The Bone Sparrow, The Arrival, and empathy

My Year Sevens are just coming to the end of their study of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, and it’s a long time since I’ve found a book that has gone down so well with a class. It’s a difficult business, choosing a new class reader. You find a book that you think your students will adore, spend ages developing a scheme of work and resources, and sometimes it just doesn’t play as well as you think it will. Some novels are Marmite, loved by some students but leaving others cold. Some fall a bit flat. What to do?

One of the difficult things about teaching English is that the subject blurs the boundary between academic domain and personal pleasure. Like all subjects, it demands that students spend time engaging with concepts and topics that they might not choose to engage with in their lives beyond the classroom. But there’s something about studying books that makes English different from Maths, or Geography, or the sciences. We are supposed to enjoy reading in a way that we’re not necessarily supposed to enjoy solving equations or exploring coastal landforms. It’s far easier for students to see these subjects as something that they simply have to learn. But reading has a different kind of existence, as something people do for pleasure, out of choice. What people read – indeed, if they read at all – is seen as more a matter of personal taste. And therefore students often really resent having to study a text they wouldn’t choose to read outside of school.

Sometimes, I growl that English is an academic discipline and that issues of personal preference shouldn’t matter. I talk about the reasons why we read and the fact that studying a text is about a whole range of complicated things: the ability to read closely and attentively; the critical exploration of novels and plays and poems that are culturally significant; the willingness to engage with lives and situations that are not our own. I talk about intellectual resilience and the need to push beyond the question of whether you like something or not. But, let’s face it, there is nothing quite like that feeling of teaching a group who really enjoy the text they’re studying, who are intrigued by it and relish the challenges it offers. There’s an energy to those lessons, a buzz. Eyes light up and ideas bounce around. The bell goes and someone comments ‘Is it the end of the lesson already? That went really quickly!’

The Bone Sparrow has been fabulous. We’ve explored narrative methods and analysed the creation of character; we’ve learned about the situation of the Rohingya people and researched the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We’ve also discussed critical literacy and the reasons why people think that particular books should be studied in schools. One of my students contacted Zana Fraillon, via her website, to ask some questions about the novel, and was beside himself with excitement when she replied, less than twelve hours later. (He declared, ‘I feel as though I’m famous!’) And we’ve also talked about being an outsider, about feeling strange and unwelcome, and how that feels.

I’ve been thinking about The Bone Sparrow a lot this week because of Rishi Sunak’s desire to make all students continue with Maths until the age of 18, and also because of two books I’ve read recently: Peter Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, and Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, which was explored by Claire Stoneman in her brilliant blog post last week. One of Sandel’s key arguments is about the rhetoric of rising, the idea that if we work hard and play by the rules then there is no limit to what we can achieve. Achievement is seen as a mark of merit, of worth, rather than as the result of a constellation of lucky accidents: having a supportive family, being of good health, having the kinds of talents and abilities that are valued by society and will be rewarded with a high-paying job. As you might expect, I have lots of thoughts about the valorising of subjects that are seen to lead to higher earning power, as if earning power alone is the sole criteria that should be applied when deciding which subjects we prioritise, which departments to fund, which courses to cut. Discussions about the value of the arts and humanities often defend the study of the arts by pointing to the huge earning power of the British creative industries, which, in 2020, contributed £13 million to the UK economy every hour. And yet: should this be the only measure?

From The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2007, image licensed for non-commercial use)

We’ve followed up our study of The Bone Sparrow with some creative writing based on Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival. If you don’t know The Arrival, this is something you need to remedy right now, because it is stunning. It’s a graphic novel, but contains no words. (My students love the idea of being able to tell a story without any words: when I showed them the book last week, I had a little huddle of them round my desk at the end of the lesson, wanting to have another look and note down the title so they could track down their own copies.) It’s a story of exile, of a man who has to leave his family and travel to a different country. The illustrations, which are beautiful, are in sepia tones. Some – a tearful woman saying goodbye to her husband, a man getting onto a train, a crowd of people on a ship – carry echoes of particular historical situations, most notably the Second World War, and migration to the USA in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the country that the man finds himself in is like no other. The writing system, the buildings, the vehicles, even the animals: all are utterly estranging. And that’s the point. No matter who you are, no matter which language you speak or what kind of cultural background you’re from, this new country will be alien to you. We talked about the weirdness of an alphabet you’ve never seen before, and how significant it is that Tan does not privilege any of his readers. Nobody will find this strange world easier to navigate than anyone else. We are all equally disorientated.

Our writing, which we’ll be developing next week, focuses on one specific image, of a family walking through silent streets in a town haunted by a tentacled creature that twines itself around the rooftops and lurks menacingly round corners. We’ve discussed whether the creature is real or metaphorical, and decided on the latter. It could be war, we said, or prejudice, or some kind of idea that’s making people feel they don’t belong any more. We talked about what the characters could see, what they might smell. (That kind of rotten smell like a market at the end of a hot day when all the vegetables have been out for too long, one boy said.) We wondered whether the family would be talking to each other, or if there were thoughts running through their minds that they couldn’t put into words. Would there be people in the houses, staying away from the windows, too afraid to look out? What memories might they have of the time before the creature arrived?

In The Empathy Instinct, Peter Bazalgette writes of the capacity for empathy as being one of the foundations of a civil society. He highlights the role of fiction in building empathy, fostering our ability to imagine and to understand, to project ourselves into the lives and experiences of people who are not ourselves. Studying The Bone Sparrow, and then exploring The Arrival, has been a real journey for my Year Sevens. They’ve learned a lot academically, but they’ve also developed their understanding of a whole host of issues and situations. It would be difficult to measure this in terms of grades, or earning potential, or contributions to the economy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t massively important to the good of our society.