I am so moved by the story of a woman who passed away this week. And I didn’t even know her. Anna Dewdney was just 50 years old, the mother of two girls, and an author of the very popular picture book series Llama Llama. This headline of a story in The Washington Post caught my eye: “This beloved children’s author didn’t want a funeral. She said read to a child instead.”
The WAPO article refers to an opinion piece that Anna Dewdney wrote for the The Wall Street Journal in 2013. It’s titled “How Books Can Teach Your Child To Care,” and it eloquently lays out the argument that we should read to our children, and promote their reading, not just for literacy’s sake, but because reading stories develops empathy in children. Here is an excerpt:
“However, empathy is as important as literacy. When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human. When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I will go further and say that that child then learns to feel the world more deeply, becoming more aware of himself and others in a way that he simply cannot experience except in our laps, or in our classrooms, or in our reading circles.
We learn empathy as children, through our interactions with the people in our lives and by experiencing the world around us. When we read books with children, we share other worlds, and even more importantly, we share ourselves. Reading with children makes an intimate, human connection that teaches that child what it means to be alive as one of many beings on the planet. We are naming feelings, sharing experience, and expressing love and understanding, all in a safe environment. When we read a book with children, then children – no matter how stressed, no matter how challenged – are drawn out of themselves to bond with other human beings, and to see and feel the experiences of others. I believe that it is this moment that makes us human. In this sense, reading makes us human.”
Perhaps this resonates with me so much because of what I do. Time and again in our Literary Masters Parent/Child book groups, I see the ability of stories to open the eyes and minds of our members as we explore sometimes difficult issues via the safe space of fictional characters. Time and again we try to ‘get inside the head’ of the villain so we can understand his or her motivations. Time and again we ask ourselves “What would we do in this situation?” Having these discussions makes us think about ourselves in relation to others; we become more empathetic as we imagine how it must it feel, or how it would be. We explore our own feelings and as we come to know ourselves better, we become more curious about others’ feelings. In essence, we are learning to care.
You can read Anna Dewdney’s obituary here. And yes, instead of a funeral, she asked that you read to a child. Wow. Talk about empathy.