Empathy is our superpower

Read for Good’s storyteller, Amanda, reflects on the superpower of empathy for #EmpathyDay2023 and how it is everywhere in a reading and storytelling experience – from parents to medical staff, and patients and storytellers too!

“At Read for Good we regularly talk about the wellbeing benefits of an interactive storytelling or book visit for children in hospital. We often include parents and staff in the conversation too, as they also feel the benefits.

After a particularly busy and rewarding visit to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, I was still feeling the positivity and jolly mood uplift the day after and I realised that even we storytellers experience wellbeing benefits!

Why do we feel this?

It’s because we meet so many brilliant children who are funny and creative, brave and thoughtful, and imaginative and surprising. We have such fun with them – they are real stars!

What we experience (or can facilitate) sits on a scale depending on how poorly the child is, but even a fatigued child, with listless movement and a faraway look in their eyes, can transform into a bright-eyed, laughing child who is gesturing or moving around – sometimes even dancing with excitement! They speak with a louder, more energetic voice and join in, then take over the story –  directing the character’s actions, thoughts and feelings, making jokes, and taking the story into delightfully magical places!

There’s so often an extraordinary moment during the session where you can see a child feels better. At this point, the session often gains its own momentum and as a facilitator, I shift down a gear and metaphorically ‘get out of the way’ as the child takes the lead!

At this point I’m extraneous and just laughing alongside parents, carers, and staff (who may well be medically tending to the child and happy about the distraction). We are all involved in the joy, optimism and positivity.

We Read for Good storytellers enter these hospital bedside spaces knowing that children and adults can be having some of the worst days of their lives – we bring a friendly face and cheerful hello and make a joyful offer of a brand new book to read and a story, poem or song to make or listen to. We weave around the needs of medical staff and educators to bring joy, fun, magic and well-being through the powers of stories and storytelling.

Sometimes a child is in hospital for days, but it can be months or years. Sometimes they’re bored and miss their friends, or they have been feeling really unwell for ages.

Like we at Read for Good often say – the power of the surprise gift of a new book, or a well-chosen and tailored story, can make an amazing difference and that difference can lead to a child feeling so much better, they’re up for doing another activity.

That is where the good medicine of stories really kicks in.

To our role, we bring a professional friendliness, kindness and generosity – we’re seeking ways to positively make a difference.

But as I was reflecting today, most importantly, we bring empathy.

As part of our role as a ‘performer’ or ‘facilitator’, we as storytellers underpin our creative practice not only with skills, but the experience and wisdom of hundreds of visits. We always seek to understand and share the feelings of children and their caring adults, empathising in order to create the context as outlined above, whereby a positive transformation of emotion and mood takes place. A session, when underpinned by empathy, progresses on a scale from a big satisfied sigh or a cuddle with Mum, to a dancing child, singing, laughing and twirling, or that other cheeky kid who says “no,no, no, you’re wrong it goes like THIS…”!

I think empathy is Read for Good’s superpower. It’s not only enshrined in the charity’s ambitions, projects, and values, but it’s also their reason for being. To bring the value of reading for pleasure to children in hospitals, and for those readers to gain an understanding and experience of empathy through books read, illustrations interpreted and stories listened to.

Children can resonate with the feelings of contradictory and evolving characters and use their reason to work them out or be concerned about them, and in worrying or and wanting to help – they are motivated to understand them or identify with them. This is a really important and useful life skill to learn.

I’m going to finish with a quote from a favourite illustrator and writer  – whose books are firm favourites on the Read for Good bookcase:

“Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is like an empathy engine”. – Chris Riddell

It sure does – pick up a book today!

Lots of love for World Empathy Day”

Amanda, Storyteller