Seoul Campus educator Jennifer Wright considers the connection between reading and empathy.
“Can a children’s book change the world?” This is a question that Linda Sue Park, the well respected author of A Long Walk to Water and the award-winning novel A Single Shard posed during her Ted Talk in December of 2015. It is her belief that books teach children to become better humans by building capacity to be empathetic and by giving them opportunities to practice life through characters. As she so aptly points out, life is not fair. Reading can assist students in gaining insight into proper avenues for dealing with life’s injustices. Books are catalysts for discussion, understanding, empathy and, eventually, can lead to a call to action and even change.
I first came across Ms. Park’s novel, A Long Walk to Water, in 2014 while perusing book titles for the perfect matchup for our developing transdisciplinary unit. The novel is based on the true story of Salva Dut, a young South Sudanese boy who struggles to survive while avoiding the civil war that separated him from his family when he was only twelve. At twenty-two, Salva eventually emigrates to the United States as an orphan and becomes known as one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan. Salva takes the reader through a journey of what is most likely unfamiliar experiences, heartaches, triumphs and tribulations. And although life is unjust and cruel, Salva emerges with great fortitude, resilience and hope.
Through this novel, my students developed a deep connection with Salva Dut. They have listened to interviews, watched Salva Dut TED Talk and explored his website just to soak in everything about him. They gained insight, understanding, empathy and compassion for a person whose life is very different from their own. And now they are determined and passionate about raising awareness and assisting Salva in his mission to bring clean drinking water to South Sudan. They have come to realize that every well dug means that girls can pursue an education and that village members may focus on businesses because they no longer spend the better part of their days in search of water. One well has exponential effects on a community. My students are literally making a difference and saving lives!
And I close with the words of Linda Sue Park in response to her original question: “So can a children’s book save the world? No, but the young children who read them can!”
Text and photos from Jennifer Wright. One more resource you may appreciate is Linda Sue Park interviewing Salva Dut.