Books That Spark Empathy

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 14th, 2016

One of the great miracles of books is that a few marks on paper can spark lasting empathy and compassion deep in our souls. Tragedies like the Orlando massacre have origins beyond a simple lack of empathy, but I can’t help wondering if a child nourished with plenty of worthwhile books is more likely to view others with greater tolerance and acceptance. I flip-flop between thinking that’s a naive view and knowing how powerfully books can help shape minds and hearts.

Let’s compile a list of our favorite books that stir empathy most beautifully. I’ll start:

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf — A peace-loving young bull, stung by a bee, accidentally misleads human onlookers into thinking he will be a great fighter. In the ring, however, his gentle nature reveals itself. A striking, funny, lovely book about letting people be who they truly are.

Crow Boy by Taro Yashima — A painfully shy schoolboy has trouble making friends until his teacher sees a talent no one in class has noticed before. Perhaps less well known than some of the other books on this list, this Caldecott Honor book is a beautiful homage to the value of looking beyond surfaces.

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illus. by Isabel Malenfant — A little boy loves the orange dress in his classroom’s dress-up box, and his male friends think this means he can’t play astronaut with them. But Morris shows them that being a boy isn’t limited to such narrow definitions. A sweet, quirky book about joyful individuality.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illus. by Louis Slobodkina — A shabbily dressed girl new to school claims she has 100 dresses at home and is ridiculed by her classmates, who don’t know anything about Wanda and her life. Perhaps still the most powerful book for young readers about bullying, from the point of view of a classmate who didn’t speak up, this Newbery Honor novel is short, memorable, and oddly gentle for a book with so much impact.

George by Alex Gino — George, a fourth-grader born a boy, has always known she is truly a girl. Inside, she is Melissa, and Melissa really wants to try out for the role of Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. Most importantly, she wants her friends, her classmates, and her mother to see her authentic self. (There are also several wonderful books about the trans experience out there for teens: Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Luna by Julie Ann Peters, and more.)

ShelfTalker readers – what books have had the most profound impact on your own developing sense of empathy, as a child or as an adult? I’ll post a complete list with responses next week.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to everyone in my great big beautiful LGBTQIA community, and those who care about us.

A side note: very strangely, when I was gathering titles and images for this post, my Ingram database searches didn’t bring up any of the titles with gay or trans content. I’m not sure if there’s a glitch in their system, but someone needs to check out the database.

7 thoughts on “Books That Spark Empathy

  1. Mary Masters

    The Man Who Loved Clowns by June Rae Woods. It’s about a girl who has a brother with Downs and many of the emotions that are felt when someone in your family is different.y

  2. Susan Williams Beckhorn

    I tell kids at school visits that Ferdinand was the first hippie flower child. They get it immediately. I also grew up with Crow Boy. It makes me cry just to talk about it. Perhaps some of that emotion worked it’s way into my new book, THE WOLF’S BOY, Disney*Hyperion June 7th) set 25,000 years ago, where my character, Kai, experiences bullying because of his club foot. So very many children experience bullying. I drew from my own experiences with two older brothers.

  3. mary ann rodman

    Thank you for including THE ONE HUNDRED DRESSES. That book changed my life as a child, and then again as a children’s author. A truly timeless story.

  4. Shirley Mullin

    Elizabeth, Thank you. This was an assault on all of us regardless of the communities where we might identify. I think focusing on empathy is a good place to begin.

    Alex Gino recently visited Kids Ink. Alex was so kind and generous in helping our customers and staff understand trans issues. I was so touched by the young people that came and talked to Alex quietly and shyly about their own issues and those of friends. I would encourage everyone to bring Alex to your stores if possible. They are traveling the country in an RV and headed for ALA!

  5. Carol B. Chittenden

    As a child, a biography of Chief Joseph had a lasting impact on me. It was probably in the Childhood of Famous Americans series, which I devoured as an emerging reader. Coincidentally, I just bought a copy of Yellow Wof: His Own Story, by L.V. McWhorter, an eyewitness account of the shameful Nez Perce War.

    As a bookseller, I always loved The Story of Jumping Mouse, by John Steptoe; and The Table Where Rich People Sit, by Byrd Baylor, illus. Peter Parnall. The former is a parable of self-sacrifice and triumph. The latter is about appreciating the intangibles we each possess.

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