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Blog post Part of special issue: To read, or not to read?

Reading and narrative fiction: Understanding ourselves and others

Elena Santi, PhD Student at University of Edinburgh

Adolescence is a significant period of identity development and social exploration, and narrative fiction can help adolescent readers to explore personally meaningful content (Picton & Clark, 2022). However, to do this, it is essential that fiction books available for young people reflect and represent their identities, lives and experiences, as well as those of others. Research consistently shows a decline in the enjoyment and frequency of fiction book reading from childhood to adolescence (see for example Cole et al., 2022), resulting in low levels of reading engagement among young people in general. However, narrative fiction has so much potential to support young people’s understanding of themselves and others, and my research aims to raise awareness of this opportunity.

Drawing on Bishop’s (1991) analogy of a mirror, window and sliding glass door, reading fiction provides opportunities for young people to explore personally meaningful content, as they see themselves reflected in what they read (mirror). In addition, when reading fiction, readers can explore and understand the lives, perspectives and experiences of others who are different to them (window), and/or enter into the story world in a more immersive way (sliding glass door), as illustrated below:

Indeed, research has demonstrated that when relating to a character or a story, readers may recognise or realise something new about themselves and change their self-concept, beliefs and/or behaviours, such as changing their attitude towards characters whose identity and perspective differ from theirs (Kaufman & Libby, 2012). Narrative fiction also allows readers to understand and connect to different characters’ experiences and perspectives, allowing them to ‘fictionally’ experience situations and feelings they may never have experienced themselves. This experience can improve their social abilities and understanding of others (Eekhof et al., 2022; Mar, 2018) and change their attitudes and behaviours (Vezzali et al., 2012). To date, however, very little research has explored young people’s perspectives or experiences of this process.

As part of my research, I have conducted in-depth interviews with 37 avid fiction readers (aged 12–14 years) to learn about their experiences of reading fiction and any perceived benefits (such as deeper understanding of themselves and/or others). What they have shared is fascinating. Young people reflected that relating to a character or a story enhanced their understanding of their own experiences, and made them feel seen and important: ‘it just made me, I don’t know, feel like there was something like me in a book’. Fiction books have helped young people to realise that they are not the only ones going through a particular situation, and that other people may be able to understand them: ‘it kinda makes you feel, like, relieved just to know that someone out there knows, like, the way that you’re feeling.’ This can be a source of comfort and empowerment in young people’s journeys of self-discovery and development. In addition, when reading about other people’s lives, young people reported developing a greater understanding of different perspectives, cultures and experiences, providing a broader perspective on life: ‘it makes me think about how everyone … can view things in different ways.’ In many cases, fiction books have encouraged them to pay closer attention to the needs of others, reflecting more on others’ perspectives, feelings and experiences: ‘it helps me understand more about people, like I’m reading people.’

‘Young people reflected that relating to a character or a story enhanced their understanding of their own experiences, and made them feel seen and important.’

Of course, it’s important to recognise that the same book will be experienced differently by each reader (Rosenblatt, 1995), as everyone has different experiences and brings something of themselves to the stories they read. For teachers, librarians and parents/carers involved in supporting young people’s reading experiences, we would encourage you to ensure that young people have access to books which reflect their lives, interests and experiences, and those of others. In addition, inspiring reflective reading practices among young people – either through modelling these yourself, or guiding them through this process – will increase the likelihood that young people will enjoy the rich and diverse benefits that fiction books have to offer.


Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi. 

Cole, A., Brown, A., Clark, C., Picton, I. (2022). Children and young people’s reading engagement in 2022: Continuing insight into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on reading. National Literacy Trust. 

Eekhof, L. S., van Krieken, K., & Willems, R. M. (2022). Reading about minds: The social-cognitive potential of narratives. Psychonomic Bulletin Review, 29(5), 1703–1718. 

Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(1), 1–19. 

Mar, R. A. (2018). Stories and the promotion of social cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 257–262. 

Picton, I., & Clark, C. (2022). Seeing yourself in what you read: Diversity and children and young people’s reading in 2022. National Literacy Trust.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1995). Literature as exploration. The Modern Language Association of America.

Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., & Giovannini, D. (2012). Indirect contact through book reading: Improving adolescents’ attitudes and behavioral intentions toward immigrants. Psychology in the Schools, 49(2), 148–162.


Supervisors: Dr Sarah McGeown and Dr Katie Cebula

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