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Want to Make the World a Better Place? Give Kids Books

Books make the world familiar, normalize all types of people and situations, and teach us how to live and how to be our best selves. If you want to do your part to foster an engaged, broad-minded, and empathetic world, the best way to do that is to give kids books.

by Jenna Kalinsky.

Want to know the secret to ensure your kids are engaged, broad-minded, and grow into adults of consequence who will help the world be a better, more compassionate place?

Give them books.

Well-written literature gives readers the ability to appreciate others’ experiences and generates feelings of empathy. Parents can nurture this openness in their children by giving them books that span the diversity of human experience and by normalizing reading as an integral part of daily life.

When children are exposed to a wide range of narratives involving an even wider range of characters, the familiar reinforces self-acceptance and their own experiences as valuable, and the unfamiliar becomes familiar, connecting readers through their fictional counterparts to one another and unifying them in a shared thread. 

In a world that needs more compassion and understanding than ever, feelings of belonging, of connection, and of appreciation for others are the most important gift we can give. Starting with kids is the way we will invite the world, one kid at a time, to be a better place for everyone.

Why Stories Have Such Strong Impact

Human beings come into the world already positioned to appreciate and crave stories.

Stories are our way of making meaning out of feelings, thoughts, and the great unknown. By drawing connections between these things, we are able to form bigger pictures and gain an understanding of complex situations.

Where facts in and of themselves, isolated from a greater context, tend to be less “sticky,” facts anchored in situation and story find purchase as relevant. When well-rounded characters and visceral details are involved, we can plant ourselves in the imagined moment, and that’s how we connect to things and remember them. 

In fact, people remember information when it is weaved into narrative up to 22 times more than with facts alone.

Stories Engender Empathy

Stories make information feel “real” by contextualizing it in a way that reflects real life experience. Details of the senses make the fictional world visual, sensorial, and “come to life;” actors/characters journey through the narrative with a purpose; and the tension embedded in stories—that feeling of “what’s at stake” for those characters—taps into and realizes for us our biological imperative to survive.

Additionally, studies show that people who read literary fiction, which is to say stories that speak to the human condition with realistic/complex characters and that use vivid language and musical or lyric sentences, grow a much greater capacity for empathy.

middle grade books on shelf

Researchers reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active.


Metaphors that used nouns roused the sensory cortex:

  • The singer had a velvet voice
  • He had leathery hands


While phrases matched for meaning using adjectives did not:

  • The singer had a pleasing voice
  • He had strong hands

“Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul

The more we read literature, which is rife with opportunities to explore a world that comes to feel as real as the one we physically inhabit (certainly, when one is reading, the distinction between the “real” and the “fictive” blurs), the more we have the opportunity to enter into those worlds in full, including into the hearts and minds of the characters whose lives, foibles, and triumphs begin to feel personal.

“There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters,” says Anne Murphy Paul.

Books Normalize Others' Experiences

This ability to sink into that secondary experience is what researchers have come to call “Theory of Mind.” 

ToM is the ability to understand that even if others don’t necessarily hold the same beliefs as us, we can still appreciate their perspective. Such an appreciation is closely linked to empathy, which is to not only understand another’s experience but to be able to enter into it emotionally and intellectually.

It has been found that children as young as three years old can develop Theory of Mind.

Paul notes that “A 2010 study by Dr. [Raymond] Mar [a psychologist at York University in Canada] found in preschool-age children that the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind.”

child reading under covers by flashlight

Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.

Books Broaden World View, Enhance Communication Skills, and Invite Inquiry

Understanding the complexities of social life is a skill everyone needs. While we can take for granted that children will always respond to a thoughtfully written story, we can go further to nurture an appreciation for those that detail experiences happening beyond our own backyards.

In a list of ways in which reading is crucial for children’s development, Pam Myers, BSEd, confirms “[A] broader worldview encourages curiosity, and fosters communications skills and an inquiring mind.”

Those attributes gain yet more traction in a child who is given stories that take place in other parts of the world and that feature characters of all backgrounds, beliefs, and abilities. Such literature engenders more understanding for the human experience and a feeling of familiarity with those characters and their situations.

As storytelling, especially in novels, gives us a glimpse into another person’s conscience to see how they think, it can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them.

vintage children's books with antique roller skate

Books Make the Unknown Known & Invite Acceptance

A study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as “outsiders” (e.g. foreigners, people of another culture, appearance, or religion).

U of T Professor Kang Lee has found that racial bias may arise in babies as young as six to nine months of age.

“ … racial bias may arise out of our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy. […] parents can help prevent racial bias by introducing their children to people from a variety of races.”

If children don’t see diversity in their everyday lives, they may feel awkward or fearful when in the presence of someone who presents as “different” from them. 

But books showcase all walks of life and the richness of human experience and bring into a child’s home, the body, and the mind the idea that all children are at their core the same, and and it is a gift to enjoy the variety and diversity of people and all that makes them special. 

“Imagine if every child got books, full of characters that reflect diversity in every way. This would show children many examples of how people come together, no matter what their race or religion, sexual orientation or disability, to learn new things, to have fun, and to solve problems (real or imagined!). It would show them that people experience the same sadnesses and joys, disappointments and celebrations. It would put the focus on what we have in common. It would teach children that instead of fearing someone who doesn’t look like you or believe what you believe, you respect them, learn from them, enjoy them.”

cross section of human brain in black and white

Give Kids Books to Teach Them About Compassion & Effecting Social Change

Because books move us to empathy and TOM (Theory of Mind), our giving children books that celebrate diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance not only exposes them to the world but does so in immediate and tangibly satisfying ways that ultimately promote compassion and social change.

It’s a known fact that kids who grow up around books and who are in the presence of other readers develop an affinity toward reading more than kids who don’t.

In his book The Storytelling AnimalJonathan Gottschall says studies show that, “the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and … therefore “people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, [and] are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t.”

What You Can Do: One Kid at a Time

The world we live in is a beautiful and thrilling one, but we as a global community still have so much to learn and apply when it comes to acceptance, connection, and kindness. 

While all people would do well to pick up a good book in order to expand their essential selves and become better and more empathetic human beings (or keeping up the good work with all the reading they’re already doing!), we can do even more good by consciously and responsibility sharing with the next generation good stories, ones that excite them, fulfill them, and celebrate the richness in all people so they become well-rounded, engaged citizens of the world.

It’s not hard after all. It just starts by giving kids books.

Then, oh, the places they’ll go.

What books have you shared with your children that you would recommend to other parents/caregivers/educators? Please comment below!

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