Books That Teach Empathy

This week I felt compelled to compile a list of book titles that can be used to teach empathy. Before I share this list with librarians and teachers in my district I wanted to share my motivation for doing so…

It is challenging being a teacher when traumatic events unfold. I taught 12th grade English during  911, and I had 18-year-old students worrying they would be drafted to fight in World War III. Hamlet had to wait. We had to talk. I had to listen and try to help them make sense of the madness. It was heartbreaking. Now with the act of domestic terrorism that took place in Washington last week, I am reminded of how important a teacher’s role is when our students are abruptly faced with the repercussions of cruelty and intolerance and our need to make them feel safe.

Now, as an instructional coach, I do not have a class or my own, so I was spared the conversations and fears that could have taken place. Instead, I took to Twitter. Not only did I want to witness the events happening in real-time, but I also wanted to see how teachers were navigating the upheaval. I was getting my news minute by minute, which is both a wonder of social media and a scourge.  Soon I began noticing tweets from teachers asking others how they would approach this current event with their students the next day. The overwhelming consensus was to approach it gently but truthfully. Teachers came together to support one another by both sharing resources and offering suggestions of approach. The networking was wonderful to witness, and every educator on my feed seemed to present the hope that they could promote positive change in their classroom (online and otherwise) and that the children they teach are well on their way to being positive, responsible citizens.

We live in Canada, but I know that an undercurrent of the same hatred and intolerance exists. I can’t help but wonder if it is too late to foster a sense of empathy and tolerance in young people. What can we do as educators to help foster a sense of empathy and inclusion in young people? Well, there is one little thing we can do, it’s the simple act of reading. Read yourself. Get kids to read. Read to kids. Studies have shown that reading fiction can increase a sense of empathy because it forces the reader to live through the eyes of a narrator or a character (Hammond 2019) helping us better understand and cooperate with others (Kaplan 2016.) 

Obviously, reading cannot serve as a bandaid for systemic racism or political unrest. Still, it can be the baby step we need towards fostering kindness and acceptance in those we teach.

Here is a list of books with direct links that may help in fostering a sense of empathy in individuals whether they be our students, our children or ourselves.  At the end of this list are websites citing research supporting how reading builds empathy.

Please feel free to share any titles you have as well! 

(I’ve “guestimated” division suitability but you can professionally determine what book would suit your kiddos). 

Division 1-2- 3

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

Those Shoes  by Maribeth Boelts and Noah Z. Jones

You, Me and Empathy by Jayneen Sanders and Sofia Cardoso

Most People by Micheal Lennah and J. E. Morris

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice 

All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

Every book from Kathryn Otoshi

I am Enough by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and Tara King

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead

I Walk with Vanessa by Kerascoet

Just Feel by Mallika Chopra

Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee and Pascal Lemaitre 

How to be a Lion by Ed Vere

Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse by Marcy Camp[bell and Corrina Luyken 

Each Kindness  and The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and E.B. Lewis

Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox and Stephanie Graegin

Not My Idea by Anatasia Higginbotham

The Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Nicky and Vera by Peter Sis 

Division 3-4

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga 

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

The Star Outside my Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

I Am Alfonso Jones By Tony Medina

Illegal by Eoin Colfer

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Lilit Thwaites and Antonio Iturbe

Jr/Sr High div 4

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

There There by Tommy Orange

So you Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

This is my America by Kim Johnson

You’re Welcome Universe by Whitney Gardner

So you Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Do Better by Rachel Ricketts

Tell me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi 

The Removed by Brandon Hobson

Word Problems by Ian Williams

Websites 

Hammond, Claudia.(2019, June 2). Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People? BBC Future.  https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190523-does-reading-fiction-make-us-better-people

Kaplan, Sarah.(2016, July,22.) Does Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person? The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/07/22/does-reading-fiction-make-you-a-better-person/

Schmidt, Megan. (2020, August, 28). How Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding. Discover Magazine. https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/how-reading-fiction-increases-empathy-and-encourages-understanding

Seifert, Christine.(2020, March 6.) The Case for Reading Fiction. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-case-for-reading-fiction

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