Stories as we know, give us endless opportunities to see the world through other people's eyes as we share their thoughts and feelings. As readers we turn the page to find out what happens next, but not just on the physical surface of the story. We also want to discover what's happening inside the characters, to their fears and hopes. In the place where they are most like us, their inner world.
Stories remind us how much we all share, regardless of our physical and circumstantial differences. Which is reassuring, specially to young readers. The knowledge that our hopes and fears are also to be found inside playground bullies and loving parents and presidents of the United States is a good and useful knowledge to have. It helps us, from an early age, start sorting out the differences between what people do and why they do it.
One of the things I enjoy doing when I read a story is to hop into the shoes and the throughts and feelings of not just the main character, but every character, whether the author takes us there or not. It's fascinating how rich and varied the action of a story and the characters in it are when we're seeing them from all those different points of view. And how the simple idea of goodies and baddies turns out to be a bit more complicated and interesting.
I don't only do it as professional development for my job. I started doing it as a kid, because it was fun. Little did I know how much it would help me later in life. Such as when I was eleven and a neighbour spent several minutes telling me in a very loud voice that I was a very bad boy. Thanks to that simple reading exercise, I already knew he was only talking about my behaviour, and only that part of my behaviour involving his garage door and some mouldy fruit. I accepted that my behaviour was unfair to him, not to mention the door, but I was pretty sure rottenness was only to be found in the fruit, not in my heart.
As we look around the world and see some of the things that people do, it's easy to whip out the post-its and start distributing goodie and baddie labels. But the more time we spend, specially as young people, in as wide a variety of inner worlds as possible, the more opportunity we have to experience different ways of looking at things.
Who knows what we readers will experience as we spend time in all those different shoes. Fascinating things, scary things, confusing things, familiar things, things that make our mouths fall open and our hearts swell and sometimes bring tears to our eyes.
It's up to us what we make of them. But when we notice how often they involve people struggling to do their best, we may well experience, in among the swirl of emotions we feel as we read, regular pulses of hope.
Questions to help explore these ideas further
If you'd like to explore these ideas further, here are some questions young readers might enjoy answering.
- What sort of characters do you enjoy reading about most in stories? Characters who mostly do good things, or bad things, or a mixture of both?
- Can you think of a character you've read about who started out doing a lot of bad things, and ended up doing good things? How about the other way round? Good things first, then bad things later. Did you still like that character? Did you understand why they were doing those things?
- Do you like characters who think differently to you? Can you think of one who seemed weird at first, until you got to know them better after a couple of chapters?
- Do you prefer characters who have stronger feelings than you, or less strong feelings? Or about the same?
- Do you prefer characters who do what you would do if you were in the story? Or different things?
- Have you ever read a story told by an animal or a bird or an insect or any aquatic species? How did that feel? Were you able to imagine you were that character?
- Of all the human characters you've ever read, who was most different to you? Did you like them? Do you think they would like you?
- Do you ever find yourself wanting to change a character while you're reading a story? Make them think, feel or behave differently. Have you ever done it? (I mean in your imagination, not crossing out sentences in a book and writing your own. Though come to think of it, that would be an interesting thing to do. I do it all the time. Best to use your own copy though.)