Once There Was A Boy: on books and empathy by Emily Gale

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One of us is a bully. 
One of us wants to be understood. 
One of us loves a girl who loves another. 
One of us remembers the past as if it just happened. 
One of us believes they’ve drawn the future. 
But we’re all on the same map, looking for the same thing.

To purchase this book click on title links or cover image.

Emily Gale’s latest young adult novel, ‘I Am Out With Lanterns’ is inspired by the Dickinson quote: ‘I am out with lanterns, looking for myself’. The theme of looking for oneself is richly woven through this stunning novel, along with themes of identity, friendships, family, diversity, multiculturalism and privilege. Multiple point of view novels can take time to settle into but in ‘I Am Out With Lanterns’, Gale had me emotionally invested in her characters and the narrative from the get-go. I silently cheered on Milo from start to finish, but each flawed and fabulous character was engaging and relatable, even those you were really probably meant to somewhat dislike.  There is nothing better than a bunch of complex characters pulling you into their lives and allowing you, the reader, to walk in their shoes for a time.

I’ve spoken so many times on my blog about the important role that books play in developing empathy, compassion and understanding. I do not know of any better way for our young people to be in the head of someone else and explore and better understand the hopes, desires and motives of others. In my mind, empathy is one of the greatest outcomes of a childhood spent reading.

As a mother and as an author of books for young adults, Emily Gale writes topical novels which are infused with hope and heart and make young people think deeply about what they stand for.  ‘I am out with Lanterns’ deals with how society perpetuates issues of toxic masculinity and the importance of addressing these issues with kids and teenagers. Emily has written a beautiful blog piece for Children’s Books Daily readers about her inspiration for writing ‘I am out with Lanterns’ and how parents and educators might begin to address these issues with the young people in their lives.

Thank you so much Emily!

Once There Was A Boy: on books and empathy by Emily Gale

Once there was a boy and the boy loved stars very much… is the opening of a picture book called How To Catch A Star, by Oliver Jeffers, which distils the innocence of childhood using a genius blend of wonder, humour, pathos and joy. The boy wants a star from the night sky. His attempts to reach one frustrate and sadden him. One day he sees a reflection of a star in the ocean and he tries to scoop it out of the water. Finally, a star washes up on a beach and the boy believes he’s caught one “of his very own”. He takes it home, jubilant.

Cynics amongst us may think that what actually washed up on the beach is a starfish. That thing is probably going to stink in a few hours; weeks from now we’ll find it buried deep in the Lego box. Perhaps we hate knowing that – envy the boy his purity. Certainly, when I read the story approximately three hundred times to my daughter over a decade ago, I never explained it to her, I just let her love it – she was the boy; she felt what the boy felt.

During that stage with our children, when – to take the picture book’s theme – they don’t understand how far away the stars are, it’s impossible to imagine the corrosion of that innocence. It’s inconceivable that they may turn out to be the sorts of kids who’d harm or ridicule their peers, even make someone feel as if their life was over.

The impetus for my new Young Adult novel came in July 2016 when news stories were breaking about highschool boys running Instagram accounts featuring photos of girls. Some of the photos were selfies, freely sent by girls to someone they liked. Many, many more images had been taken without permission. Experts suggested this was half the fun for the boys. The images showed girls naked, or half-dressed; some girls were still primary school-aged. They were rated and commented on, the language used grotesque and humiliating. A few boys, the account holders, were expelled from school as a result.

I wondered about those boys – the ones who started the accounts, and the hundreds more who contributed to it or were complicit by commenting, sharing, keeping quiet, laughing, leering in groups or alone. The hate or disregard; their desire, sense of power, their ability to disassociate – mothers, sisters and female friends on one side, and on the other side these girls who didn’t matter. How does that transformation take place, from sweet young boy?  Where was their empathy?

I’d suggest they mutated slowly, absorbing thousands of phrases, pictures and news reports, the status quo, one toxic drop at a time. We exist in a culture that breeds this behaviour. Don’t be such a girl. Man-up. It starts from the age when they can’t tell the difference between catching a star and finding a starfish on a beach.

Once there was a girl, and the girl loved stars very much . . .

We often hear that it’s impossible to ‘get boys to like girl stuff’ – the problem is we start too late. During my time as a bookseller I learnt that a huge percentage of adults would not buy a picture book like How To Catch A Star for a boy if it had a girl at the centre of the story instead. And that while there were lots of adults seeking out picture books for girls that centred girls (hello Paperbag Princess) those people wouldn’t hesitate to read boy-centred books to their daughters – to be the boy, to feel what the boy felt.

On a list of the bestselling children’s books of all time in the USA, you have to get through twenty-eight books before you reach a female central character: Jemima Puddle-Duck, to be precise – not exactly ‘The Duck That Could’, but a story of incompetent mothering. In Australia, female central characters top our all-time bestsellers with one crucial rule – like Jemima they must not be human. Possums and wombats with gender-neutral names. There is nothing at all wrong with that in itself, but it also speaks to the fact that in our culture we’re comfortable with the idea of little girls liking boy stuff, but fear the reverse – even those of us who know we shouldn’t. We get scared for our boys because we see that it’s shitty out there if you don’t fit into the small, hard box of Australian masculinity.

As the news stories about the highschool boys and their Instagram accounts played out in 2016, I read a lot of the comments underneath the online articles – one struck me as being the source of the problem. It was a father ruling out harsh punishment for the boys by using that old phrase ‘Boys will be boys’.

‘Boys will be boys’ was an ancient, Latin phrase, though back then it meant ‘children will be children’. At some point we decided that boys can do anything harmful as long as we avoid the worst possible alternative: boys will be girls. Girls, on the other hand, need to keep their knees together and not take too many selfies lest it make them seem available, vain or infinitely distributable.

I wrote a tweet during that time:  The problem isn’t skirt length. The problem isn’t lipstick. The problem isn’t selfies. The problem isn’t new. The problem isn’t girls.

And I began to interrogate my own squeamishness about selfies, Instagram, self-image, being in front of the lens, being the one behind it. From there I started to think about art – old notions of brilliant male artists and the female muses they used and abused; female artists who pioneered self-portraits, and doggedly stuck to them through constant criticism. The idea clicked into place of combining an examination of portraiture in classical art (particularly women as Muse to a male artist), and the modern phenomenon of ‘stealing’ images of people with our phones.

I Am Out With Lanterns is a book for and about teenagers, about how we all contribute to a toxic culture in which the sharing of selfies of innocent girls is written off to ‘natural’ ‘masculine’ hi-jinks. There’s a devoted mother, an ‘Instamum’, who’s turned her daughter into a brand by photographing her entire life, for what purpose is unclear. There’s a successful, wealthy father who’s never called out on his sexist language or overbearing manner. He’s not exactly violent on the page, but violence simmers around him. There’s the struggling artist who only ever paints his daughter or his string of girlfriends, playing them off against each other. There’s Nate, the teenage leader of the pack, defending his plan to slut-shame girls on a new app. When he’s challenged by another boy who says ‘But I’ve got a sister…’ Nate replies, ‘Well she’s not on here, so who cares?’

I wrote about the good guys, too.

Am I naïve to think that books could be part of the answer to this toxicity? Studies in neuroscience suggest that every little helps when it comes to empathy. Compassion has neurobiological roots – the brain has the ability to correct a tendency for self-centredness, but this becomes less likely if we’ve never experienced similar suffering. To construct a crude example, if you exist in a comfortable situation – say, the knowledge that you will never appear on social media, naked, ridiculed and objectified by thousands of people – it’s more difficult to empathise with someone who might. Our assessment of other people’s feelings is distorted when we never walk in their shoes.

But science also tells us that the circuitry can be rewired. It’s malleable. Not just that boys may realise what these experiences might be like for their sister, but what it might feel like if they were in her shoes. To be the girl, to feel what she feels. There is no naturally occurring kernel inside every boy that pops sometime after they’re potty-trained and turns them against girls. We turn them against girls.

Once there was a boy and the boy loved stars very much . . .

I wish we’d hold him, and ourselves, to a much higher standard.
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