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“Teaching Kids Empathy through Story”

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Recently NPR’s All Things Considered aired a piece about a research study suggesting that school kids who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes toward people from disadvantaged groups. The reporter said, “So it turns out Harry Potter may be an effective tool against prejudice…When stories allow us to empathize with people who lead very different lives or come from very different backgrounds, it allows us to get into their shoes in a way that no amount of preaching can accomplish.”

While this doesn’t surprise me, I find it extremely interesting and validating.

I consider myself empathetic to an extreme. To be a writer of fiction, I believe that’s a requirement—we have to get inside our characters’ heads to see who they are, how they live, how they think. If I didn’t have empathy, then all of my characters would be privileged white women in their forties. But that’s not who I write. I write about teenagers—female, male, white, non-white, gay, immigrant, autistic, mentally ill.

In The Fix, some of Macy’s actions could be judged—she’s not particularly nice to her mother, she has a history of sleeping around—but as you get to know her, you learn that there’s a reason for her behaviors that even she doesn’t quite understand, even when the reader already does. Same goes for Sebastian. He’s an addict, he suffers from depression, and he spends several weeks at a psychiatric institute.

For readers who have experienced any of these hardships—depression, addiction, sexual abuse—I hope they’ll see that they’re not alone. I hope a reader who has been abused will see that telling someone can help. But I also hope that readers who haven’t dealt with any of these things will take away an understanding of the difficulties a friend may be going through, and will see how important it is not to trivialize or overlook pain that may be underneath the surface.

This quote I found really struck me, and I think of it now whenever I write: “We could be standing next to someone who is completely broken and we wouldn’t even know it.”

Part of empathy is realizing that people wear cloaks to make the pain and scars inside easier to hide. When we read, we see beneath the cloaks. Maybe that can help us look at our friends, our classmates in a new light. Maybe we can question actions first instead of judging. Maybe we can begin to understand what it feels like to be a survivor of abuse, an addict struggling every day to stay clean, an immigrant who fears deportation, an intersex girl learning about her complex body, a boy with Aspergers who wants close friends but doesn’t always understand the nuances of social interactions, an impoverished girl who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.

If the studies are true, and kids can become more empathetic by reading diverse narratives, then we need to keep giving them the stories. I promise to keep writing them, and I hope you’ll keep teaching them.

 

About the Book:

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“Sinel bravely addresses tough topics, demonstrating that the weight of secrets can pull us under––and their release can save us from drowning.” —Holly Schindler, critically acclaimed author of A Blue So Dark and Feral

“Bewitching, beautiful, and brave . . . readers will marvel at Macy’s resilience. Sinel’s writing devastates and uplifts, by turns.” —Carrie Mesrobian, award-winning author of Sex & Violence and Perfectly Good White Boy

“A riveting picture of a teenager haunted by her past and struggling with her present . . . richly drawn, heartbreakingly real, and difficult to put down. The Fix shines.” —I. W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above

“A vivid storyteller, Sinel tackles an emotional topic, portraying the pain and repercussions of Macy’s experience with an honest sensitivity. I was hooked from the opening pages.” —Yvonne Ventresca, award-winning author of Pandemic

“Unflinchingly honest writing.” —Marie Jaskula, author of The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl & Random Boy

Perfect for fans of Laura Weiss’s award-winning Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers, as well as Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland, THE FIX (Sky Pony Press; September 1, 2015; ISBN: 978-1-63450-167-5; $16.99; ages 12 & up), by debut author Natasha Sinel, addresses real-life issues of drug addiction and sexual abuse.

While there are many YA novels that focus on sexual abuse, very few explore the complex effects of sibling sexual abuse, which is extremely prevalent (five times the rate of parent-child sexual abuse) and underreported. The Fix, a contemporary story featuring two teenagers from opposite sides of the track, fills a void in young adult fiction.

Meet seventeen-year-old Macy. Rich, popular, and dating the cute boy next door, Macy’s life should be perfect. But she harbors a secret that could ruin her seemingly flawless family. A late night conversation with loner and recovering addict Sebastian at her friend Rebecca’s party throws Macy’s life off balance. The following morning Sebastian doesn’t show up at school, and rumors fly that he’s been hospitalized after attempting suicide. Though their conversation was brief, Macy feels connected to Sebastian and begins to visit him in the hospital. Their blossoming friendship eventually shakes Macy out of her carefully maintained complacency as she realizes that keeping her secret could destroy her.

The Fix not only tells the story of two good-hearted teenagers coming to terms with the cards they were dealt but is also about the fixes we rely on to cope with our most shameful secrets, and the hope and fear that comes with meeting someone who challenges us to come clean. Written with honesty and sensitivity, Sinel’s heartfelt and courageous debut will inspire readers.

About the Author:

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Natasha Sinel is a writer of young adult fiction. She graduated from Yale University with a BA in English and from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business with an MBA. Before beginning her career as an author, she was director of business development at Showtime Networks. Born and raised in Washington, DC, she now lives in northern Westchester, New York, with her husband and three sons.

You can visit her website at natashasinel.com.

Thank you to Sara at Sky Pony Press for sharing this great book with us, and thank you, Natasha, for your beautiful words.

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