Empathy and Identity and the Magic of Reading

by Gina Linko


What is Flower Moon about? 

Flower Moon is about twin sisters, Tally Jo and Tempest Trimble.  It’s their thirteenth summer and they’re growing up and growing apart. Flower Moon is their story, about beginnings and endings, about the push and pull between sisters, between friends, between childhood and the great tantalizing abyss of growing up.

Flower Moon’s about Pa Charlie’s traveling Peachtree Carnival, complete with a candy wagon, powdered-sugar elephant ears, and a larger-than-life, lit-up Ferris wheel.  There’s an old horse named Antique, everybody’s favorite friend named Digger, and a hush-hush Trimble family curse that’s been secret for too long now.

And, of course, dear readers, most importantly, there’s magic. Tiny slivers of magic, shivering down your spine, making you sit up and pay attention, the kind you want to describe as coincidence or déjà vu, a trick of the light or a trick of the mind.  But you secretly ask yourself, Was that… real? 

I like that kind of magic.

Often, we keep that magic a secret, half-hidden even from ourselves. It lives in a dusty cobwebbed corner of our mind, where we push ideas that don’t exactly fit.  It’s populated by Smurfs and unicorns, by fairy tales and fantasies, by secret hopes and dreams only we know.  During the daylight hours, we give that corner in our mind a healthy dose of side-eye.  But at night, when the shadows loom and our imagination roams, that corner of our mind grows powerful, hopeful.  And we think to ourselves one word: maybe.

Middle-grade readers like that corner in their minds, that gray hazy place of possibility; they like that word: maybe. They are not strangers to the everyday magic around them, because kids are too smart to turn their backs on what is a little bit weird, a tiny bit strange, a sliver away from impossible. They’re humble enough to know that there are still things in this world full of mystery, almost explainable but not quite.  Or maybe just not yet.

Kids understand science and reality, but when they hear about fringe scientists studying things like time travel, twin-ESP, or children who can remember vivid details of their past lives, they don’t immediately say no. They say maybe.

Did you know recently that scientists proved that ice crystals form in beautiful, symmetrical patterns when showered with positive thoughts?  But if negative thoughts and emotions are focused onto the crystals, their shapes hold much less aesthetic appeal, i.e., they turn out ugly.

Science?

Magic?

Tally and Tempest Trimble share something between them a little bit like that, something that straddles the line between science and magic.  It’s powerful and scary, surging bigger and stronger as they near their thirteenth birthday, threatening to push them apart.  It’s so frightening, at first, Tally Jo can’t even seem to acknowledge that it’s happening. It’s tied up with Tempest’s crazy inventions and magnets and their long-lost Aunt Grania, and it’s just too weird.  Too big, too scary.

Middle-grade readers, all of them, are facing something, to them, that seems too big, too scary.  Too impossible.

Educators, readers, and librarians talk about how books can be magic, but what do we really mean by that?  When I asked my eleven-year-old daughter, she told me,  “Stories feel like magic because they take stuff that’s fake and make it seem real — like how I got real scared and sweaty when I was reading that one Babysitter’s Club.  And it makes other people feel real, even when they aren’t there with you or aren’t you.”

Whoa.  This answer stopped me in my tracks.  That last part.

It makes other people feel real, even when they aren’t there with you or aren’t you.

Empathy.  Kids read about characters different than themselves, yet they still understand them, feel for them.  True empathy is a magical kind of thing. I asked my daughter more about this, and she said, “Like in Ollie’s Odyssey, I’m not a bunny-bear, but reading that book, I knew what it felt like to be one.”

But her answer also got me thinking about the flipside of empathy – the idea of representation. How powerful, how magical is it when kids read a story and can see themselves reflected on the page? A main character that looks like them, has the same hobbies, the same disabilities, the same paralyzing fears, the same tender, just-forming self-concepts?

Kids respond to and need the power of both empathy and identification.  Through both, they become the characters in their favorite books.  Readers see their characters struggle and persist, flail and fail, succeed and soar. Kids can see a way over their own mountain of problems, whatever their obstacles may be.  They see conflict vanquished, and they think, I too can do that.

There is magic in learning that, like the characters in their books, each kid, each reader, is powerful.

Tempest tells her sister in all seriousness, during an intense scene in Flower Moon, “Tally Jo, you’ve got something too, you know.”

She’s talking about magic.

She’s talking about power.

And if I had something that I wanted kids to take from Flower Moon, or from any book really, it would be this:  You’ve got something too.

Magic exists in a lot of scene-stealing ways for the Trimble girls: big flashy magic with sparks and fireworks, danger and explosions.  But it also exists in those quiet moments of our lives, when we acknowledge our truest selves, deep inside that most secret place inside our hearts.  And we acknowledge our own power, our own magic, and what it is we might dare to become.

The power of you, dear reader, is the most magical thing of all, and it is there, inside you, now, waiting to be acknowledged, waiting to be set free.