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Conversations: books & readers > empathy and book characters

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message 1: by Cheryl, Newbery Club host (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) | 6182 comments Mod
This is a topic I couldn't think of a way to summarize in a topic title. Some things that I've been thinking about have become correlated in my mind, though.

First, I've long noticed the different ways that animal characters can stand in for children or people, and the different ways readers react to that happening.

For example, I don't like animals to wear clothes; I also don't like them to portrayed inaccurately, eg a 'wicked wolf.' Some children don't like animals to take on the roles of people at all. Some authors and illustrators choose to use animal characters because they see animals as "color-blind" which, they hope, makes their book have a more universal appeal.

Second, I thought about analyses by scholars and psychologists of the effect of stories on children. I summarized one such perspective in my review of Curious George, here:

One reaction to the academic perspective showed up there, as QNPoohBear commented on my review: "I never thought about the message, just the cute monkey." I believe her, of course.. But otoh some lessons are learned sub- or even un-consciously, as parents well know.

message 2: by Cheryl, Newbery Club host (last edited Jan 20, 2020 01:00PM) (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) | 6182 comments Mod
So, I wonder, Do (most) children identify with or empathize with animal characters, or do they just observe them?

Do they identify with or empathize more readily with human characters?

Does it make a difference if the story is relevant to the child's experience? (For example, cautionary tales about playing with matches were more relevant when fires in homes were more prevalent.)

Does the the likelihood that a child will 'learn a lesson' from a story depend on whether s/he connects with the character?

I'm not even sure exactly what questions I'm asking. I wish I could remember better what my sons might have expressed to me when we read together... however, I don't think we really made much more explicit than the text itself did, rather I think that I just assumed that they were getting what they needed to out of the stories, and I just chose carefully to share ones that I thought had valuable lessons or at least weren't likely to promote values that I didn't approve of.

I'd really appreciate it if parents, teachers, and librarians could chime in here about whatever thoughts they have about how children actually really do relate to the lessons that can be found in stories, especially in re' the choice of the characters' portrayals.

message 3: by Cheryl, Newbery Club host (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) | 6182 comments Mod
One example that I can speak to: Don't most children empathize more with the Three Bears than with Goldilocks? I have always felt so annoyed with that girl, and so sad for the innocent bears.,,, even when I was a blond-haired child myself! I certainly didn't want to emulate her, and I didn't feel it to be a cautionary tale because I already knew that messing with other ppl's stuff was wrong.

message 4: by Manybooks (last edited Jan 21, 2020 09:57AM) (new)

Manybooks | 7044 comments Mod
For me, whether I simply observe and perhaps somewhat emphasize with an animal character (if it deserves this) or whether I actually also could also put myself in said animal's place depends on both the kind of animal being featured and how the story is being told (both now and when I was a child in fact). Like Cheryl, I have never really liked animals that dress in human clothing in my books, so if animals are too anthropomorphic, that is already a bit of a turn off or at least it can be. Furthermore, being a horse person and not so much a dog or cat person, I have always had more of a connection with horse main characters (such as Black Beauty) than with dog or cat main chartacters (such as the animal protagonists in The Incredible Journey).

message 5: by Manybooks (new)

Manybooks | 7044 comments Mod
Cheryl wrote: "One example that I can speak to: Don't most children empathize more with the Three Bears than with Goldilocks? I have always felt so annoyed with that girl, and so sad for the innocent bears.,,, ev..."

I would say that Goldilocks is one of my least favoruite fairy tale characters and mostly because she is a spoiled brat who does not even really ever experience any real consequences for her trashing the bears' home either.

message 6: by QNPoohBear (new)

QNPoohBear | 1354 comments I always loved animal characters in cartoons, in books BUT talking animals existing with humans isn't my thing. As a toddler one of my most favorite book series was Bread and Jam for Frances. I especially liked A Baby Sister for Frances. I could relate. However, I think independent readers are more likely to learn empathy from books than picture book readers. There was apparently a study done on Harry Potter readers and empathy (2014)

quoting from the article
• Research is starting to show that reading literary fiction can train you in social perception and understanding other peoples' experience of the world.

• Other research shows that you can get people to be less prejudiced if they interact with people who they don't identify with — psychologists call it "inter-group contact."

message 7: by Cheryl, Newbery Club host (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) | 6182 comments Mod
Well that makes sense. I'd love to hear more personal and anecdotal comments, too.

message 8: by Phoebe (new)

Phoebe Demetry (farrahinbooks) | 1 comments Hey Cheryl and all, thanks for bringing this topic up. I find it to be very interesting as it has long bothered me that more animals feature as lead characters than children of colour, but I havent thought about it in this way. That because it is an animal, do they just observe the story or do they take in the lesson, or they might even do what it convenient for them at the moment; it's easy to relate to the animal but it is also easy to detach yourself from it. As you also pointed out, it could also be a combination of both.

What I usually think about when I think about this topic though, is what it says about children of colour; that animals are more relatable than another human who has a different skin tone? That children dont need to be exposed to stories from varying cultures and tribes? That the stories and experiences dont matter as much?

I'm just thinking out loud here, but also trying to process how I feel about. I don't every remember seeing a brown girl featured in anything as a kid, especially if she was arab.

message 9: by Cheryl, Newbery Club host (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) | 6182 comments Mod
Thank you Phoebe. You've articulated very well what I had in the back of my mind and just couldn't bring forward. It is only recently that we've seen a significant number of child characters who are non-white.

Or, for that matter, a significant number of animal characters who weren't farm animals, lions, or bears.

Hurrah for the exceptions, like Gyo Fujikawa for Ten Little Babies and others, and for Catherine Rayner's Abigail and Ernest, the Moose Who Doesn't Fit.

But indeed, we parents and other educators probably should try to remember to check in once in a while and find out the children what messages they actually are understanding.

message 10: by Beverly, Miscellaneous Club host (last edited Jan 23, 2020 07:47PM) (new)

Beverly (bjbixlerhotmailcom) | 2276 comments Mod
Phoebe wrote: "I don't every remember seeing a brown girl featured in anything as a kid, especially if she was arab...."

The publishing world is changing these days. In my library's catalog I identified six picture books about Arab Muslims:
The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad
Under My Hijab by Hena Khan
Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
Yaffa and Fatima, Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams
Moon Watchers: Shirin's Ramadan Miracle by Reza Jalali
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan
There were also middle grade books and young adult books listed as well.

message 11: by Michael (new)

Michael Fitzgerald | 367 comments Egads. The Diversity police have moved onto animals now? If we are going to set up quotas, let's at least be more accurate about animal representation in the past. I can immediately think of older children's books featuring mice, rats, squirrels, otters, anteaters, badgers, raccoons, hedgehogs, moles, rabbits, beavers, skunks, lizards, snakes, worms, frogs, toads, turtles, fish, alligators, crocodiles, platypi, hippopotami, camels, moose, monkeys, gorillas, donkeys, deer, ducks, wolves, foxes, elephants, panthers, tigers, ladybugs, crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, ants, bees, and all manner of birds (not to forget dinosaurs), in addition to lions, bears, horses, cows (and bulls), chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, geese, cats, and dogs. Not diverse enough for you? Well, thank heaven for the more recent Tiptoe Tapirs.

message 12: by Thomas (new)

Thomas (thkfamily) | 38 comments I don't have a problem with diversity, like and appreciate diversity as long as it's written well and doesn't have the traveling companion named: Judgmental... Hence, why I do not watch the current seasons of Doctor Who, although a fanatical fan of Doctor Who.

As for the topic here, I think it depends upon the animal character, how it's written and the receiving child/adult. I've attempted to introduce animal characters early on to both children and grandchildren so that they have some empathy for animals, for I contend that if an individual doesn't care about animals or have some kind of pet, they're not the kind of person I want to be associated with.

Having said that, half my brood adore animal characters in books,
and tend to be kinder, more empathetic. While the others are more into more human-like, realistic characters, even if exaggerated somewhat. They want to see characters that reflect themselves.

That can be the issue. Not being exposed to other cultures they may find unrelatable. Being exposed to other people, cultures, skin color, gender, etc doesn't have to go overboard, but it's important for a child's development into a modern, civilized world.

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