a year apart).

I would add one thing to what these great men have said. In order to get the full effect of empathetic fiction reading, you need to read books about people who are not you. For the first 20 years of my life, I predominantly read fiction about a young (usually brunette) girl who was either bored, or timid, or forced by society into some specific role. She then has to break out of this role and rise above and be awesome. I have played out this scenario in my mind hundreds of times, though usually in some sort of fantasy land, often of a medieval and British persuasion. These were the stories I related to, that I understood, that I was comfortable with. 

Now, at the ripe age of 28, I am branching out. It started with The Wednesday Wars, a book about a boy who lives with an abusively perfectionist father and learns to become a man through Shakespeare. This was one foot in and one foot out of my comfort zone: Shakespeare, easy; boy in abusive family situation, new. Then I read similar book by Gary Schmidt, Ok for Now, about a boy with an abusive father, and brothers, all going through deep pain and frustration, and how he must choose who he will be, the bully everyone thinks he is, or the man certain people allow him to be. And he is saved through the Audubon Birds of America. Another tiny step outside of my comfort zone. Then, John Green happened through his Vlogbrothers, and I read loads of his books. No overt arts involved. Just people, mostly teenage boys, living in the real world and dealing with real things. 

Then I took the plunge with Personal Effects. Abusive conservative military family. No one is saved by literature, no one is sensitive or dreamy or artsy. It is not couched in beautifully structured style and tied together with an overt truth, like John Green's books. It is raw and painful and strange. A new mind, a mind that did not at all work like mine. And I understood him. I felt for him. His experiences were no where near my own, but I knew what it felt like to be him. I had put up so many walls against the words "conservative" and "military," and this book allowed me to see behind the stereotype and connect with them as human beings.

I am writing this post now because I am about to embark on a YA literature class whose focus is almost solely on realistic, urban, or historical fiction. The reading list is diverse, and often we can choose from a list  which book we want to read. I am going to challenge myself to seek out experiences and cultures that are unfamiliar. I can sit in my little white, middle class, dreamy artsy girl box all I want and say I have empathy because I read books, but I can never truly have it unless I reach out and try to see the world through the eyes of someone outside my experience and feel what they feel.

I am also letting you know that, because I have to read about 20 books for this class, Palimpsest will change slightly for this period of time. I may or may not review the books I am reading, but look to see many books on this blog tagged as "non-mission," outside the specs of the blog's literal mission statement. However, I do truly believe that everything is interconnected; the past, the present, the future, imagination, all cultures and times overlap. We tell the same stories over and over, influenced by things we can't even remember. These books are a part of the human experience, which is truly a mash-up of everything. 

I will leave you with an RSA Animate video on the empathy, and how it will change the world. 


CGriff said...

Can I have a copy of your reading list for the YA class?

Megan Reichelt said...

Here you go!

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Shine by Lauren Myracle
Tyrell by Coe Booth
Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees
Bootcamp by Todd Strasser
Desert Angel by Charlie Price
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Hold Still by Nina LaCour
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
Yummy: the last days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Endangered by Eliot Shrefer
Flyaway by Lucy Christopher
Rotten by Michael Northrop
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Hate List by Jennifer Brown
The Crossing by Andrew Fukuda
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Weatherford
All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg
My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt
Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
Open Ice by Pat Hughes
Damage by A.M.Jenkins
Leverage by Josh Cohen
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Legend by Marie Lu
Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Ashfall by Mike Mulligan
Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Colin Fischer by Miller

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