- 15 books with a short description
- Sourced through teachthought.com
- Teach Thought is an excellent and informative website with practical, topical, and useful ideas on 21st Century learning
Often confused with sympathy and compassion, empathy is, put simply, the ability to feel what another person is feeling. Unlike sympathy or compassion, empathy doesn’t require you to feel for them, though it can lead to those emotions. Empathy, rather, is a starting point for understanding both ourselves and other people from the inside out.
In “How To Teach Empathy,” Terry Heick said that “empathy is both a cause and effect of understanding, a kind of cognitive and emotional double helix that can create a bridge between classroom learning and ‘real life’ application.”
Since storytelling is such a powerful tool to communicate the human condition, we’ve created a list of 30 stories that do exactly that. Each of the following books in the collection we’ve created below were selected for the ability to provide an especially apt demonstration of, or opportunity to learn, empathy.
Most of the books are useful to teach empathy to almost any student of any age. In fact, it could be argued that a student doesn’t need a story at all–music, the news, art, film, YouTube videos, and other media forms are also useful here. It’s also true that they don’t necessarily need a “empathy story.”
Most literature, by design, promotes empathy with characters in stories, especially when told through a first-person narrator. Still, a book created expressly to showcase empathy can be an even more precise teaching tool. Though the list below tends towards K-8, there are many that would work well in a high school classroom as well.
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15 Of The Best Books To Teach Children Empathy
1. El Deafo
Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.
The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.
August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t fit in. “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”
In Wonder, readers were introduced to memorable English teacher Mr. Browne and his love of precepts. This companion book features conversations between Mr. Browne and Auggie, Julian, Summer, Jack Will, and others, giving readers a special peek at their lives after Wonder ends. Mr. Browne’s essays and correspondence are rounded out by a precept for each day of the year—drawn from popular songs to children’s books to inscriptions on Egyptian tombstones to fortune cookies.
Having spent twenty-seven years behind the glass walls of his enclosure in a shopping mall, Ivan has grown accustomed to humans watching him. He hardly ever thinks about his life in the jungle. Instead, Ivan occupies himself with television, his friends Stella and Bob, and painting. But when he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from the wild, he is forced to see their home, and his art, through new eyes.
With honesty and humor, the main characters bridge the miles between them, creating a friendship that inspires bravery and defeats cultural misconceptions. Narrated in two voices, each voice distinctly articulated by a separate gifted author, this chronicle of two lives powerfully conveys the great value of being and having a friend and the joys of opening our lives to others who live beneath the same sun.
Inside Out and Back Again is a New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor Book, and a winner of the National Book Award! Inspired by the author’s childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.
Cerulean is on the brink of collapse. The decay wasn’t fast, it wasn’t obvious, but now the world stands on the precipice. Woven forests floating on an ocean around a star, Cerulean’s once vibrant treescape has grown dim over generations of arboreal life, and the creatures of the forest have forgotten the light.
This is the delightfully warm and enjoyable story of an old Parisian named Armand, who relished his solitary life. Children, he said, were like starlings, and one was better off without them. But the children who lived under the bridge recognized a true friend when they met one, even if the friend seemed a trifle unwilling at the start. And it did not take Armand very long to realize that he had gotten himself ready-made family; one that he loved with all his heart, and one for whom he would have to find a better home than the bridge.
10. Hannah Coulter
Life carried on for the community of Port William, Kentucky, as some boys returned from the war and the lives of others were mourned. In her seventies, Nathan’s wife, Hannah, has time now to tell of the years since the war. In Wendell Berry’s unforgettable prose, we learn of the Coulter’s children, of the Feltners and Branches, and how survivors “live right on.”
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.
‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ is an adventure of the spirit that will haunt the reader long after the book has been put down. Karana’s quiet courage, her Indian self-reliance and acceptance of fate, transform what to many would have been a devastating ordeal into an uplifting experience. From loneliness and terror come strength and serenity in this Newbery Medal-winning classic.
13. Jayber Crow
Jayber Crow, born in Goforth, Kentucky, orphaned at age ten, began his search as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College. “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
Little Man throws the meanest fastball in town. But talking is a whole different ball game. He can barely say a word without stuttering—not even his own name. So when he takes over his best friend’s paper route for the month of July, he’s not exactly looking forward to interacting with the customers. But it’s the neighborhood junkman, a bully and thief, who stirs up real trouble in Little Man’s life.
This, the only memoir published by a former Schindler’s list child, perfectly captures the innocence of a small boy who goes through the unthinkable. Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to the Krakow ghetto. With incredible luck, perseverance, and grit, Leyson was able to survive the sadism of the Nazis, including that of the demonic Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow, the concentration camp outside Krakow.
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