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Celebrating Empathy Day with Kate Milner

Today is Empathy Day, a new annual event organised by EmpathyLab that focuses on using books as tools to build more understanding. Research shows that reading builds our real-life sensitivity towards other people, and empathy-boosting stories and poems can help to build connections between us all.

As well as organising activities around the country today, EmpathyLab have been working hard with a raft of experts to curate a list of books for 4-11 year-olds for building empathy, and we’re delighted that our own My Name Is Not Refugee by Kate Milner has been included!  You can view the full Read for Empathy guide here.

Empathy is an important skill to build and develop, especially at an early age. Books can be a powerful tool in offering insights into other people’s feelings, and in helping to develop understanding of different ways of life and the issues people face.

Kate Milner shares her own experiences in the desire to build empathy. She says:

I worked out the idea for  My Name Is Not Refugee whilst driving home from Cambridge one night at the very end of November 2015. The radio was describing how hundreds and thousands of refugees were coming across Europe from Syria looking for an escape from war. Many of the commentators in the UK were describing them as a zombie army, about to destroy us and our way of life. Unforgivably the refugees were referred to as cockroaches and it was suggested none of us should really care whether they lived or died. I felt very strongly that I wanted to counter this idea. I am a mother of three and I have no doubt I would have tried to get my children out of that ghastly civil war in what ever way I could.

I asked myself how I could use my abilities to help the refugees. I am not a very practical person and if I had turned up in a camp I would have caused more problems than I solved. But I can draw, so I thought of a book for children in host countries to explain what it means to be a refugee. In Britain we adults like to feel that children live in a different world full of kindly farm yard animals, that they never see television news or hear opinions from the tabloid press, but they do. If we do not present them with another view then we are tacitly accepting that refugees really are a threat and that foreigners are intrinsically dangerous.

Obviously a refugee crisis is not an obvious subject for a children’s book, so getting the tone right was not easy. However, I took a couple of decisions early on which helped. The first was that the central character, the un-named boy, is quite a cheerful, curious individual so he is not overwhelmed with fear and worry about the future. He gets what he can out of what is in front of him. The second is that the narrative is the mother telling her boy what will happen in the future. Most of us with children will tell them about an up-coming event that they might find difficult, like a move or a trip to hospital, to help prepare them. She is doing the same. This has allowed me to avoid talking about the real horror of the refugee experience.

I drew the three images which are, for me, the centre of the book: the boy faced with food he does not recognise, the boy surrounded by language he does not understand and the boy sleeping on a train station with many others. Then I sent them off to the V&A illustration awards. I was very lucky that they won the student category in 2016.

We live in intolerant times where many adults view simple-minded nationalism as an answer to our problems. It is the job of children’s books to point out to children that those being labelled as “the other” are just people like us. Empathy and Tolerance are a child’s best defence against the simplistic reactionary thinking which is so fashionable at the moment.

You can download classroom resources and discussion questions related to My Name is Not Refugee here.

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