“When you read these books aloud, you can tell from their expressions that they are empathetic in relating to these characters. They understand what the characters are feeling,” says Sharon Rawlins, youth services specialist at the New Jersey State Library and president of the Collaborative Summer Library Program.
Want to teach your kids about empathy and compassion? Read aloud.
Here is an excerpt from her suggestions for books that embody that:
“A Chair for My Mother” by Vera B. Williams (preschool-kindergarten)
When a little girl’s family loses their home and possessions, friends, neighbors, and family members pitch in with essential items and companionship. In their new home, the girl, her mother and her grandmother patiently save coins in a jar until they have enough to buy a comfortable armchair in which the women can rest after work.
“The Nice Book” by David Ezra Stein (preschool-kindergarten)
We’re all guilty of using the vague phrase “be nice” when talking to children. Stein’s book breaks down that unhelpful admonition and turns it into specific advice. Each page carries a word or short phrase that instructs how to treat others with kindness and generosity. The simple illustrations of animals caring for one another demonstrate to young children such ideas as “when you get in a snit, don’t hit,” “love is meant to be passed on” and “look after someone little.”
“Those Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts (preschool-kindergarten)
This book deals with the topic of poverty and the importance of putting others’ needs ahead of our own wants. Jeremy wants the latest pair of trendy shoes. All his friends have them, but his grandmother can’t afford to buy him a pair. I like that she never shamed him for wanting what he couldn’t have. Jeremy finds a pair at a thrift store and buys them even though they are too small. When he makes friend with a kid at school who needs them more than he does, he gives them to him. I love how this book is honest about the struggles Jeremy has about giving the shoes away. He really wants to keep them, but in the end does the right thing on his own. Jeremy feels embarrassed about the shoes he does have to wear, and that doesn’t disappear, making the act of kindness even more powerful.
“The Lion and the Mouse” by Jerry Pinkney (preschool-first grade)
This utterly gorgeous, wordless book is based on Aesop’s fable. The mighty lion gets ready to eat the lowly mouse but in a moment of compassion spares it. His kindness is repaid later when the mouse is able to free the lion from a trap. This is a classic tale in our collective imagination, and Pinkney’s illustrations are not to be missed.
“How Kind” by Mary Murphy (preschool-second grade)
This is a wonderful book to read to younger kids, showing how a simple act of kindness can be passed on. It begins with Hen giving Pig a present and Pig answering, “How kind!” Pig is inspired to pass on the kindness to Rabbit, Rabbit to Cow, and on it goes. All this kindness, of course, comes full circle when the original gift hatches and Pig returns the egg-now-chick to Hen.
“A Sick Day for Amos McGee” by Philip C. Stead (preschool-second grade)
A dedicated presence at the zoo, Amos McGee knows what each of his animal friends needs and makes sure he provides it, whether it’s playing chess with an elephant or reading stories to an owl. Erin E. Stead, the illustrator, was awarded the Caldecott Medal for her exquisitely warm, tender illustrations, rendered in pencil and colored woodblock prints.
“Out of the Blue” by Alison Jay (preschool-second grade)
In this beautiful, wordless picture book, children lead by example, showing courage and kindness when the adults flee the scene. A boy who lives in a lighthouse spends his day rescuing little sea creatures that have been stranded in tide pools. So when a storm washes a giant octopus ashore, its tentacles wrapped in fishing line, the boy, his friend and the other animals see only a fellow creature in need. Putting any fears aside, they cut the lines and pull the octopus back into the sea.
“Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña (kindergarten-second grade)
A boy and his grandma catch the bus. We don’t know where they are headed, but along the way the boy asks questions about why they don’t have certain luxuries. He wants to know why they don’t have a car or an iPod. The grandma has a ready answer about the advantages of what they do have and encourages him to think of positive aspects of lacking material goods. When they reach their destination, well, it will be even more inspiring. Winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal; 2016 Caldecott Honor Book; 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.
“The Kindness Quilt” by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace (kindergarten-second grade)
After Mrs. Bloom reads her class the story of The Lion and the Mouse the students set to work on their own kindness project. Each student is to draw a picture of an act of kindness and bring it into school for discussion. The project turns into the kindness quilt and the entire school gets involved. This is a really fabulous book that would be great to use in a classroom or at home to spark a conversation with your child and to get them inspired to perform daily acts of kindness.
“How to Heal a Broken Wing” by Bob Graham (kindergarten-second grade)
In the middle of a big, busy city, only a young boy notices a wounded bird lying on the sidewalk. His parents help him take it home, and together they nurture it back to health. There’s a lot to love about Graham’s book. The story emphasizes the rewards of patience and the value of empathy, even for the smallest creature. There’s a two-page illustration in which the family huddles around the bird, obviously absorbed in caring for it, while a scene of war plays on the TV in the background. The message is clear: Compassion for others is what we should be focusing on. There is a lot of lovely detail in the illustrations, which tell the story as much as the very spare text.
“The Spiffiest Giant in Town” by Julia Donaldson (preschool-third grade)
George is a very scruffy giant. He decides to get a haircut and new set of clothes and voila! He becomes the spiffiest giant in town. However, as he travels through the area singing a little ditty about his spiffyness, he encounters a few creatures who need his help. He makes a present of his tie to a giraffe with a cold neck, offers his sock to a fox who needs a sleeping bag and before you know it, he has given away all his new clothes. His kindness does not go unnoticed, and soon he receives a gift more precious than the clothes he gave away.
“Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson (kindergarten-third grade)
When Maya, a new girl in class, gets the empty seat next to Chloe and tries to be friends, Chloe and her clique want nothing to do with her, and their cruelty grows after Maya asks to play with them. Chloe’s teacher, Ms. Albert, drops a stone in a bowl of water to demonstrate the ripple effect of acts of kindness. Written in Woodson’s eloquent free verse and illustrated with E.B. Lewis’s beautiful, spacious watercolor paintings, “Each Kindness” is written in the first-person voice of Chloe, who is both a bully and a bystander and who contemplates the loss of a “chance of a kindness with Maya” at the book’s end — a rare conclusion in a picture book in its sense of regret and also the bully’s and bystander’s perspectives. Coretta Scott King Honor winner and 2013 Charlotte Zolotow Award winner.
“Extra Yarn” by Mac Barnett (kindergarten-second grade)
In this Caldecott Honor Book, young Annabelle’s dilemma is that her box of yarn never runs out, no matter how much she knits. So she turns the dilemma into a gift, one that warms jealous Nate, cranky Mr. Norman and all the other people and animals in her town, turning winter drear into woolly cheer. Annabelle’s gift of color and warmth is meant to be shared, so when a greedy archduke steals the box for himself, the magic stops. Finally, though, the box finds its way back to Annabelle, and the sharing and happiness continue.
“Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” by Kate DiCamillo (grades 3-6)
Flora Belle Buckman is a self-proclaimed “natural born cynic,” which is not a trait typically conducive to creating a culture of kindness. Many things have happened in her young life to cause her to be cynical, and she is particularly distrustful of adults. So it takes a besotted squirrel and an odd little boy named William Spiver to melt her heart. During the course of their adventures together, she learns that she is capable of more compassion than she might admit and would go to great lengths for her strange companions. 2014 Newbery Medal winner.
“George” by Alex Gino (grades 4-6)
When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl. George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, really wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part — because she’s a boy. With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan — not just so she can be Charlotte, but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.
“The Thing about Luck” by Cynthia Kadohata (grades 4-8)
After Summer’s parents have to fly to Japan to take care of elderly relatives, her grandmother and grandfather must come out of retirement to work, and Summer and her troubled younger brother, Jaz, accompany them. This moving novel won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
“When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead (grades 4-7)
In this Newbery Medal winner, Manhattan sixth-grader Miranda Sinclair recounts a mind-bending, time-traveling story that begins after her best friend, Sal, is attacked by schoolmates and afterward barely acknowledges Miranda.
“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (grades 5-8)
In this best-selling novel, different characters’ perspectives depict the close and tangential ways in which they are all connected to one another through the central character: August Pullman, a middle-schooler who, after 27 operations, has what doctors call facial “anomalies.” Auggie himself calls it “my tiny, mushed-up face.”
“Counting by 7s” by Holly Goldberg Sloan (grades 5-8)
As an adopted, self-identified “person of color,” precocious, brilliant 12-year-old Willow has loving parents who celebrate her idiosyncrasies, but after their unexpected deaths, Willow finds new friends who support and protect her.
“Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper (grades 5-8)
Eleven-year-old Melody has a photographic memory. Her head is like a video camera that is always recording. Always. And there’s no delete button. She’s the smartest kid in her whole school, but no one knows it. Most people, her teachers and doctors included, don’t think she’s capable of learning, and up until recently her school days consisted of listening to the same preschool-level alphabet lessons again and again and again. If only she could speak up, if only she could tell people what she thinks and knows, but she can’t, because Melody can’t talk. She can’t walk. She can’t write. Being stuck inside her head is making Melody go out of her mind — that is, until she discovers something that will allow her to speak for the first time. At last Melody has a voice, but not everyone around her is ready to hear it.