Stories for empathy and a better world

I had been looking forward to the event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai on Saturday. I’d never met Miriam before, but she was everything I had expected, and Bali was Bali as usual. Empathy is important and it promised to be an interesting discussion.

Bali Rai and Miriam Halahmy

We were all asked for examples of empathic children’s books that had made a difference to us. I can see the point of asking the audience, but it split my attention a bit too much. Miriam is a big fan of Morris Gleitzman and talked about his Blabbermouth, and Bali suggested Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow. President Obama’s talk about the ’empathy deficit’ was mentioned.

Miriam read from The Emergency Zoo, and explained how she loses herself in the book when she writes. She is her characters.

Bali then read from The Harder They Fall, apologising for some ‘rude’ words. When he started writing about a female character, it took him some time to understand that girls are ‘just’ people. He talked about how many poor teenagers never even consider going to university. Sometimes because they are the main carer for someone in their family, and they can’t contemplate getting into debt.

On getting started Miriam reckoned the most important thing she did as a child was to read. After that it was being a teacher, doing a writing course, and reading and meeting people like Morris Gleitzman and Jacqueline Wilson. The best thing about writing is losing yourself in the writing.

Roald Dahl was a hero of Bali’s, and he liked reading about Vikings and volcanoes. Later on Sue Townsend played a big part influencing him. Bali described his hard-working colleague Alan Gibbons, who travels and writes and campaigns tirelessly for good causes. The best thing about being a writer seems to be ‘vomiting [words] on a page.’

Can you understand the world if you read escapism? Miriam believes in a real place and a real boy or girl. Bali feels that in The Lord of the Rings the whole world is escapism, and he listed Andy Stanton for sheer bounciness, had nothing [positive] to say about David Walliams, and it seems the archetypal white man comedian comes from Stockport. He praised the way Jacqueline Wilson writes about hard work and ordinary children. And there’s Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness.

Someone in the audience had problems seeing how fantasy could be empathic, but discovered Miriam and Bali disagreed. To make children understand empathy we don’t need it on the curriculum, and there is no right age. According to Miriam you can’t suddenly ‘do empathy today,’ but you need to embed it more deeply. For Bali it’s economical politics in this dog eat dog world. And you should be allowed to have fun at school, because how else do you get to write about fish zombies?

As with letting school-children have enough time for fun, I’d have liked more time for the two authors at Saturday’s event.

Miranda McKearney, Anna Bassi, Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai

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