Once upon a time, children were empathetic...

...but then they stopped reading fiction.  In our culture of testing, something that the general public might not know is that on a standardized test such as the ACT, the reading portion contains only non-fiction passages.  Why am I telling you about standardized test reading sections?  Because this has led to many schools focusing on the teaching of non-fiction almost exclusively, rather than exposing students to all types of writing and reading.  In Maryann Wolf's book, Proust and the Squid,  Wolf speaks to the importance of reading when it comes to developing a sense of empathy:

"This period of childhood [3.5-5 years old] provides the foundation for one of the most important social, emotional, and cognitive skills a human being can learn: the ability to take on someone else's perspective...Through stories in books we can learn what it feels like. In this process we step outside ourselves for ever-lengthening moments and begin to understand the 'other,' which Marcel Proust wrote lies at the heart of communication through written language" (Wolf, pages 85-86.)

So, if young people don't read both real and not-so-real stories from an early age, they are less able to empathize with their peers, their elders, people who they see on TV that live thousands of miles away.  I find this to be a fascinating idea.  I know that I personally love to read fiction because it allows me to see in to other people's world's (both real and imagined,) but I certainly never thought that it might actually be helping my moral character.

I found a number of articles and other blogs that have compiled serious scientific studies, and some more casual experiments that seem to prove this.  Here are the links, with my annotations in parentheses.  This is certainly not exhaustive, a simple google search for "empathy deficit teens fiction" yields too many articles to list here!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/07/reading-fiction-empathy-study (very recent experiment that used excerpts of JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer novels, short read from a UK newspaper.)

http://cogscilibrarian.blogspot.com/2008/07/reading-fiction-improves-empathy.html (Cognitive Science Librarian's blog, with a good overview that speaks to how reading fiction improves empathy, she also has a brief bibliography that would be great to help with further reading on the subject.)

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-me-care (focuses on empathy deficit in teens and where in comes from.)


Popularity Contest

"...hey, don't take away all my printed books either, or make it harder to locate them."  So says a "composite" 7th grader in Dresang and Kotrla's School Libraries and the Transformation of Readers and Reading (2010.)  After reading that line, I sighed an "amen."  The library at the high school where I teach has, as of this school year, transformed itself in to a "learning commons" format.  Books and magazines have been weeded and moved without a lot of input from the librarian.  And in the most horrifying move of all (do I sound like a dramatic teenager?,) the fiction collection has been moved across the hall from the main library room.  The space in to which said fiction was moved is not large enough to accomodate our entire collection, so only books that were checked out last school year made the cut to be placed in the new fiction stacks.  The rest are in the high school's archives room.  Students can still check them out, but no one has figured out yet how we are going to indicate which room the book is in (900 tag anyone?)  By librarian-to-be heart is broken.

First, let's think about the symbolic nature of this decision.  Only the most "popular" titles are in the new fiction room.  Popular by who's standards?  The non-checked out books are with all the old, dusty, ephemera of a 100+ year old suburban high school.  Does this relegate them to the past, and also, label them as out-of-date, irrelevant, something to be marveled at like a museum piece rather than revered as part of the literary canon of mankind?  I know that the "popular" fiction was inspired by the fiction now sitting in the archives;  there's an awful lot of The Bible in the Harry Potter Series, Orwell and Rand in Collins, and Dickens in-well anything about children and young adults struggling for their place in the world. And you can guess where those books are now shelved?

Next, instead of bemoaning this, what are some solutions?  Dresang and Kotrla also inpired me to think about the role of a librarian to motivate readers ("School librarians...might use youth literature to teach a concept, but their pirmary concern is to movitvate the child to read the book presented and to link that reading to a wide array of related literature available in the library.") So how can we work around this new situation in our library?  Some ideas I have suggested:

1. Have Read-Alike "tabs" in the stacks with the "popular" books, for example, by Lois Lowry's The Giver, a "tab" that says, "If you like The Giver, you might like Ayn Rand's Anthem, its in the Archives, ask your librarian to help you find it!"  Novelist would be invaluable for this.

2. Rotating displays or spinning racks or books that say something like "hidden books, discovered in the York Archives, and only available for a limited time!"

3. Have students create an "in the archives" book trailer series to highlight books that haven't made it to the main fiction stacks, yet.

4. "Free a Book" campaign; once a book is checked out from the archives room, the school has agreed to then put it in the fully accessible fiction stacks, students could be credited for "rescuing" a book from the archives and get to do a little write-up, put it on a bulletin board, etc...as to why they read the book and why it is worthy of "rescue" from the archives.

5. School History connection; have a themed book talk along the lines of, "what was York like in the 1920s?, items from the school archives could be used (show students yearbooks from the 20s, school newspapers, etc...) then tie it in, "what were York students READING in the 20s?"

Non-library professionals making library decisions, at least where I work, is turning much of what makes libraries grand-exposure to ALL literature at ALL times-a thing of the past, but I know I will do everything to stop this from happening!  I'll be the nerd, who saves the classics.