10 Books to teach kids & teens about empathy
The many pleasures of reading are a joy to those that enjoy losing yourself in a book and finding a window into another person’s life. As a school librarian, I also see the wisdom of using books to teach empathy to children and teens. Reading about a perspective that is outside of your everyday life encourages you to be curious, ask questions and seek information about this new world.
Books build empathy, “the more effort we make trying to figure out a character’s intentions, emotions or thoughts, the greater the odds that our empathy muscles are stretched as well,” said Dr. Michelle Borba.
The following books provide readers an opportunity to exercise those "empathy muscles" that Dr. Borba describes as being essential for cultivating these feelings in real life.
As a school librarian at a private school, I have had the fortunate job of creating a series of author visits designed around the theme of diversity, equity and inclusion. The goal of the diversity author series was to share award-winning authors’ presentations with the Charlotte, NC community. The following books represent each one of the authors I had the privilege to invite to my school and then share their voices and their books with the students of the local public schools.
Codetalker by Joseph Bruchac
Ned is only 16 when he's recruited to join the Marines as a Navajo Code Talker. Navajo Code Talkers will be the key to winning WWII, but the military that depends on these brave men does not give them the respect they deserve.
North of Beautiful by Justina Chen
Terra has a port wine stain birthmark on her face and uses exercise to show how perfect her body is in contrast. She finds refuge in her artwork, making collages, to escape from her father’s cruel comments and verbal abuse. Then, she meets Jacob, who is proud of his cleft lip scar and is on a journey to explore his ties to a biological mother in China. She joins Jacob on the journey to China and Terra discovers her strength and a possible future outside of her fears.
Journey to America by Sonia Levitin
A Jewish family is fleeing Germany in 1938 and must undergo hardships to survive and escape. This book is based on the author’s life experiences and is harrowing to examine the Nazi party’s rise to power and one young girl’s desperate fight to live.
Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon
Ella and Z have been friends forever and they protect each other from the popular kids, who are always intent on bullying them. As Ella is the only black student, until Bailey joins her school and offers her a chance to be friends and to be popular. Should Ella chose friendship with Z or join the in-crowd?
Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Lupita is going to be the first person in her Mexican-American family to attend college. However, when her mother becomes ill with cancer, and her family duties fall on her shoulders, Lupita realizes her dreams may be slipping away. Told through free verse poems, based on the author’s life experiences, the struggle to find dreams and survive heartache becomes Lupita’s goal. Told through free verse poems, and based on the author’s life experiences, the struggle to find dreams and survive heartache becomes Lupita’s goal like the strong mesquite tree in her mother’s rose bushes.
Kick by Walter Dean Myers
In a novel written in collaboration with a teenage fan, Ross Workman, Walter Dean Myers creates a mystery and a question—what would you do for a friend? As a star soccer player, Kevin has never been in trouble, until the night he’s arrested. Kevin’s only hope is Sergeant Brown, who’s determined to find out the truth.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
CJ and his grandmother ride through the city together on a journey of perspective and understanding. This thoughtful picture book for all ages contains meaningful discussions for any student. Matt de la Pena transform CJ’s questions into a meditation on what it means to be a part of a community and asks the question--where do you find your place?
Same Sun Here by Neela Vaswani and Silas House
Meena and River are old-fashioned pen pals through their school classroom. Meena is a new immigrant from India, who now lives in New York, NY. Rivers lives in rural Kentucky. From their relationships with their grandmothers to the search for true friends, Meena and River discover their growing friendship has more in common. Learning how to deal with life’s challenges unites them, like the same sun, which rises and sets for both of them.
The story of a brave, heroic woman, Harriet Tubman, and her inspired conversations with God. Complete with gorgeous illustrations by Kadir Nelson, the courage and strength of this true heroine deserves attention of students of all ages.
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
A young boy walks into a classroom in the 1970s and Frannie knows he does not belong. For one thing, he’s white and everyone in the class is black, including Frannie. In addition to his long hair and weird clothes, the school bully and other kids in the class begin to call the new boy “Jesus Boy.” Frannie believes this is wrong and she starts to question the labels and search for deeper meaning of community.