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AF Harrold – “The best literature develops children’s empathy”

The best literature enables us to walk in shoes we’ll hopefully never have to own, says author AF Harrold...

  • AF Harrold – “The best literature develops children’s empathy”

Can books help children faced with loss or the sudden awareness of mortality?

A number of my novels take this fact-of-death-as-a-fact-of-life as a central premise, including my latest, The Afterwards, which involves a girl’s literal journey into the afterworld to bring back a dead best friend, in the course of which she confronts her long-dead mother.

I am, however, in no way qualified to answer that question. I’m neither a psychologist or counsellor, teacher or parent. This sort of talk is best left to the experts, because, despite Mr Gove’s feelings, that’s what we have experts for.

I write these books with loss at their heart (The Imaginary; The Song From Somewhere Else) simply because those are the books I write. As an artist you find yourself exploring the same psychic landscape time and again, because that landscape is the one in which we live.

Two poems constantly circle in my head. One is Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ and the other is William Wordsworth’s ‘Surprised By Joy’. The former is spoken by the dead love. It says, ‘Remember me when I’m gone, but if you forget for a bit, that’s fine.’

The latter is spoken by the living, who sees something wonderful and turns to share it with his daughter, and only in that moment remembers she is dead and berates himself for ever having forgotten that fact. This is what grief is, what living after death is: remembering and forgetting.

But I don’t write books about that. The novels aren’t handbooks to help the reader learn about mortality and how to cope with it.

They are simply stories about characters interacting in the world they live in, and what children will take away first and foremost (and most importantly), is that they’re exciting adventures.

The kid who is struck by bereavement — which takes many forms, not just the death of a loved one, but also loss of a country, a pet, a toy (Dogger is an unparalleled book) — is probably not the one who needs my books.

In fact, it seems wantonly cruel to me: “Tommy, your mum’s died. Here’s a book about a dead mum.” The rest of us are the ones for whom art is perhaps most important.

To be upset by a book is good. To cry at a book is good. To feel empty and broken at the end of a book is good.

This is what the best art does. It beats us about the emotions — emotions that we borrow for the length of time we share the story: whether they’re Conor and his dying mother’s in A Monster Calls, or those of Michael and his sickly baby sister in Skellig, or of Jesse and Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia.

We get to walk in shoes we hopefully will never own for a long time, but which will allow us to hold a hand out to those around us who are hurting; to say, “I get a bit of what you’re going through.” This is, of course, simply empathy, a thing the world can always do with more of.

Some poems, however, are distilled nuggets of time, feeling or emotion, designed to be carryable in the pocket of the mind.

Look, for instance, at a poem from my collection Things You Find in a Poet’s Beard called ‘A Poem for My Mum’.

It’s a list made up of simple similes (‘I miss you like the puddle misses the snowman it was’), but I’ve been told it strikes a chord with people. It, or a poem like it, may be a way to see the feelings the reader is unable to quite put into words him or herself.

If you read that poem, or maybe the Rossetti one mentioned earlier (which I read at my dad’s funeral and put in the booklet for my mum’s), it might be a comfort in time, or a way to reconnect with the feelings as they fade, or simply a pebble to stroke when the clouds are closing in.

My inexpert gut feeling suggests that (in the broadest of broad generalisations) novels are good for the general bolstering of empathy, while poems (which do that too, of course) can be talismen that speak to our specific ills.

It is poems we return to. Poems we memorise. Poems that we share. There is a good reason, it seems to me, we usually read poems at funerals and not excerpts from novels.


AF Harrold’s new book, The Afterwards, is published by Bloomsbury.

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