The EmpathyLab founder contributes to our Q&A series
Describe your job
Leading non-profit EmpathyLab's development, along with four other founders - this involves everything from strategy to fundraising, creative development with authors, to training teachers.
Why did you establish Empathy Day?
The scientific research showing how reading builds empathy creates an extraordinary opportunity for society, publishing and education to use books more strategically to build this key social and emotional skill. Empathy Day helps focus attention on this, creating a lightning rod for spreading empathy messages and practices, and a new national conversation about how we can build a more empathetic society. Working with schools and libraries, we help children learn about and practise empathy, and have transformational empathy experiences through literature.
What was your first job in the book industry?
Freelance contract to publicise the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway winners. Ten years of wonderfulness, working with authors like Philip Pullman and David Almond.
Who has been the most influential person in your career?
Gosh, such a hard question! If I'm allowed two, Debbie Hicks, a fellow Reading Agency founder who is an amazing strategic thinker, and lately, professor Robin Bannerjee, head of psychology at Sussex University - I've learnt so much from him about how empathy works.
How has the industry changed since your first job?
I'm getting on now, so the digital changes have been enormous, and the new opportunities to connect readers to authors excite me. I also think there's a better understanding of the profound way in which public libraries develop readers.
What's the biggest challenge in your job?
Matching EmpathyLab's capacity to the enormous potential/amount to do. We're still largely volunteer-run, but growing!
What's the best piece of book-related advice you've ever been given?
Give up on a book you're not enjoying. Save reading energy for the ones that really resonate.
What are the most interesting things you're seeing at the moment in the industry?
Once a year, publishers submit books for our Read for Empathy collection for 4 to 16-year-olds. Even since we started four years ago, they have become noticeably, cheeringly more diverse.
What do you think might be the next big thing?
A literature-driven empathy movement, based on neuroscience evidence. It's not often that an industry can develop a whole new "why" - an articulation of the social good generated by its products. That's the position I believe the book industry is in, with a massive opportunity to build on the research showing the empathy-building power of reading, and at a time when educationally there's a new emphasis on importance of social/emotional skills for young people to thrive. And when empathy has surely never been needed more.
How are you coping with working from home?
Online training has been the biggest learning curve, but got it nailed now. Have felt extraordinarily lucky to have a garden and to live within reach of the South Downs.
How do you think the industry will come out of the Covid-19 crisis?
Increased reading in lockdown bodes well. Worried about cuts to libraries though (again).
What do you most like doing when you're not working?
Getting a nice cold can of lager out of the fridge.
What is the best book you've read in the last year?
Kwame Alexander's The Undefeated.
What are you reading now?
120 children's and YA books submitted by publishers for the 2022 Read for Empathy collection.
How do you like to read: on screen, on paper, or do you listen to audiobooks?
I'm so old school. I much prefer on paper.
Empathy Day inspires young people to learn more about empathy using the transformational power of books. This year Empathy Day LIVE! takes place on Thursday 10 June. For more on this year's free activities and digital events, visit: https://www.empathylab.uk/.