Children's books that teach empathy
We begin to encounter difference right from the beginning of our lives, and all the way through to the end. There will always be different ideas about and ways of doing things, different needs and desires, different clothes and hairstyles, different cultures and different ways of communicating. So it’s smart to start teaching kids how to recognise, understand and respect difference right from the beginning. In short, let’s teach our kids empathy.
Here are some of my favourite children’s books for kick-starting conversations about difference, kindness, communication and understanding with children of all ages.
Recommendations for babies (ages 0 and up)
While conversations about empathy are a touch too sophisticated to be having with newborns (no matter how advanced!) it’s never too early to start having diverse and inclusive books on your shelves. The following titles all gently explore ideas about difference and acceptance without getting overly complicated. Plus, nearly all are available in durable board book formats which are surprisingly resistant to sticky fingers and baby teeth.
Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee is a popular gift for new parents. Using rhyming text, the story celebrates babies doing regular baby things (i.e. being carried ‘in backpacks, in front packs, in slings, and in strollers, in car seats, and bike seats, and on Daddy’s shoulders’). Frazee’s wry and charming watercolours depict an array of different families; multicultural, interracial and same-sex couples appear throughout the pages, gently rejecting the myth of the nuclear family.
On a similar note, I’d also recommend Whoever You Are by Mem Fox and Leslie Staub, as well as Hello Little Babies by Alison Lester (though the latter is not yet available as a board book unfortunately). Like Everywhere Babies, these two titles feature simple language and beautiful, vibrant images of different kinds of families, while simultaneously emphasising the ways in which all people are connected.
For something a bit more direct, here are three great books for talking about how to identify your own feelings and others. In Anthony Browne’s How Do You Feel?, a chimp demonstrates 14 different feelings as he answers the titular question on each new page. Jake McDonald’s Where is the Happy Cat? is a find-and-seek book, allowing for a more interactive experience with your child. And Making Faces features actual photographs of babies with different expressions, complete with a mirror on the last page.
Finally, we’re loving the brand-new arrival from Trace Balla. In The Thank You Dish, a playful mealtime conversation becomes a joyful act of giving thanks. This sweet gift-sized book is a warm celebration of community.
Recommendations for toddlers (ages 3 and up)
These early childhood years are a good time for kids to start recognising that other people’s feelings can be very different from their own. Learning to share and to listen becomes really important during this time of growing as well. The following picture books all feature stories that will keep young listeners engaged (as well as yourself), while also touching on themes such as kindness, communication and inclusiveness.
Last Stop on Market Street is the 2016 winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal. Christian Robinson’s stylish illustrations complement Matt de la Peña’s story about a boy and his grandmother’s bus ride through a bustling city. The boy asks his grandmother’s questions that illustrate their lack of material wealth, while her reassuring responses emphasise how they are wealthy in other ways. What emerges from their conversation is a heartwarming portrait of community.
I adore Rebecca Patterson’s My Big Shouting Day in which Bella is having a TERRIBLE day, and she’s going to make sure everyone knows it. Similar to Judith Viorst’s classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, this picture book is all about the universal truth that some days are just bad.
Lisa Mantchev’s Strictly No Elephants is a terrific pick for kids partial to animal tales. When the local Pet Club won’t admit a boy’s tiny pet elephant, he feels rather lonely – until he discovers other pet owners of other unusual animals have also been left out. Together, they come up with a lovely, inclusive solution. I love illustrator’s Taeeun Yoo’s nostalgic artwork in this book. Horrible Bear! from talented duo Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora is also ideal for animal lovers. This story about an actually-not-so-horrible-bear after all cheekily demonstrates why it can be troublesome to jump to conclusions about other people.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Smartest Giant in Town is another good book for talking about the danger of assumptions. In fact, this picture book should really be called: ‘The most generous giant in the world’.
If you want a book that looks specifically at a particular experience, try Jessica Walton’s Introducing Teddy for a gentle story about gender identity, and Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood’s My Two Blankets for an affecting story that powerfully explores challenges faced by migrants.
Finally, I still absolutely adore Bob Graham’s classic picture book, Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten, which was first published in 1992. To save the day, Rose has to use kindness and bravery in equal measure; she’s a feminist heroine after my own heart.
Recommendations for children (ages 6 and up)
Children of this age group are going through so many changes. They’re starting school, they’re learning to read, and in general, they’re starting to do a whole heap of things by themselves – for the first time. Here are some books that introduce more complex ideas around empathy, such as the connection between humans and the rest of the planet, and identifying different kinds of anger. All of the following books can be read aloud together, or independently.
The Day No One Was Angry features 12 original stories about grumpy animals from Dutch writer Toon Tellegen and French illustrator Marc Boutavant. I appreciate how this book explores anger without any moralistic finger pointing; the stories are weird and witty, with a very European sentimentality. This is a great pick for helping children to talk their feelings in more detail, without incrimination.
You are Stardust introduces kids to the concept that the entire world is connected in a array of surprising, magical ways. Combining the ideas of environmental author and educator Elin Kelsey with inventive, three-dimensional dioramas by artist Soyeon Kim, this picture book reveals ties that are often sensed, yet seldom explained. It’s the perfect book for sparking imaginations, as well as conversations.
The Journey explores the unimaginable decisions made as a family leave their home and everything they know to escape the turmoil and tragedy brought by war. The book was partly inspired by a true story Francesca Sanna heard while visiting a refugee centre in Italy. The beautiful illustrations and sparse, simple text pave a way for a talk about the current refugee crisis around the world.
If you’re specifically on the hunt for chapter books, check out the Grover McBane: Rescue Dog series by Claire Garth and Johannes Leak, and the Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. The Grover McBane: Rescue Dog series is based on a heartwarming and entirely true story. Garth works at the Sydney Dogs and Cats Home and in 2013, she adopted the REAL Grover. Now the two of them work to raise awareness about animal rescue. In comparison, the Elephant and Piggie series is a sweet and silly collection of stories about friendships that’s particularly good for reluctant readers. They’re very funny with the stories being told in speech bubbles and sound effects.
For more confident readers, I highly recommend E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte and Wilbur’s friendship is a beautiful thing to discover at any age, and Charlotte (who I’d argue is the hero of the book) is such a smart, brave and empathetic character.
Recommendations for tweens (ages 9 and up)
Here are some suggestions for more confident readers who are on the cusp of adolescence and possible even already dealing with the changes of puberty. These are books that hit the spot right between middle fiction and young adult fiction. These are sophisticated reads, sometimes covering dark territory but always in a way that’s accessible for this age group.
A loosely autobiographical account of Cece Bell’s childhood and living with deafness, El Deafo is an absolutely brilliant book for inspiring empathy in a reader. Bell uses a superhero metaphor to explain what it felt like to have a powerful and awkward hearing aid as a child; the aid gives her special abilities, but also isolates her from her classmates. The story is funny, touching and utterly relatable.
A.F. Harrold’s The Song From Somewhere Else is a deeply moving account of bullying with a touch of magic. Dreamy, detailed illustrations are scattered through the narrative, which adds additional appeal for young readers. Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan is based on the true story of a great ape who spent 27 years as an attraction in an American mall. It’s heartbreaking in places but ultimately hopeful and likely to inspire budding activists.
A true story can be a fantastic way to show young readers about the varied lives other people read – especially when they come from the young people themselves. Hope in a Ballet Shoe is the story of Michaela de Prince, who was born in war-torn Sierra Leone and is now a ballerina dancing for The Dutch National Ballet. I am Malala is the story of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai – the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate.
Two popular recommendations that have endured for years are Shaun Tan’s incredible wordless graphic novel depicting a family’s immigration to a new country, The Arrival, and R.J. Palacio story of friendship and school politics, Wonder. A film adaptation of the latter is due to hit cinemas later this year so expect to see it generating even more discussion.