Of Hawks and Mice, and Writers’ Friends

by Margaret Welwood

You Can Go Home Again, the title assures us. But as three mice run for cover from a diving hawk, we forget the title. Mother mouse hurries the children into a rock crevasse in front of her, and the hawk accelerates, extending its talons . . . .

So why do we—children included—like to be scared (but not too scared)? “We have to know we’re in a safe environment,” explains sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr. “It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.”

And therein lies the beauty of reading to a live audience. I chose Baby Bird’s First Nest for the after school care group because it was a sweet story with bright pictures. Little did I realize that it was so suspenseful.

After Baby Bird’s fall from the nest, “Darkness loomed all around her. Even the moon looked cold and scary.” Frank Asch’s text is just right for little listeners.

Baby Bird’s new friend, Frog, helps her build her very first nest. All is well until Frog hears . . . paws!

Many writers have their characters hear footsteps, but “paws” is particularly effective here, as is the close-up of the hungry predator’s face. And—Baby Bird can’t fly yet!

But there’s more than suspense in the tale of Baby Bird–there’s a powerful story of friendship as Frog lends a hand.

In her excellent article, Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. notes:

Stories—from books or television—are opportunities for kids to practice perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it?

When families discuss these questions, kids may learn a lot about the way other people’s minds work (Dunn et al 2001). In one experimental study, 110 school kids (aged 7 years) were enrolled in a program of reading. Some students were randomly assigned to engage in conversations about the emotional content of the stories they read. Others were asked only to produce drawings about the stories. After two months, the kids in the conversation group showed greater advances in emotion comprehension, theory of mind, and empathy, and the positive outcomes “remained stable for 6 months” (Ornaghi et al 2014).

According to Dr. Dewar, experiments suggest that kids are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are familiar and/or similar to them. Baby Bird and Frog are clearly very different from each other and from young readers, but that does not seem to matter. They are drawn together by the one’s need and the other’s kindness.

Is there another lesson for us here? Can we teach empathy and kindness through our characters’ predicaments and choices?

With its buzz-producing, addictive qualities, adrenalin is truly the writer’s friend. And so are empathetic characters and their predicaments, not only for their storytelling value but also for their role in helping us to be more compassionate people.

What stories do you enjoy? Do they provide an adrenalin rush, elicit empathy, or both?

How do you incorporate these features in your own writing?

Margaret loved teaching English as a Second Language, writing magazine articles, and editing a business
magazine and adult non-fiction books (one an Amazon #1 best seller, the other a Writer’s Digest
award winner). However, with the arrival of grandchildren and their welcome
request—“Grandma, can you tell me a story?”— she began writing and editing picture books for
children. This is now her favorite genre. You can contact Margaret in the Authors Community Forum or check out her vendor page.