Reading Memoirs to Increase Empathy

One of the most valuable benefits of reading is cultivating a sense of empathy. By reading fiction, readers experience the emotions of an endless range of characters. In an article referencing neuroscience studies, Annie Murphy Paul states that “there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters” (2012).  But what do we do when teenagers are not reading enough fiction to reap these character-building rewards?

Most high school students don’t rank leisure fiction reading as a high priority during the chaotic academic year. Because of this, the genre begins to fall off their radar outside of required school books. With memoirs flooding the market, these compelling nonfiction reads may be an easier sell for busy adolescents. Teens feel invested in real-life characters, and the authenticity of events allows them to trust without having to suspend their disbelief. With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in so many states, and the push toward informational texts, the majority of high school nonfiction is government documents like the Constitution, or famous speeches such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” These invaluable texts provide necessary foundations and immense learning opportunities within the context of academic subjects. Memoirs can take teens’ reading to a more personal place, and push up the empathy meter in conjunction with these works. 

Over the course of this past school year, I’ve read several memoirs, all of which are worthy, empathy-inducing reading material for teens. Here are brief reviews of three of them:

I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir by Reema Zaman

Reema Zaman’s writing is like a soothing balm–her words take on an ethereal quality even when she’s writing about the troubling issues on which she focuses throughout her narrative.

The book is written as a love letter to love itself, or the imaginary, higher self the author clings to for comfort. She catalogs her life from an early age up until the present. Born in Bangkok, her diplomat father moves the family first to Hawaii, and then to Thailand, where the author spends the majority of her formative years. Attending school with children of other families working for the UN, Reema continually feels like the outsider, the girl with different color skin who never quite fits in. When she finally escapes the confines of her upbringing and moves to America to attend college, her insecurities and confusion follow her. Though she is a motivated, hard-working woman who is determined to succeed academically and professionally, she makes questionable choices that put her on a course of heartbreak.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

As soon as I read the first page of this beautiful memoir, I never wanted to put it down. Though Chung writes in a calm, easy manner, I found her stories and insights riveting.

Chung is born two months premature to Korean parents who give her up for adoption. Raised by white parents in a small town in Oregon, she is taken care of with love and kindness, never wanting for anything. What she begins to realize early on, however, is that her physical appearance is different from everyone else around her. She is often bullied at her all-white school and starts to wonder where she fits in with her family and community. Though her parents openly share her adoption story with her, and reassure her of their unconditional love, they cannot fill the increasingly widening gap that is opening up within her.

Chung continually searches for clues to her roots, but it is not until she is pregnant with her first child that she actively looks for her birth parents. What she uncovers leads to shocking revelations and an entirely new context within which to frame her identity.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story about War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Clemantine is only six when her comfortable life in Kigali, Rwanda, is ripped away from her. One day, she is climbing trees with her brother, and the next she is sent with her older sister, Claire, to stay with her grandmother in a northern town. While there, fighting breaks out and the girls are told to run. From that moment, the girls go on a horrendous journey throughout Africa, staying in diseased refugee camps, rundown apartments, and occasionally winding up in comfortable homes. The isolation, physical and mental suffering, and terrifying uncertainty that they face is unimaginable. When they finally wind up in America, their physical needs are met, but they continue to fight everyday to make sense of the devastation they endured.



Paul, Annie Murphy. 2012. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times (March 17).



Author: Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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2 replies

  1. This is great article Karin!
    Reading books about memoir act as a bridge between experience, imagination, and emotion. It is the most powerful way of influencing how people think and act. It teaches people the most significant values to go on in life.
    You may also read my blog on The Amazing Benefits of Reading Memoirs
    Hope this will also help…

  2. Excellent tips Karin. I have more opportunity when I compose fiction, yet my diaries have had a lot more grounded sway on my readers. In one way or another the ‘message,’ regardless of whether I am not even mindful that there is one, is passed on better in this structure.
    I hope you can take the time to read my post as well The Excellent Benefits of Reading Memoirs


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