[educatie] Illustration as a source of empathy

Illustration as a source of empathy

12 juni 2024 door Emilie Sitzia

Our current world is in dire need of empathy, and one tends to forget that empathy can be taught. It needs to be cultivated: it can be taught in class, at the movies, in daily life, in shops, on tv, in video games, on Youtube, but nowhere else more than in books. As Neil Gaiman puts it, books are “little empathy machines”. Books are the place where we see and feel for through another’s eyes, they are the place where we express, discuss and negotiate our values as a society. 

Illustrated children’s books have a special role to play in empathy teaching. Baptiste Beaulieu, medical doctor and writer recently said in an interview for the newspaper Libération that “When a parent decides to read a book to a child, this is of enormous importance, because the parent is an authority figure that, to the eyes of the child, holds truth. What is going to be read and said can have an enormous impact. I really believe we can change the world with children’s stories.”

I also think we can change the world with children’s books, especially with illustrated children’s books. Illustration opens a space for discussion between the parents and the child. Images are a direct lived experience for parents and children alike, and the occasion to talk about our emotions, our values, to discuss (extensively!) the “why” of things and fasten the experience in our memory. And to the children around us, we are the anchors, the “one who knows”, the person they look up to to understand this world of ours. 

Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical book When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit (1971) focuses on the experience of a child-refugee during the second world war and unfortunately feels as relevant today as it did then. The image that stays with me is that girl standing in the midst of a busy train station packed with smoke and people, squeezed between two suitcases. Here she is, hands in her pockets, gazing with concern at the world around her. “Mom, why does she look worried? Do you think she feels lonely? Where are her mom and dad? Why is everyone leaving? Are they scared?”

In my new role as the Chair of the Penselen jury, I was lucky to read and look at hundreds of beautifully illustrated children books this year. I was struck by their diversity, their social engagement, and their willingness to tackle difficult topics. It gave me hope,  but also reminded me that we are responsible for cultivating each other’s empathy.

Parents: Read books to your children! 

Illustrators: Illustrate children’s stories! 

These are the most important things we can do for society right now.