teach children empathy

Top 5 books to teach children empathy

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder is one of those rare books that makes you want to hug everyone in it so tightly that they’ll have no doubt about how much you love them…and beyond that, it also makes you want to reach out and hug the whole world. It’s an upbeat, humorous, life-affirming story that deserves to be read—and it’s one that may just change its readers, too.

If you remember how terrifying it was to be a kid on a day to day basis, you’ll appreciate August’s story. 10-year-old Auggie is going to school for the first time in his life, and he has to navigate new rules, learn to interact with teachers, and figure out how to make new friends. In addition, he also has a severe facial deformity that stops strangers in their tracks, so all the usual perils of the fifth grade take on even more heightened stakes.

With the matter-of-fact wisdom that warmed Beverly Cleary’s books, this story about growing up is full of heart and humor, and written with a clear-eyed intelligence that never descends into cynicism. Auggie’s smart, funny personality will win over readers who will agonize with him over the complicated web of friendships and family even as they cheer for him as he learns some of life’s big and scary lessons.

It’s okay, I know I’m weird-looking, take a look, I don’t bite. Hey, the truth is, if a wookie started going to school all of a sudden, I’d be curious, I’d probably stare a bit! And if I was walking with Jack or Summer, I’d probably whisper to them: Hey, there’s the wookie. And if the wookie caught me saying that, he’d know I wasn’t trying to be mean. I was just pointing out the fact that he’s a wookie.

Even with a positive attitude and smart, loving parents, however, Auggie’s story is not an easy one to read, and my emotions ran wildly from sadness to hilarity to terrible anger at what happens to him.

Not all kids are nice. Some kids behave one way in front of adults and another way in front of kids. Some adults are downright cruel. And just when you think life can’t possibly get any harder or more challenging, sometimes it does.

Although the book is primarily told from Auggie’s perspective, it was a surprise to me when it switched to a few other points of view. With a total of six different voices, I would normally say this is far too many, but in this particular case every person offered an insight into August’s beautiful personality and amazing life in a way that would be impossible to otherwise know.

Reading about Auggie’s 27 surgeries, rejoicing at his vibrant inner life, hurting for him when he felt lonely or misunderstood, and seeing his life from various different perspectives, it’s impossible not to be moved by his story. And how can you not love a boy who understands that sometimes his mom might need his precious teddy bear more than he does?

Tears were streaming down my face as I finished this book—and the funny thing is, they were primarily tears of joy. Wonder is written with the kind of sensitivity and insight that I had hoped for when I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and it went the extra mile to be an uplifting story that made me want to embrace life and the people in it, too.

I also very much appreciate that this middle grade book is written for its intended age group, not just a book for adults in the guise of a children’s book, even though it’s certainly one that can be enjoyed by readers of any age.

“There are always going to be jerks in the world, Auggie,” she said, looking at me. “But I really believe, and Daddy really believes, that there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.”

A story like this comes along just a few times in a lifetime, and I fervently hope that readers will find their way to it.

This short book that doesn’t waste a single page in squeezing your emotions so tightly you feel like you can’t breathe, but when they’re finally released, you may find that your heart is full of even more empathy, compassion, and love than you thought possible. We expect to be surprised by cruelty, but how wonderful it is to also be surprised by kindness.

The Inspiration Behind ‘Wonder’ – Teach children empathy

The ice cream incident in this story actually happened, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Learn about the surprising inspiration behind this story on the RJ Palacio’s website. She’s definitely an author to watch.

Out of my mind by Sharon M. Draper

I highly recommend this book to everybody, but especially to disabled kids, kids who know disabled kids, anyone who works with disabled kids, especially non-verbal/speech impaired disabled people and people with cerebral palsy or similar neurological motor conditions.

This is an absolutely wonderful book that almost made my favorites shelf. It’s wickedly funny and brutally, wonderfully honest.

I’ve always enjoyed stories about special needs kids, special education, ill children, disabled children, but they’re usually told by someone else, and usually an adult.

This children’s novel is narrated by Melody, almost eleven years old, who has a photographic memory and synesthesia (she sees colors and tastes flavors when she hears music), and she is highly intelligent, but because she has cerebral palsy, she cannot talk or write or walk.

I admire how this story evolved. Even though there is what seems to be the obligatory tearjerker “big end” it wasn’t the one (two actually) a reader would have expected the most, and it’s clear Melody’s life does not become perfect, or even as easy as some authors would have implied.

However, Melody manages to shine in this book; I love her voice, and I love this book. It’s a very quick read; I inhaled it in less than a day.

The one and only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

In a book called “The One and Only Ivan”, it makes sense that Ivan is at the heart of the story. Not only does his life take centre stage, but he’s also our one and only narrator. This book is all Ivan, all the time!

In case you’re having second thoughts about spending time in an ape’s brain, worry not. Ivan is as articulate a narrator as they come, and a bit of a poet to boot! He recounts his life with honesty, humility, and major smarts.

A fun fact: there really was a gorilla named Ivan who lived in a mall for a long time after being captured. At a certain point, he actually did move to the zoo where he spent the rest of his days.

Real life Ivan’s story matches up with our Ivan’s story, but Katherine Applegate wove her magic in telling the story in the first gorilla (I just can’t help it!) POV and personified Ivan with an entire range of human thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is a beautifully written memoir set in poetry by the much acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson. Jacqueline’s aunt Ada, a genealogist and family historian, provided Jacqueline with tremendous family history with which this book begins that adds depth and history to the memoir.

There is always a contrast between the north an south running like a current through this book. Jacqueline and her family begin in Ohio visiting South Carolina in the summer. They ultimately begin alternating between Brooklyn and South Carolina.

Jacqueline Woodson is so eloquent in ascribing the haziness of memory and how feelings and emotions at the time become the more important element. The poetic format for placing these snippets of memory seems so honest and heartfelt.

This is a small volume, yet contains so much. There is so much history, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement, written into these pages. There is the effect of teachers on a young girl’s self-confidence when they praise her writing.

There is the love of a family; the complete trust and vulnerability of young children knowing that they are safe with family they love. There is the beauty of forever friendships, these early friendships that are so important and make life so much more enjoyable.

This is a book about race, about growing up as a Jehovah’s witness, about dreams in childhood that have so wonderfully come to fruition for Jacqueline Woodson.

This book has been marketed as middle grade, but I would recommend it to everyone. It is a remarkably beautiful collection of poetry, rich in history. I think it is so hard to write from a child’s perspective and honestly capture the thoughts and perspective from that time in life, but Jacqueline Woodson does so brilliantly.

I love how within this book, Jacqueline talks about how she does not read quickly like her sister. She takes her time with books, reading, thinking, re-reading, enjoying. This, I believe, is how one should read Brown Girl Dreaming, There is so much to take away and enjoy from each chapter/poem.

I loved this book for being a beautiful heartfelt collection of poetry, for moving me in ways I did not expect to be moved, for giving young girls hope and reason to dream, for beautifully describing family, and so much more. Beyond that, I also appreciate that this adds to the growing body of diverse literature, especially for young people.

El Deafo by Cece Bell 

I am a fan of Raina Telgemeir’s graphic novels based on her childhood. When she blurbed El Deafo, I knew I would enjoy it.

Cece loses her hearing at the age of four as a result of sudden illness. All at once, she has to relearn how to communicate with those around her, including family and friends. School turns out to be a bit tricky, since she can’t read her teacher’s lips at all times. Not to worry. Phonic Ear to the rescue!

Cece’s Phonic Ear hearing aid gives her superpowers, but it also makes her feel alienated and different, not the easiest things to juggle while trying to make friends…and growing up. Sheesh.

I loved the illustrations, details and storyline. I was especially moved by her afterword about deaf culture and hearing impairment. Definitely worth reading whether you’re a kid or an adult.

“I felt different, and in my mind being different wasn’t a good thing. I secretly, and openly, believed that my deafness, in making me so different, was a disability. And I was ashamed.”

“As I grew up, however, I made some positive discoveries about deafness and about myself. I’m no longer ashamed of being deaf, nor do I think of myself as someone with a disability…To the kid me, being deaf was a defining characteristic, one I tried to hide.

Now it defines a smaller part of me, and I don’t try to hide it-much.

Today, I view my deafness as more of an occasional nuisance, and oddly enough, as a gift: I can turn off the sound of the world anytime I want, and retreat into peaceful silence.”

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