Some days I’m a black man marching in the 1960’s in a hostile town in the South.  Other days I’m a boy living on a reservation, trying to get a decent education at the “white” school despite myriad obstacles placed in my path.  Still other days, I’m a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

I’m able to live these different lives because I read.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.  The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin

Every day, I step into the shoes, head and heart of another person by opening the pages of a book.

I’ve developed a wider heart, an open mind, and an inclusive way of being in this world through reading.  From Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, I defined my views about war and the importance of peace and non-violence.  From a childhood of reading extensively about the Holocaust, I developed an understanding of man’s inhumanity to man and the need to stand up to those who would “other” people for arbitrary reasons and cause great harm.  From reading The Lorax by Dr. Seuss and The Wump World by Bill Peet, I learned to be passionate about my connection to our planet and determined to protect and care for it so it may continue to care for and nourish us.

Story is one of the only ways to walk in another person’s shoes, to inhabit their heart and mind.  To grow empathy.  That’s why I’ve chosen to make writing stories my life’s work . . . because I traffic in empathy.

Unfortunately, empathy is one essential quality lacking in our current president.  Someone who can condone torture and discrimination against certain people lacks the empathy to feel what another person might feel.

Since reading helps grow empathy, it would behoove the president to read often and deeply.  But it might be too late for that to happen.

So, here’s what we as a compassionate, forward-thinking society must do – we must help create empathy in all our young people – the ability to walk in another’s shoes, to feel what they feel.  To cultivate empathy in all our young people, we must offer them a wide variety of literature and the ability to choose freely.

While it might be too late to get our president reading and trafficking in empathy, please remember that a young person today will someday be sitting in the White House.  Don’t you want that person to be filled with a lifetime of reading and a head and heart filled with empathy?

As civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis movingly said in his National Book Award speech for March:  Book Three:  “Read my child, read.”

To read with greater diversity, explore #WeNeedDiverseBooks and consider using and sharing National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls

Our future, indeed the future of humanity depends upon it.


lilyDonna Gephart’s award-winning middle grade novels include: Lily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper, How to Survive Middle School and others. She’s a popular speaker at schools, conferences and book festivals.  Donna lives in South Florida with her family.  Visit her online at