How Stories Bind Us Together and Promote Empathy

The Colors of the Rain

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


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

The Importance of Reading Aloud to Kids: or, Do Kids Grow Out of Read-Aloud Time?

The Colors of the Rain

When my oldest son turned ten, he told me he now wanted his privacy during bath time.

This, of course, is a normal part of growing up; children like the presence of their parents, the stability they can offer in the moments of a day when they are young—and then one day they no longer need us. But I was not quite ready.

For the last seven years I had sat in the bathroom while he bathed and I read a book aloud, just him and me. We read fun books together—The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, The Westing Game. We read serious books: Chicken Boy, Home of the Brave, Brown Girl Dreaming. We read biographies—George Lucas, Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou. We read novels in verse, graphic novels, short novels, long novels, all the ones in between. We laughed, we cried, we talked, we wondered, we connected.

We connected. This is what reading aloud to kids—no matter how old they are—does: it connects us.

This bathing time was not the only time my son and I read together, so though it was a difficult time to surrender (because a mother has difficulty surrendering at every stage), it was also not so difficult. In my home, I read stories to my sons in the morning, during their lunch (I have only one who is not in school now, so this has become a precious time with him), and before they go to bed. We read picture books, joke books, magazines, newspapers, poetry. Lots of poetry. Sometimes we read around our dinner table (it helps kids stay put at the table). We are always working on a chapter book I read aloud to the entire family—sometimes two if it’s summertime. (Current reads are the latest Incorrigible Children book and Chicken Boy, again.)

One of the earliest pictures my husband took of my first son and me is one where I am stretched out on the floor, reading to him from a collection of Shel Silverstein poetry. This is not intended to be a self-congratulatory admission; it is only to say that the structure of read-aloud time is built one day at a time. We all start somewhere; for me that starting place was on the floor, with my infant, reading poetry I could almost recite by heart, so loved is it.

Reading aloud to children has multiple benefits. For very young children, it familiarizes them with the pattern of language and encourages speech. For children who are emerging readers, reading aloud introduces them to the random letters that turn into words that pave the way for reading proficiency. As children get older, reading aloud to them builds their vocabulary and their interest in stories—which leads to a lifelong love.

But the most important value that reading loud offers is its connection.

When my twins were newly born, they spent twenty excruciating days in the neonatal intensive care unit. They were perfectly healthy with a good set of lungs; it was hospital procedure, however, to keep premature babies in NICU to ensure they knew how to eat and would flourish in the first weeks of life. During that time, when I was allowed only pockets of visitation, I brought bags of books and read them to my babies, silently urging them to eat so that I could bring them home.

We connected, in those first weeks of their lives, through touch, through nourishment, through stories.

Yes, some might be thinking—but they were babies. What happens when your children are older—ten, say, or fourteen, or eighteen?

My answer is always the same: Kids don’t grow out of read-aloud time.

There are days in my life that fly by with hardly a notice. I am not alone in this; our lives roll on at a staggering pace. Carving out reading aloud time allows families—parents and children—to press pause, to take a breath, to connect again. And those threads of connection weave all throughout our lives. They are everlasting threads.

My oldest son is now eleven. He is about to embark on a new journey, heading into middle school, navigating puberty, experimenting with who he wants to be. He needs connection now more than ever.

The other night, after an explosive argument on all sides (strong wills are abundant in my home), my son let himself into my bedroom, plopped down on my bed beside me, and said, “Mama will you read to me? I just need someone to read to me.”

And what could I do but say yes?

Rachel Toalson


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


The Colors of the Rain.jpg

My adolescence was marked by a father leaving. The news came in the mail, in a letter that said my father had a daughter and a son by another woman. We had been replaced.

This knowledge—this replacement—gouged a big, thick crater in me. And there were other things to solidify what it spoke to my heart: Not good enough.

My mother told us over dinner that she’d be divorcing my father. My brother ran. I was too numb to move. My sister was 8 and had never really known our dad, so she kept eating her dinner as though the whole world had not just fallen apart.

I’ve written this experience over and over again. A father leaving. A child coming to terms with the leaving.

My father left in totality. He was not a frequent communicator at the best of times, even when he and my mother were still married, but after the divorce we would go months that stretched into years without hearing from him. The longest time between calls was four years. I was in high school. He had, essentially, disappeared.

The loss of a parent is difficult for children at any stage, but particularly for adolescents. Your brain is undergoing significant changes at this stage of life. Your body is metamorphosing, your thoughts and emotions are a brainstorm.

This is one of the reasons I wrote THE COLORS OF THE RAIN: to show those who have been left behind by a parent that they are seen, they are loved, they are still significant. And, most importantly: They will survive.

The problem is that when you’re going through a situation like this, you’re not talking to other people. You become very insular, trying to figure out what you did wrong, why he left, what you can do to bring him back.

I wanted to start #TheColorsOfTheRain because life’s circumstances—whether it’s a parent leaving or an unexpected sickness or lack of financial resources—can seem particularly overwhelming to adolescents, who are already overwhelmed at this stage of life. But those of us who have been through such circumstances know that there is an end to that story. There is The Other Side. We can point to the color in the rain.

Sometimes the rain has to quench the land’s thirst to produce a beautiful garden. Let’s help adolescents through that rain.

What I’d like you to do is share your own wisdom and encouragement using #TheColorsOfTheRain; I’ll collect them and put them in a central place so when young people need help finding color in their rain, they will find it.

Here’s what I would tell that little girl struggling through her parents’ divorce:

This is not your fault.

You are loved.

There is nothing you did to make him go away and nothing you can do to bring him back.

You are worthy of every good thing that comes your way.

What would you say to a child wading through your childhood circumstances?

. . .

Have something to add to the conversation? Share your wisdom for kids enduring difficult circumstances using the #TheColorsOfTheRain hashtag.

. . .

Rachel Toalson.jpgRachel 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


The Importance of Hard Stories for Young People

The Colors of the Rain.jpg

Hard stories exist all around us.

I’ve been listening to some of them. I’ve been sitting with people who survived challenging circumstances when they were kids, who turned around and stamped “beautiful” on their lives. I am humbled and inspired by their tales of finding brilliant color in the rain.

My sons have, so far, lived regular lives, as far as their childhood is concerned. They are fortunate enough to have two parents still deeply in love with one another; they have security in a home and traditional family that loves them; they are cared for in every way (though they would argue that they don’t get enough tech time in a day).

They do not have to know what it’s like to be afraid of an alcoholic dad. They do not have to experience the strange, unsettling contrast between loving a parent because he’s a parent and hating that parent for the trauma he’s caused. They do not have to know the instability and panic and worry that comes from money shortage, which turns a little girl into a mini-adult, a second mom, much too early.

And, like any parent, I hope they never will.

My home is situated in a part of San Antonio, Texas, where most of the kids live lives like my kids. They live in relative stability, comfort, privilege. Their worlds are mostly protected, mostly safe, mostly predictable.

But there are others. Others like me. Others who grow up wondering what it’s like to go a day without worrying that a mom won’t make it to a pick-up spot because maybe she was so tired from her multiple jobs that she had an accident on the way here and Second Mom will become First Mom. Others who carry around the guilt of not being able to contribute money to the family, so he quits eating instead; that’ll help. Others who must come to terms with parents leaving and what family means now.

These “others” don’t go around talking about their difficult childhoods. They try to hide it—coloring the holes in their shoes or the stains on their shirts with Sharpie markers to minimize their visibility; pretending they’re not really hungry; hiding their bruises, making excuses, detaching. I did not talk about my home situation; I tried as best I could to fit in and be like all the others. I kept to myself, did what I was supposed to do, never told anyone I was halfway glad my dad was gone because I didn’t have to be afraid of him anymore.

But isolation—hiding—was dangerous, and so was the lack of communication around these difficult things. I thought my experiences marked The End to my story—I was not worthy enough to achieve my dreams (and there were so many!); I would never be anything more than a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. I carried a whole heap of shame on my back for a very long time. Sometimes, on the worst days, I still do.

The importance of stories that reflect these hard childhoods is that kids, in reading them, in hearing them read aloud, in discussing them, feel bolstered by the story of someone like them. They feel seen. They feel heard. They feel understood and known and loved.

They feel brave.

If we keep these stories from them—the stories that broach, in a gentle and hopeful way, neglect and abandonment, abuse and violence, depression and the whole gaping world of mental trauma that can touch a kid—they will do exactly what I did in my childhood: they will internalize their shame; they will build walls that promise a small semblance of safety; they will isolate and lock down.

The fastest way to defeat that I’ve ever known is isolation. We need each other to survive, and that has always been the truth of humanity. Belonging. Acceptance. Love.

Finding a place to belong is something every kid needs. And sometimes—many times—stories are where they find it. Stories that tell them they are significant, worthy, able. Yes, mostly able—able to survive—to flourish!—to become something more than they have been.

And if one of my difficult stories can do that for them, then I have done my job as a writer.

Rachel Toalson.jpgRachel 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

How Novels in Verse Help “Reluctant” Readers

The Colors of the Rain.jpg

I work tirelessly, it seems, to keep my sons immersed in books; to encourage them, when bored, to pick up a book; to foster their love of reading. It’s important that my boys love reading; books, I believe are important for teaching kids as well as connecting them to the world around them. Reading well—measure by literacy rates—has the potential to lift children from the generational cycle of poverty.

I know. I was one of them.

But one of my sons has historically been a “reluctant” reader. He loves graphic novels, so I keep him well stocked with them. He enjoys lots of white space, and as I began to notice this about him, I had what I believe was a brilliant idea: in addition to pointing him toward graphic novels, point him toward novels in verse.

I put some on hold. He opened them. He read. He started getting more excited about reading.

One summer, I chose only novels in verse for his summer reading list. At the beginning of every summer, I ask my sons how many books they want to read during their vacation (the minimum is ten), and they get to pick half the books while I pick the other half. This “reluctant” reader flew through his list and beat all his brothers.

Novels in verse are the perfect stories for “reluctant” readers, because they have an abundance of white space in them, which means reluctant readers don’t feel overwhelmed by the wall of text they would see when opening a lengthy book written in prose. Readers flip through pages quickly, so they feel like they’re making actual progress—that they might be good at reading, even. And novels in verse are written sparsely, with no extra, unnecessary words, so readers are reading only what they need to know and are imagining the rest.

Readers become “reluctant” for many reasons. Sometimes they don’t yet have the confidence in their reading abilities to tackle a book that looks too long; it’s intimidating. Sometimes they don’t have the attention span (yet—it comes with practice) to read a lot of words on a page. Sometimes they’re tired.

My son comes third in a line of competent, voracious readers. My main concern was building in him the confidence he needed to become a proficient reader and, in the process, cultivate a love for reading.

The building block of literacy is the confidence readers have in their own reading abilities. Novels in verse foster that confidence: the white space on the page gives readers a place to breathe, pages through which to fly, and the time to look at their progress and believe they are fast, proficient readers.

The other day, my son was sitting in the wing chair where I write in my journal every morning. I was reading on my bed. He was reading Forget Me Not, by Ellie Terry, which was on his summer reading list this year. After a few minutes of silent reading, he said, “Mama! I’m almost done with this book!”

“That’s awesome!” I said, before I glanced up from my book and noticed that he had read only about a quarter of it and was not, in fact, almost done.

But the important thing was: he thought so.

Rachel Toalson.jpg

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