Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Striking a chord

Even When You're Sad by Jenny Pearson
Beginnings by Eloise Williams 

The more I read, the more I feel. 

These are not just words. When I read, I sense particularly deep connections with some books that seem to really strike a chord within. That musical metaphor is not just words either. Music is very important to me. Whenever I think about the question, 'What luxury would you take to your desert island?', it would either be my piano or my record collection with some way to play it!. (And it would probably be the record collection because I can't play everything I love particularly well!)

When I was growing up, my parents bought me a magazine partwork called Storyteller. Many of us 80s kids remember this fondly: every fortnight I would buy a magazine of stories which were read on an accompanying tape. I would plug into my Walkman and listen
The stories I remember most vividly are the ones that I also remember for their music. One in particular, Captain Bones, completely terrified me at the moment where a skeleton aboard a rowing boat appears to the strains of an ondes martenot wailing. I could feel the horror of the boy in the story. Every emotion heightened, all thanks to that strange, sliding tune. 

I have written music myself since my teenage years, studied composition at university, and now write songs for my school to learn and sing. I want to share with the children the sense that music not only enhances our lives but helps us connect - with stories and with each other. Singing is a community thing.  Reflecting on this, I realise that my other great passion in teaching is reading aloud to children - again, a community thing, like singing, easy and fun to do. 

One of the books that I read to my class a few years ago now that changed my whole outlook on what stories meant to the community of readers in my class was Jelly by Jo Cotterill. I wrote about how this book transformed the quality of Book Talk in my class for the Open University Reading for Pleasure site ( What was developed simply as a result of reading a fantastic story with inspiring characters and then talking about it all as a class is still wonderfully mysterious to me. I know things were happening in the children's heads and in their hearts as we read but what those things were is still left up to each individual to understand. 

I've recommended that book to so many teachers and children in the years following that reading of Jelly, so I was delighted to be paired with Jo for the Empathy Lab's Blog Tour for Empathy Day 2021. And to work with her on choosing music inspired by the Empathy Shorts was just the perfect activity: I remember very well indeed the moment at the end of the novel where Jelly sings and, instead of reading, I played Jo's song that she had written for her protagonist: music for the author, clearly, was the best way to express the feeling there. (You can hear it here, but read the book first/alongside! 

For Empathy Day, Jo chose music for Eloise Williams' Belonging and, being the super-creative that she is, also drew a picture to express her feelings from the story - interestingly, my classes all love to draw too while I read aloud to them each day! For me, I went straight to Jenny Pearson's Even When You're Sad and immediately felt the urge to write a song inspired by the story. Hopefully, I've managed to capture Jenny's brilliant ability to write of children's deep sensitivity with each other, but also their strength, good humour and resilience, too. The song, despite the thoughtfulness of the lyrics, is a kind of wonky, upbeat march. 

I hope children and grown-ups everywhere get to use their deep resourcefulness and unashamed creativity this Empathy Day to celebrate and develop their own empathic responses. Draw! Make! Listen to music! Compose! Stories are strange, arcane, borne of the human creative impulse; let's use our own creativity to connect with them.

The Empathy Lab's Empathy Shorts are all available to download here for FREE! 
A Family Pack of activities has also been produced with loads of great ways to develop and celebrate empathy through literature and connecting lives to stories: 



  1. Draw! Make! Listen to music! Compose! Probably one of my personal -- subconscious but unspoken -- mantras, Ben. And the doing of all of all of these has ever been a way to connect with others by way of appreciation, understanding and, indeed, empathy. I totally get where you're coming from, especially as we share a background in music, reading, storytelling, and teaching. And thanks for drawing attention to Empathy Day, not an event I was previously aware of.

    1. Thanks so much for your response here Chris!