Fiction for human rights change
One of my daughters was lucky enough to have primary teachers who didn’t worry when the headcount in any lesson was down by one. They’d simply go and look for her in the tiny library, where she’d have crept away to read. They’d find her curled up on a cushion in the corner and persuade her back into the classroom, like border collies with a reluctant sheep. Books were so better than lessons, she said.
Later she did an A level in English but was never that interested. She felt that books were over-dissected and destroyed at the expense of the story. ‘Why would I want to write about books?’ she said. 'It spoils them.'
Passive reading versus active reading?
My daughter is like many for whom reading is a private affair. For lack of a better term, you might call it ‘passive reading’. It’s a total immersion approach to story, narrative style and tone. Being passive doesn’t mean it’s not engaging our brains and emotions at a deep level - readers invest a huge amount emotionally, intellectually and probably physiologically. Whose heart hasn’t beaten faster when reading a gripping crime thriller?
The other approach – favoured by educationalists - could be termed ‘active reading’. In schools and colleges, this involves close analysis and dissection of text, writing techniques and influences, combined with literary, social and historical contextualisation.
And what about human rights activist reading...
There is a third approach, which works with both passive and active readers, at home or in the classroom. It’s the area that we at Amnesty are most interested in, so I guess you could call it a human rights ‘activist’ reading style. It starts to happen when we care deeply about what happens in a story. It takes off at that point where we’re sufficiently fired up to feel morally outraged or inspired. It has an ethical dimension.
It’s when fiction empowers readers to take action for social change. To stand up and make a difference.
Fiction can be extraordinarily successful at making us reassess our attitudes, think twice and act. This could be campaigning against the death penalty after reading Stephen King’s The Green Mile or Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds. Standing up against racism after experiencing Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses series. Or it could be a simple act of kindness, encouraged by a picture book like How to Heal a Broken Wing, by Bob Graham.
The point being that a made-up story can encourage readers to take action in the real world.
Amnesty UK endorses novels and picture books partly to help readers take that next step into activism – to empower them to consider what comes next. A young reader of Jane Mitchell’s Chalk Line, for example, a story about a child soldier, is likely to feel fired up and want to do something to stop such horrors. So the Amnesty endorsement here means a page at the end with advice for the reader on where to turn for more information or to take action.
All credit to enlightened publishers such as Walker Books, Frances Lincoln, Phoenix Yard and Hot Key. Amnesty has endorsed or co-published many of their thoughtful books and we hope to do so for years to come. You can find some of them at our shop and we also have free fiction teaching notes prepared by our human rights education team.
Finally, what can I say about the daughter who’d slip out of lessons to read? Just that she’s one of the most empathetic 20 year olds I’ve ever met, who goes out of her way to support people in need. Maybe she’d have turned out like that anyway, but I give a lot of credit to books.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.