I have nothing against nonfiction. Students should read Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech and an article about Greenland melting. Students who are taught with the Common Core curriculum get plenty of practice with informational texts like these. The Common Core requires that nonfiction texts be used in 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary school and then gradually increase to 70 percent by grade 12. To comply, teachers choose fewer and shorter novels.
I worry that this trend away from story will decrease empathy in students. I helped students dissect the Civil Rights Act of 1960, but it was when students read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry that they actually listened to each other as they discussed race in their hometown. When students read Choldenko’s Alcatraz series that features Natalie, a girl on the autism spectrum, they started a lunch club with some special education kids who usually ate alone.
Stories move and shape students. Stories actually transfer experiences of characters into the brains of readers. This is called neural coupling, and it explains why people cry at a movie. It explains those moments at the end of a read aloud, when the whole class sighs together, and then the room is silent, absolutely silent for a moment. Stories draw students into community, connect them in a common struggle. The pain of the protagonist is their pain, the victory is their victory.
It’s easy for students to close their ears to speeches and articles and editorials. It’s even harder for them to open their hearts to these texts. But I’ve seen stories move students from using racial slurs to silence, from stereotyping to asking questions, from indifference to occasional acts of kindness. Stories activate the brain, pulling the cortex into action, linking emotion with fact. Stories take students on journeys—to places and people they might otherwise never visit.