Which books have really helped you empathise with someone else? Books have a unique power to help us see the world anew, through the eyes of characters whose experiences are very different from our own. A building body of neuroscience research shows that reading fiction can actually expand our brain’s capacity for empathy, and that 98% of us can train our plastic brains to become more empathetic. EmpathyLab, a new organisation, harnesses this power. They’ve been collecting recommendations for great books to build strong empathy habits and the list below, chosen by EmpathyLab founder Sarah Mears, includes some of their favourites.
The Jar of Happiness
Ailsa Burrows, Child’s Play (International) Ltd, 978-1-8464-3728-1, £5.99 pbk
Meg is a little girl who creates her own happiness in a jar. The jar of happiness cheers everyone up and when she loses it, Meg is distraught. The support and kindness of friends and family helps Meg to recognise where her happiness really comes from and that it isn’t found in a jar. This lovely book will help young children to understand what it means to be a good friend.
Kathryn Cave, illustrated by Chris Riddell, Puffin, 978-0-1413-3867-5, £6.99 pbk
Something Else is different and is rejected by the others. But then Something arrives at his door. Something Else is wary but realises that he has been given the best gift of all - a new friend. We loved the way the non-judgemental text heightened the emotional punch of the illustrations. We defy anyone not to empathise with the sad little figure trudging to his lonely home at the start of the story.
Love That Dog
Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury Publishing, 978-0-7475-5749-4, £5.99 pbk
Told through a series of poems, Sharon Creech’s poignant story in verse tells the story of Jack - reluctant poet, and lover of the yellow dog. Jack’s character shines through, defensive at first but gradually revealing his deep sense of loss. For the reader, the brittle sadness which threatens to overwhelm Jack if he lets his guard down, is painfully, but exquisitely apparent and creates a rich emotional connection to the character. It is a vivid and tender account of how it feels to be a bereaved child.
The Colour of Home
Mary Hoffman, illus Karin Littlewood, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 978-0-7112-1991-5, £6.99 pbk
Bewildered, homesick and afraid, Hassan is a refugee in a strange land, trying to fit in. In schoolhe at last finds someone who understands and helps him to cope with his feelings, make new friends and integrate his memories of Somalia with his new life. A great picture book to help children understand how someone coming to a new school might feel, especially when they don’t speak the same language and when they have experienced deep trauma and violence. Lovely illustrations complement a very sensitive text.
Stewart Henderson, Barnabas in Schools, 978-1-8410-1893-5, £6.99 pbk
We’ve recently discovered this emotion-themed poetry collection from Stewart Henderson. Stand out poems include Squirmy Birthday, about a shy child who hates being the centre of attention and dreads birthdays (how wonderful for any child to grasp that for some children, birthdays are not longed-for events), and Child Benefits, about a child who becomes acutely aware of the poverty separating her from her rich friend. There is a poem to touch every reader in this collection; they are funny, they are sad and get to the very heart of the emotional challenges we all face every day.
Malorie Blackman, Corgi Yearling, 978-0-4408-6615-2, £6.99 pbk
A story about bullying told in verse. Unusually this story is not told from the viewpoint of the bullied child, but by the bully himself. Sam is tormented by guilt, but as the story unfolds he works through his painful feelings and learns to forgive himself. Sam is just an ordinary boy caught up in the pressures of belonging to a group; as he tells his story, we understand how easily this happens and the devastating effect it has on the bully as well as the victim.
R.J Palacio, Corgi Children’s Books, 978-0-5525-6597-4, £7.99 pbk
August is just 10 years old and people have stared at him his whole life. He has a syndrome which has caused severe facial deformities. He is braving school for first time and Wonder tells the story of his first
school year. In this beautifully written book, August, the most beguiling of characters, tells his own story while his friends and older sister tell theirs. The reader experiences a deep sense of how it feels to be August, the insensitivity he experiences daily, the love his family and friends feel for him and the profound impact he has on those around him.
Jeannie Baker, Walker Books Ltd, 978-0-7445-9486-7, £6.99 pbk
Mirror, a picture book without words, compares life for two young boys and their families in Australia and Morocco. The differences between these two countries and cultures are starkly visible in the wonderful collage illustrations, but ... look more closely and the similarities are also very clear as people work, eat, look after their families and get through their days. This is a book that demands to be shared and discussed.
If you could be mine
Sara Farizan, Algonquin, 978-1-6162-0455-6, £7.99 pbk
A young adult novel from an American publisher, set in Iran and written by the daughter of Iranian immigrants. Sahar is a teenager in love with her best friend Nasrin. In modern day Iran such a love has to be kept utterly hidden, but when Nasrin announces she is to be married, Sahar resorts to desperate measures to keep her. This novel forces a Western reader to confront some shocking truths about life in some countries for teenagers whose sexuality doesn’t conform to the expected norm, and to understand why Sahar is willing to take such risks to be with the person she loves.
Rumer Godden, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-0-2307-6989-2, £5.99 pbk
This story gives a rich insight into the culture of Traveller people, but more importantly, gives us the chance to experience life as Kizzy - the central character. Reflecting on the hatred and bullying she receives from villagers and schoolmates is as important today as it was when the book was first published back in 1972.
EmpathyLab combines great books with creative activities like Empathy Detectives, designed to inspire children’s deep thinking about characters and generate ideas for putting empathy into action. We are beginning our work with schools, libraries and communities and are supported by authors, publishers, psychologists and educationalists.
Can you recommend a great empathy read? Tweet it to @EmpathyLabUk
Sarah Mears is one of EmpathyLab’s five founders and also Library Services Manager at Essex Libraries and Chair of the Association of Senior Children and Education Librarians.