With everything that has gone on so far in 2020, from the Australian – and American – Wildfires, COVID-19, and the US Presidential election, empathy is something that we all dearly need more of. If only we all cared more about others. If our actions really mattered beyond our own selfish desires, the world would look very different.
When Anne suggested that she write a guest post for me on books to help teach empathy to children, I was all in favor of the idea. It may be much harder to teach adults to be more empathetic, but perhaps, with those of us who care making intentional choices, we can pass that along to the next generation.
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Books that Teach Empathy to Kids
How do we raise good, caring, empathetic kids? Well, that is a very complicated question and the mission of millions of parents out there!
One way we can try to nudge kids is by being intentional with gifts and reading materials. While I do not have any kids of my own, I like to buy books as gifts; books selected with purpose. Many of us don’t like clutter, but the more books, the merrier! New reading material.
Of course, simply reading a few books will not turn your children into wonderfully empathetic humans, however in conjunction with discussions and modeled behaviour, books can introduce new ways of thinking and new topics that may not come up in your day to day life.
Here is a selection of books, across a variety of ages, that you can use to help steer those conversations and the development of kids in your life.
Empathy Building Books for Toddler through Kindergarten
Cassidy and the Mixed Up Numbers – Dezi Shepperd
Cassidy and the Mixed Up Numbers is a story about a little girl who has Dyscalculia. It follows her journey as she faces the difficulties of learning differently. Resulting in her sharing a teachable moment with her classmates and feeling victorious.
Recommended by Dezi Shepperd
Lady Lucy Series – Karen Gross
Ages 3-6 – Prequel
Ages 5-10 – Series
The series is based on a real person, deserving of empathy: Lady Lucy Duff Gordon.
The Lady Lucy series prequel, Are You a Giraffe, was recently featured as a must read story for exploring diversity. It also fosters empathy.
The Lady Lucy series has many stories that foster empathy: Lady Lucy’s Quest, Lady Lucy’s Dragon Quest, Lady Lucy’s Ghost Quest. These all involve a multiracial heroine who seeks to become a knight and after meeting the tests of knighthood goes on quests, all of which foster courage, endurance, strength and empathy. Her team — a dragon and unicorn, are characters that foster care and sensitivity and address difference and discrimination.
Recommended by Karen Gross
Elementary School Appropriate Books for Learning about Empathy
Completely Me – Dr. Justine Green
Completely Me is a powerful story about a little girl who never noticed there was something different about herself, until others pointed it out instead. When she stands up for herself, the people around her learn the important lesson of self-acceptance, that everyone is different in their own unique ways, and that those imperfections are what make you perfect.
Author Justine Green was born with Atresia and Microtia. Microtia is a condition where the outer ear does not develop properly and Atresia is the absence of the ear canal, leaving her deaf in her left ear. Knowing she was different from birth, and boasting three reconstructive surgeries under her belt, Justine learned to read lips and worked hard through school. She used her disability as motivation instead of an excuse, and ultimately found her life’s purpose through these challenges.
Recommended by Samantha
El Deafo – Cece Bell
Cece, the main character, a bunny, feels isolated and alone, more so when she has to wear her Phonic Ear/hearing aid to school. The book gives children an opportunity to hop into the head of children who feel different because of their differences. The book celebrates how the hearing aid actually gives Cece an extra ability to hear things she wasn’t supposed to, enabling her superpower as El Deafo! The book is relatable for all children and points out Twice-Exceptional (2E) children’s abilities. The book’s story and the graphic novel style kept my kids rapt; both my daughter and son picked it up and read it in one sitting!
Recommended by Dr. Karen Aronian, Ed.D.
Most People – Michael Leannah
This is one of my kid’s favorite books and I must say that it is an effective story that teaches them that empathy is a universal language for compassion. The book highlights the idea that despite the differences among people and the scary events around us, there are still good-hearted souls with whom we can share our sadness.
Recommended by Daniel Carter, Zippy Electrics
Come with Me – Holly M. McGhee
This book tells the story of a little girl who is sad about all the fear and hatred that she has seen on the news. She asks her family what she can do and they take her out to model acts of kindness to strangers. This book is a great for kids who are scared and sad by current events, to encourage them to make a difference with their kindness to others.
Recommended by Sarah Miller Homeschooling4Him.com
The Invisible Boy – Trudy Ludwig
It can be hard for kids with a lot of friends to understand that some other kids feel excluded. When you’re little, it’s easy to look at the quiet kid in class and think that they don’t want any friends, but most of the time, they’re just waiting for someone to invite them to participate. Trudy Ludwig’s The Invisible Boy is a touching story that shows how inclusion, friendship, and empathy help us achieve great things.
Recommended by Lorie Anderson, MomInformed.com
Chii and the Shadow Game – Japanese Classic
There is a book called Chii and the Shadow Game which all children in Japan have to read in elementary school and is thus read by millions of Japanese children every year. Chichan’s Shadow Game is the tragic and deeply moving tale of a child’s view of war. It teaches empathy for people who have had to live through times of extraordinary hardship and gives children a sense of gratitude to the people that have sacrificed so that we live the life we do.
When I came across this book in my child’s readers when he was in grade 3 at Japanese school, I was truly shocked by the somewhat brutal, though deeply touching, nature of the story I was being asked to read my child. The Japanese are less squeamish about this type of content than much of the English speaking world.
Recommended by Peter Head
Don’t Be That KID! At School – Lois McGuire
Don’t Be That KID! At Home
Ages 3 – 11
“Don’t Be That KID! At School” and “Don’t Be That KID! At Home” are about a little goat who misbehaves but ultimately learns his lesson. Each scene provides an opportunity for parents, grandparents and teachers to discuss character building values, such as consideration, kindness, honesty and respect.
Recommended by Lois McGuire
Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andrede (illustrations by Guy Parker-Rees)
Giraffes Can’t Dance is a wonderful book that teaches children empathy by helping them to not only recognize the value of individuality, but to celebrate people’s differences. With the help of an unlikely ally, Gerald learns to dance to his very own beat, which leads him to appreciate his strengths, believe in himself, and to literally “dance like nobody’s watching.” His fellow jungle mates, who once teased him because he lacked coordination, are left in awe of his dance moves and confidence, learning an extremely valuable lesson about empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
Recommended by Melissa Lowry
(Also recommended by me – Angela! This has been one of my kiddo’s favorite books since he was a toddler, and I have to admit, I love it as well. One of those books he asked us to read again and again and I actually didn’t mind.)
How full is your bucket (for kids) – Tom Rath
The book helps children visualize how their actions make other people feel. You imagine a bucket full of water above another person. When you do nice things, their bucket gets filled up; when you say mean things, their bucket gets emptied. People act out when their bucket is empty.
We frequently use the phrase “you’ve filled my bucket” in our house when someone has done something nice.
Recommended by Sam Zelinka – GovernmentWorkerFI.com
Books that Teach Middle School Aged Kids Empathy
The Emerald Key – Wanda Kay Knight
The Emerald Key teaches empathy throughout the story. The eight cousins are put into various situations; they meet strange people and difficult dangers. They are left bewildered and confused. And then, in an unlikely twist, they are forced to realize that love and empathy sometimes look very different than they ever thought possible.
Recommended by Ivy Yahnke
He’s Not Just Teasing – Jennifer Licate
He’s Not Just Teasing is a quick-read chapter book focused on teaching children the differences between teasing and bullying, how to deal with both, the importance of self-advocacy and the power of kindness. Through the story, children will learn empathy by seeing how much the bullying is hurting and effecting Malcolm, although at school, they might not see the effects on Malcolm. He shares it with his mother at home.
Recommended by Jennifer Licate
Wonder – R.J. Palacio
Wonder is an eye-opener for society. It paints the bitter truth and the sweet shine of society at the same time. It makes a person sit back and think about his connection to everything that surrounds him. I feel August as a dissimilar child in the world and yet the same as any other child at the same time. I recommend this book for this age group because it tries to encompass and shape the way a teenager sees and observes society. It teaches children to appreciate the age-old values of empathy, kindness, compassion, and ultimately, acceptance as paramount virtues needed to navigate the greater exigencies of life and living.
Recommended by Allen Koh, Cardinal Education
Books to Help Teenagers Develop Empathy
This completely free reading app, Novelly, provides a range of short 3-minute reads written for teenagers that are meant to teach empathy. It includes stories like My Desi about an Indian American girl exploring whether she’s “Indian enough” or Hero, which looks at the toll of the pandemic on a healthcare professional from the eyes of her young daughter.
Recommendation by Anna Gabriella
Anne loves finding the perfect gift idea that’s on budget. She has been writing about gift giving and personal finance online since 2012, as owner of UniqueGifter.com. Her favourite beverage is champagne and she loves figure skating, even if it’s harder now that she’s not 20!