WRITING Finding empathy

In the run-up to this week's Empathy Day, author Cath Howe talks about how empathy and writing are intricately linked.

Empathy Day falls on 6th June, when schools and organisations celebrate empathy and seek to embed it more deeply in their culture. Empathy can be learned. Books encourage us to walk in the shoes of others. I’m so glad to have seen three of my middle grade titles selected in annual ReadForEmpathy collections with EmpathyLab: Ella on The Outside, How to be Me and My Life On Fire

The 6th June is also publication day for Muffin and the Shipwreck, the 3rd in my younger series of Call the Puffins! published by Hachette, and wonderfully illustrated by Ella Okstad.


How are empathy and writing linked? I think writing for children is an act of empathy and that this is at the heart of my writing process. As authors we find deep connection with characters as we write, exploring their lives and challenges. We use our own experiences, recalling powerful feelings and bringing these alive on the page or screen.


When I started writing Call the Puffins! in 2020 we were in the middle of lockdown. This was a time of sadness, and I was missing the direct contact with children in school which often inspires my best writing. 

Instead, I was online trying to enthuse an unfamiliar group of children in a London primary school that felt very far away. The Call the Puffins! series was a great project to be doing in parallel; the optimism of my young puffin rescue team really appealed to me. They seemed to be calling out from happier times somewhere ahead, but out of view.


Since the first Call the Puffins! book came out, I have visited schools and run events, describing the team of puffin cadets who are trained to rescue birds and eggs in danger, and their island world. These plucky puffins care about other birds; they put their lives on the line.


I've always felt huge admiration for the RNLI and all they do to patrol the waters around the UK. I've listened to their heroic accounts in the TV series Saving Lives at Sea and marvelled at their selflessness.


Sometimes my creations surprise me. My puffins have now taken on lives of their own. My series has developed its own wings. Life on the island of Egg has been revealed to me incrementally as each book has progressed.


My middle grade fiction with Nosy Crow (such as My Life on Fire) might seem to be a different type of writing. I depict real life situations and child characters living in today’s complex world. The plots explore messy family situations and complicated friendship issues.


But I now realise that the Call the Puffins! stories have actually developed along surprisingly similar lines; I still explore friendship and choices. The fact that these are seabirds limits me in some ways but frees me in others!


In all my fiction I show characters making choices: they may be unkind or rude; they may make mistakes or tell lies; they may find joy in the oddest places. Just as in my middle grade fiction, the puffin characters discover friendship and connection and support each other.


We are social animals. Empathy is about connection, friendship, and community. When I work each week teaching young creative writers, I'm always struck by the values that their schools pass on to the children. Schools are busy, supportive communities. They are places where kindness towards one another is paramount.


Empathy operates on the level of our feelings. It can create change in the way we make choices in the whole of our lives. When children read, they experience the pain and joys of the characters in the story. Science even tells us that on a brain scan, these reactions can light up in the same way as actual lived experiences.

In all my fiction I show characters making choices: they may be unkind or rude; they may make mistakes or tell lies; they may find joy in the oddest places


In Muffin and the Shipwreck
, a puffin named Forti ignores instructions and swims out to the shipwreck to have fun. Children enjoy reading about a character messing up and causing chaos for others. They can discuss what Forti is doing within the safe world of the book. Their own experience will always be in the background in discussions, but books provide a space for discussion away from actual life.


Schools can encourage children to develop greater emotional literacy, naming emotions of characters they are reading about and discussing the choices they make.


I have designed teaching materials for Call the Puffins! which help children to locate and name emotions. Additionally, all my resources for my older middle grade books offer suggestions for activities which encourage discussion, drama role playing and a deeper understanding of how we behave towards each other.


All writers use empathy to write, tapping into something particular in our own lives.


I enjoy running workshops for adult writers where we explore our experiences of childhood. I start by locating the child we each were: the mischievous, shy, sad or complicated child inside us. When we rediscover that child self, we find empathy with the particular vulnerabilities which we have carried into adulthood. I think one of the most useful exercises is to find the muddles, mysteries, passions, and big events from childhood and use these as a starting point for writing.


My background is in drama teaching and script writing. It’s no surprise then that I often find I can write the dialogue in a scene first. I need to know how my characters get along with each other, their concerns and fears and what brings them joy.


I also sometimes write the monologues of characters who figure around the edges of my stories, even though these will not appear in the final novel. I’m fascinated by contrasting characters. I love writing multiple viewpoints, an exercise in empathy in and of itself.


I’m an optimist. I believe empathy really can change the world.


My puffins make a daily promise:

 I promise to be unflappable

 To bravely cross the sea and sky

 To rescue eggs and also birds

 It may not work, but I’ll always try


I realise now that this is actually my motto in everything. Find the connection and the warmth. Find the empathy!

*Find out more about Empathy Day run by EmpathyLab here.

*Header image by Ell Rose; 

all other images courtesy of Cath Howe



Cath Howe is an author, teacher and puffin enthusiast. The world of Call the Puffins! is a complete one: the main characters are warm and open-hearted with a ‘doing their best’ attitude. The themes encompass friendship, teamwork, resilience and optimism and offer a comparison to the experience of starting a new school. Cath is an EmpathyLab-trained author and has previously written middle-grade novels - Ella on the Outside, Not My Fault, How to Be Me and My Life on Fire for Nosy Crow - and educational books published by Pearson. Cath lives in Surrey, UK.


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.
Find their work at www.fourfooteleven.com
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter
Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting to see how books can be used to develop enpathy and how teaching resources can help with this. Does SCBWI have any training or resources on developing teaching resources based on books. I have recently had my first children's book published, 'An Cat Coigreach' / The Foreign Feline is a middle grade novel in Gaelic about a cat who helps people with their feelings. I am wondering how to go about developing some resources to use with the book, particularly around feelings


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