A few years back, when my kids were little, I came across a gorgeous, fancy, annotated edition of The Secret Garden in a bookstore. 10 seconds later, I’d bought it.

Katherine Center's new novel How To Walk Away is out now

Katherine Center's new novel How To Walk Away is out now

This was a heartfelt, lifelong favorite love story of mine since the age of 12. And so I talked my kids into curling up with me on the couch and letting me read it to them. After all those years, I got to step back into those pages, and go back to spooky, old Misselthwaite Manor. I joined up with the awkward, disagreeable Mary Lennox again, and got reacquainted with the lonely boy, Dickon, who lived there—and who I’d had a little crush on as a sixth grader.

As I read, page after page, I kept waiting for the love story. I kept thinking, “When are they going to get together?” But guess what? They didn’t. At no point did Mary and Dickon kiss, or hold hands, or even think about doing either of those things. I had remembered The Secret Garden as a love story my entire life, and it turned out to never have been anything of the sort.

It took me a long time to figure out how I could have gotten it so wrong.

I really only came to understand it recently, as I was doing research for a TEDx talk that I gave on how stories teach us empathy. It turns out that novels have a special magic to them that lets us step out of our own skin and into someone else’s in a profound way.

When we read novels, we don’t just witness something happening to someone else, we experience it, too. If a novel is well done, we get so caught up in what’s happening to the main character that we experience the story as if it’s happening to us. We merge with that character in such an essential way that we experience the story not just with them, but as them. We see what they see, and go where they go, and feel what they feel. When they’re frightened, so are we. When they’re hopeful, we are, too. When their hearts break, so do ours.

It’s a kind of ultimate experience of empathy. It’s powerful stuff. And it’s not easy. And it takes a lifetime of practice. We can get bits and pieces of that practice in all sorts of places, but nothing else offers the sustained, focused, detailed practice that novels do. And the more we practice, the better we get. Pretty soon, we’re so good at empathy, we don’t even have to try. Which makes us better at relating to other people, and seeing things from multiple perspectives, and offering compassion. Which, really, makes us better at life.

So why did I remember The Secret Garden as a love story? Because for me, with my crush on Dickon, it was a love story.

Mary’s time in the garden with Dickon became my time with him, too. And when I was in the sixth grade, that was about as romantic as it got. I brought Mary Lennox to life with my imagination, but when I did, I gave her my heart. I became her, but she became me, too. That’s what made it matter. That’s what made it real. That’s how stories change our lives.


Katherine Center's new book How To Walk Away is out now.