In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells Scout that
“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus is articulating the concept of empathy; the ability to feel another‘s feelings, and understand from their point of view.
Historic fiction provides a little distance; there is no current or personal issue, and the reader is allowed to imagine feelings, without any personal threat. Though removed in time and space, Zane in Zane and the Hurricane is someone with whom middle grade readers can identify. Zane is 12; his life is not unlike our reader’s lives. His journey through hurricane Katrina sweeps him from his usual life into experiences of joy, loss, sorrow, fear, and bravery. He meets the grandmother he didn’t know existed and finds that he’s not at all sure that he likes her. He encounters dangerous events and people.
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Many of our children have or will encounter dangerous people and events, and a great many of them will not. And, maybe more of them fear dangerous people and events which they imagine will come someday. The hurricane setting, oddly, provides some safety when it comes to considering how to respond to danger, real or imagined. Zane recognizes danger and is appropriately fearful, but he also learns to seek safety and guidance. Zane isn’t really heroic--that might remove the opportunity for genuine empathy--but he is honest and caring and helpful, even when he’s scared.
Zane encountered realities in his life that many of us might prefer to hide from our children: parents in rehab, parents in jail, caretakers and friends who are not wholesome and protective. Zane and the Hurricane does not emphasize these aspects of life, but they are mentioned, and contribute to the movement of the story. Despite these factors Zane (usually) makes good choices; these are just aspects of his life and not a consuming focus. His mistakes in judgement are mentioned casually with the same lack of emphasis as the mention of dead bodies floating in the water; life moves forward. Difficulties and mistakes are absorbed into forward progression. There is no lingering, no berating.
The reader can identify with Zane partly because it’s “just a story,” about something which happened long ago. Even though these parts of life may be very different for the reader, the reader can also sense that these children are not so very different, and we share feelings across time and space. I would probably be frightened; I might chase my dog in the storm even though I knew not to. I might make mistakes, but I too will recover from them and manage my situation despite danger and adversity.
When children read about challenging events, hurricanes and wars, it’s common to ask, “How would you feel if……..?” Feelings are not so much evoked in non-fiction exercises. Non-fiction presents the reader with facts and details which can be compartmentalized, perhaps necessarily so. As an adult, even I was overwhelmed by the facts of Hurricane Katrina--all those people on rooftops! Early on, for me, real people became just dots on rooftops. I just could not think about this. But, fictionalized characters offer a face and words to both free and limit our imaginations, and so I was able to journey with just one person, Zane, to see and feel the event through his eyes. I was able to experience both compassion and empathy--which I avoided when reading or seeing the news--when I looked through Zane’s eyes. I believe that this one brave, frightened, disobedient, and courageous child may create safe space for our middle school readers to feel all those feelings, too.
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