When I was a child, I didn’t know what it was like to live in tribes or be forced to marry foreigners or give up your homeland. But I discovered the novels of Scott O’Dell and realized there was a whole other world out there than the one I’d known.
In high school, I was drawn to Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, who wrote about growing up black; I felt a kinship with them because I had never read stories that felt so real and representative of my experience in a low income (or, rather, poor) family.
In college, I read Tim O’Brien and Mary Karr and David Sedaris and Katherine Applegate and Richard Wilbur and Sylvia Plath and everything ever written by Shakespeare and William Faulkner and Charles Dickens, and I felt seen and understood by some and enlightened by others.
Stories have the ability to be both mirrors, showing us more clearly who we are, and windows, peering in on a life that is different than ours.
The question has come up in this month after the publishing of The Colors of the Rain: why did I write it? There are many answers to this question; I don’t believe in simple answers. But if I could boil it down to its barest simplicity, I would say that I wrote it to be a mirror and a window.
In a mirror, we find ourselves. In a window we find each other.
It’s the latter that can be the most transformative—because of empathy.
Scientific studies have proved again and again that stories build empathy in children (and in readers of any age; we are never too old to develop empathy). That’s why stories are so important. Empathy—the development of it—is vital to understanding people who are different from us, to putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining their worlds, to building the muscles of love, compassion, and kindness. We read and we transform.
My sons are encouraged—urged, really—to read every chance they get. I suggest books that show them who they are, and I suggest books that show them who others are, because the more we listen to the stories of those who are different—who live differently; love differently; believe differently; play, work, dream differently—the more we come to recognize that we are all connected by the same threads: we are all human, we are all creative, we are all clinging to hope.
While we may live worlds apart, we are bound by stories. We are shaped by stories. We are made better by stories.
And as long as we keep reading stories, we will remain: connected, understood, and much more than we could be alone.
Rachel Toalson is an author, essayist, and poet who regularly contributes to adult and children’s print and online publications around the world. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and six boys. The Colors of the Rain is her first traditionally published novel. You can visit her online at www.rltoalson.com.