Teaching empathy through picture books
Next week - Tuesday June 11th 2019 - is Empathy Day (I know this because of the promotional display that greeted me as I entered my local public library).
Books, be they fact or fiction, reveal new truths about ourselves and the world we inhabit. They allow us the opportunity to discover worlds beyond ours; to give words to our feelings; and allow us to step into someone else’s shoes - which help develop empathy.
That is why diversity in children’s books is so important. It’s crucial for our children to see, not only representations of themselves in books, but also people who look different, feel different and experience things differently to themselves. And as we’ll see from today’s example, this extends beyond mere skin colour.
As with graphic novels, children’s picture books are great for exploring empathy. Why? Because they are weighted towards visual storytelling, and the visuals - the illustrations - can speak volumes.
Publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, Claudia Bedrick, describes their power perfectly:
Through pictures we are given body language and expression, tone, mood, and emotion in ways completely different from descriptive language… seeing a certain slope of shoulders, a stance, a facial expression, a certain thickness of line or movement of color in a picture will affect us completely differently from the words on the page.
This week I am highlighting a powerful story that is a wonderful lesson in empathy - The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (Walker Books 2018) - which I believe will become a picture book classic.
Described by Booktrust as ‘a devastatingly simple and deeply affecting prose poem’ which ‘pulls no punches’, War is narrated in the first person by a little girl, tenderly illustrated (with her usual naive charm and childlike simplicity) by Rebecca Cobb.
The voice of the child in the text and Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations of friendly faced children encourage empathy, enabling young children to think and ask questions.
Her characters’ large, black dots for eyes speak volumes - first of a happy innocence, then blank emptiness and fear. These sentiments, of course, are projected onto them by us, the reader - which the simple design of them allows for. This softens the visuals without diminishing the story’s power (making it a less scary entry point into discussing displaced people with our children).
We are not told the little girl’s name (nor where she lives) but in interview Davies has said,
[The story was] prompted by the Syrian war and the wave of refugees it had created, I began to write a picture book about war, from a child’s perspective. I thought about the utter alone-ness of what we call "unaccompanied child refugees" and the first line I wrote in my notebook was:
‘War took everything, war took everyone.’
That line sat on its own for some time, while I thought about how it might be for families in war zones, for parents trying to protect their children from harm, and from the fear of harm.’
- The Day War Came: telling the story of child refugees
Her story opens with a disarmingly domestic scene of everyday life.
In the background a line of washing flaps; there is food and drink on the table; a peaceful babe in arms is cradled.
The day war came there were flowers on the window sill and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
The girl is accompanied to school by her mother - a clever tactic allowing the child reader to relate to the girl based on their own experience, immediately establishing a connection between themselves and the characters. Davies’ explains: ‘I wanted to talk about school too. School is a big part of ordinary normality for kids, and without education they lose not just their present stability, but their chance of a future.’
But everything is about to change for the happy family.
Then, just after lunch, war came.
What follows is a powerful page turn, shocking in its contrast to the story’s opening.
Gone are the girl’s classmates and teacher. She is all alone (and remains so for the following two spreads); sat at her desk, shielding herself from the blast ‘like a spattering of hail’, flying chairs and an encroaching cloud - ‘all smoke and fire and noise that I didn’t understand.’
Another picture shows the girl (still alone) crouched in the rubble of her shattered world, surrounded by blazing buildings and plumes of smoke. The flowers from her window sill lie to one side with their shattered pot. This is a really clever, subtle piece of visual storytelling (a detail that passed me by on first reading, since the flowers are the same colour, and echo the shape, of the background fires). Without spelling it out in black and white we witness her shattered life.
‘I heard a story about a refugee child coming to a school next to the camp where she’d ended up, and asking to come in. The teacher turned her away, saying, 'There isn't a spare chair or desk for you sit at.' The next day, the child returned carrying some broken, improvised approximation of a chair and asked: 'Now, can I come in?'
Nicola Davies - The Day War Came: telling the story of child refugees
Inspired, Davies wove this sad story into War. We see the girl huddled under a dirty blanket in the corner of a hut at the refugee camp:
The door banged. I thought it was the wind - but a child’s voice spoke.
“I brought you this,” he said, “so you can come to school.”
It was a chair.
‘It is a very simple everyday object,’ explains illustrator Cobb on the Walker Books blog, ‘but it somehow represents the things that children should be able to expect from life - a secure, safe home environment and access to an education.’
Nicola Davies heard the chair story (‘I don't know if it’s true’) in 2016 - the same time as the UK government refused to allow 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to enter the country (which, sadly, is true). Incensed by the whole situation, she wrote a heartfelt poem, The Day War Came, which was the start of the book. First published in The Guardian (later picked up by Davies’ publisher, Walker Books), it has barely changed at all since the lines first poured out of her. The most notable tweak was to the part described the fleeing refugees, escaping ‘on a boat that leaked and almost sank and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand.’
In the final book this line is softened to read, ‘where shoes lay empty in the sand.’ All the same, it is a haunting image, made all the more poignant by the accompanying visual - a pair of tiny red sandals that the girl discovers.
I’m pleased to say that the story (whilst addressing the realities of conflict) is, ultimately, uplifting.
It ends with smiling, friendly faced children; and it is they who provide the hope - and the chairs - for the refugee children in an act of solidarity that results in ‘pushing back the war with every step.’
Owing in part to the publisher’s choice of illustrator, and the author’s decision to focus on telling the experience from a child’s perspective, The Day War Came is appropriate to share with younger children. The publisher’s recommended age is five plus - I would suggest that a sensitive child could find the book upsetting, despite the subtlety of the incidental details (for example the tiny helicopters, flowers in the rubble, the shoes adrift). It would work equally well for much older children, too.
Ultimately I think this remarkable book is a fantastic resource which will allow for discussion of some hard topics in a humane way - topics that our children are unfortunately surrounded by, and will hear about, if not directly then by osmosis, from their peers or background media. And in doing so we will help develop the children’s capacity for empathy.
I shall leave the parting shot to the author, Nicola Davies:
The message of The Day War Came is so simple, as simple as an empty chair: we need to be kind; we need to share. Because we could be next. Because every person matters. Because that’s what makes us truly human.
Nicola Davies - The Day War Came: telling the story of child refugees
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (Walker Books 2018)
Endorsed by Amnesty International.
Shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2018.
Walker Books will donate £1 to Help Refugees for every copy sold.
Good to read
For developing empathy
King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, ill. by Laura Carlin (Walker Books 2017)
The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas (Templar 2012)
Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Candlewick 2018)
I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls, ill. by Alison Brown (Bloomsbury 2005)
My Many Coloured Days by Dr Seuss (Red Fox 1996)
DANGEROUS! by Tim Warnes (Little Tiger 2014)
My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems (Walker Books 2007)
For Older Readers
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (Harper & Row 1952)