Science fiction, fantasy books ‘enhance empathy,’ develop ‘greater ability to change’ among readers


Photo credit: Audrey Chang

Science fiction and fantasy books “Legend,” “Klara and the Sun,” “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and “Boy, Snow, Bird” are stacked on a table. Students read these books in various clubs, activities and classes at Archer.

When you think of books that teach readers important life skills, ones with fictional worlds and characters might not be the first stories that come to mind.

Science fiction focuses on the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals, while fantasy is imaginative fiction that emphasizes the strangeness of other worlds, times or characters.

According to the article “Sci-Fi and Fantasy Build Mental Resiliency in Young Readers” from JSTOR Daily, these genres provide readers with a chance to deepen their creative and critical thinking skills and allow them to consider problems with a fresh perspective.

Joy and Creativity with Reading Fiction

Freshman Julianna Hatton is one of the leaders of Archer’s Young Adult Fiction Club, which provides a space for students to decide on books of various genres to read and discuss together. Members are currently reading the dystopian and science fiction novel “Legend” by Marie Lu. Hatton said she has always been passionate about reading and creative writing and that reading can provide a creative outlet for students to decompress.

“[Reading is] really relaxing and eases your mind and eases your body and really transports you to a less stressful or less chaotic world where you don’t have to be doing anything except for reading the book,” Hatton said. “The reader and the author are working together to create a new pathway for you.” 

[Science fiction and fantasy are] so different from our lives. Things are happening that could never actually happen, and I think that gives a lot of hope because it shows things can change… I feel like there’s a sense of empowerment to have this knowledge.”

— Julianna Hatton ('25)

Junior Margaret Morris is one of the leaders of the upper school book club at Archer, and she is currently taking creative writing as her elective. She said she appreciates the escapist aspect of fiction and creative writing.

“Being transported to a place through somebody’s writing, through a world built inside a book, essentially, is what you get from any story,” Morris said. “When you enjoy reading a book, it’s because you’re being transported to a different character’s world or a different person’s world. I feel like that applies to any genre.” 

English teacher Brian Wogensen has been teaching Literature of Fantasy & Fairy Tales, a senior seminar, for seven years. In this class, students read fairy tales and folklore stories from different time periods and cultures around the world.

“One of the things I love about [the class] is how I think students are able to, particularly with fairy tales, explore and engage with stories that maybe they knew or that they experienced as a child, but they’re looking at them through new eyes and with new skills,” Wogensen said. “There is a spirit of the creativity and imaginative and dynamic thinking and whimsy that is at the heart of a lot of the works that we’re engaging with, and, therefore, it’s also brought out of the students, too — so it just becomes really fun.” 

Empathy and Problem-Solving Through Reading

According to the article “Sci-Fi and Fantasy Build Mental Resiliency in Young Readers,” reading fiction can promote a better understanding of human differences and can generate emotional intelligence for readers. Connecting to worlds and characters in books engages readers in an empathetic process to understand challenging issues and feel through the characters. Morris said that reading fiction books helps her gain empathy, which can transfer over to real-world situations.

“Reading helps me to develop a sense of commitment to a story, and with that comes empathy for characters that you don’t even know… That becomes applicable to your life in general,” Morris said. “You can start to feel for people that you’ve never met before and be able to look at the world with different perspectives because you’ve put yourself through the process of not knowing somebody and building a connection with them through reading.” 

Wogensen said that the escapist aspect of fantasy books allows readers to gain creativity and skills that can be applied to human interaction.

“[With] reading [fantasy], when you can go through that door and escape into another world, there’s a real freedom to that, both in terms of the possibilities of your imagination, but also you can learn things there,” Wogensen said. “When you leave that work of fantasy, and you come back to the real life, you maybe have some ways to negotiate in the world that you didn’t have before you experienced it.” 

Hatton said that when she reads, she considers the different characters’ perspectives and learns about ways to persevere.

“Being able to really realize the feelings and the inner thoughts of those central characters can help you engage in deeper conversations and deeper, empathetic virtues with the people around you because no person is the same,” Hatton said. “Although it’s a lot harder in real life, if we can think about the ways that the protagonist improved over the book or the ways they persevered through problems or setbacks that occur, the author can use the character to give techniques to kids and adults who are trying to go through similar pathways in their own lives, which brings about a greater ability to change.”

Science fiction and fantasy books have increased in popularity in the past year, which could be an indication of how people read these genres to persevere through challenges, as Hatton said, and feel more connected or hopeful amidst the COVID-19 pandemic specifically.

Science Fiction and Fantasy in Schools

Hatton said that one of her favorite aspects of science fiction and fantasy books compared to realistic fiction is that reading them can combine various interests through different types of characters or settings. 

“[The purpose of science fiction and fantasy] is the opposite of realistic fiction: to introduce a new world to the reader, bring them different perspectives about how they think about and how they see the world around them,” Hatton said. “You don’t just have to be a reader, you can be a science-lover or you can be a history-lover.” 

One of the books Morris read for her club this year was the science fiction novel “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro, which she said gave her a different perspective than realistic fiction.

I would definitely be interested to see more science fiction-type literature be incorporated into a school curriculum to see how that compares to other literature that we study,” Morris said. “Especially because if we’re looking to books to enhance empathy in students, I think that the more out-there an aspect of a book is, the more that becomes a challenge… You get better at building a connection with a character that you could never relate to when they’re in a world that you can never relate to.” 

While Hatton’s preferred genre is realistic fiction because she is able to relate to the realistic characters and settings that are similar to her own life, she said she also likes reading science fiction and fantasy books because they can foster creativity, diverse ways of thinking and interdisciplinary connections between classes.

“Reading maybe one book a year that’s science fiction or fantasy in English classes…  can bring the interdisciplinary connection between [classes]. In science fiction, you can learn things about topics of science, and then it can also relate to your English class,” Hatton said. “That’s a really great way to bring up the connection between something in humanities and something more in the STEM field that normally doesn’t get connected as easily.” 

Some of the works students read in Literature of Fantasy & Fairy Tales are “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Ocean at the End of the Lane” and “Boy, Snow, Bird.” Throughout the course, students work on narrative writing and consider the differences between their current and childhood perspectives of fairy tales.

“The works like this that we’re exploring — they’re fiction and they’re imaginative and they’re fantastic, but there are great truths about being a human being wrapped up in those stories if they’re done well,” Wogensen said. “Particularly with fantasy literature, there is a more overt connection to stories from the past that are renegotiated by modern authors, and I think that’s really interesting and affords some really good critical thinking and pushes students to think deeply.”