Today is Empathy Day – an annual event run by Empathy Lab to help children understand other people’s lives and emotions through books. I was going to make a quick post on Twitter, but once I started looking through my shelves and picking out books, I realised I had too much to say to fit it into the word count.
The last few years have been very divisive ones, not just here in the UK but in many parts of the world. And it seems to me that one of the only hopes for a more harmonious, inclusive and kind future stems from raising a new generation with empathy at the heart of their way of thinking. And that’s where picture books come in! From the youngest age, picture books allow a child to step inside someone else’s world and understand things in a different way.
Starting from the top left, these are my choices of books that particularly foster empathy: first of all, the wonderful Frog and Toad story series by Arnold Lobel. These were first published in the 1970s, and are early readers based around a friendship of two very different personalities. There are many humorous misunderstandings between Frog and Toad but what shines out is how very kind they are to each other, and how emotionally sensitive they are – very tenderly written.
The next one is Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña with the most beautiful pictures by Christian Robinson. This book has so much depth to it, and just radiates empathy – a little boy goes on a bus ride with his Nana. It’s not revealed until the end that they are going to help out at a soup kitchen – and on the way Nana opens his eyes to the rewards of talking to all sorts of different people, hearing their stories, and being part of the wider community. My copy is plastered with awards stickers, and quite rightly so!
Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the World by John Burningham was first published in 2006, and it has a very strong and powerful message. Its title is probably a bit off-putting, but it’s much more serious and moving than it sounds. Edwardo is treated with contempt by just about everyone he knows, and is labelled as rough, noisy, messy, dirty, cruel and a bully. He has little choice but to become the things he’s been labelled – until a stranger sees something different in him. As people start interpreting his actions positively, he flowers.
The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is quite breathtaking – so simple and SO effective, it delivers some very complicated messages seemingly effortlessly in a way very young children can understand (I know because I have read it with the nursery class I visit once a week). Just a wonderful way of understanding what it’s like to have nothing, and how much the kindness of strangers can help.
I’ve included two books by Kate Milner because they are so good – My Name Is Not Refugee and It’s a No Money Day. Both, I would say, should be essential reading in schools today, helping explain from a child’s perspective what it’s like to be a refugee or to need to use a food bank. The illustrations are wonderful too.
Finally I’ve been a bit cheeky and included my own book, The Boy Who Loved Everyone, with superb illustrations by Maisie Paradise Shearring. I wrote this book inspired by a real boy at the nursery class I visit, when I noticed how his habit of telling everyone he loved them had a really profound effect on everyone, in all sorts of different ways. You can read more about the story behind the book by following the links here, and I’ve also made a couple of YouTube videos about it: Back To School With The Boy Who Loved Everyone and All About The Boy Who Loved Everyone – click on the links if you’d like to watch them. There are also lots of useful teaching resources on this and many other books that promote empathy on teacher Andrew Moffat’s No Outsiders website.