Teaching My Children Empathy, One Book at a Time

It has been on my mind lately that my family is fortunate. Even though my children are pretty sheltered from the news, I have seen so many families affected by natural disasters, war, and sickness. It can be easy to live in our bubble and never consider how differently another child’s life might look. Across our history and our country today, many children have experienced both wonderful and terrible things that we may never truly go through.  

How can I show my children how other places in the world are different? How can I show them that people live and work in a variety of places and that there are many different kinds of families? This is not about comparing so that we feel good or bad about ourselves, but rather to honestly see others and acknowledge the humanity and heart of them. And because our kids are still quite young, I think one great way to do it is through books. I want to feature a few books here that approach important topics and can help feelings of empathy bloom in a child’s heart. All but two of the books on this list are available through the San Antonio Public Library. (Did you know you can request an interlibrary loan and your book will be reserved for you to pick up wherever you want?) I have included the Amazon link to each as well. Neither I nor ACMB make any money should you choose to purchase any of these.

Full disclosure: I do not share this list because I want to push any particular politics or religious beliefs on you, our readers, but simply because I think families can benefit from talking about these important issues. There are even more topics that my kids just aren’t old enough for yet, so they didn’t make this list. The world around us is changing, and more information than ever is available online, be that good or bad. I want my children to have honest discussions with me first and also hear about real people’s experiences with things that we may not deal with every day. I have not read every single one of these books, but I plan to. This list is just a good place to start, chosen for kids 10 and under.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio—My daughter read this book with her third grade class and adored the interesting storytelling and tender journey of a boy with a congenital facial abnormality. It is at times both funny and heartbreaking. Without telling too much, I loved how it touches on the different members of their family and how each is affected by Auggie. Readers feel the hurt of being bullied for the way he looks and the longing for friends that see him for who he is on the inside. Auggie must find more compassion and confidence than he thinks he is capable of, and it is an amazing story that kids can see themselves in.




Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena—This award-winning book from 2016 follows a boy and his grandma through a bustling city. CJ starts to notice that not everyone rides the bus. Some boys have iPods, and some people’s houses look nicer than his. Why do they end up at the soup kitchen every Sunday? But his grandma meets every question with kindness and positivity. This book broaches the subject of poverty and the ways we can serve and help others. I was recently invited to a volunteer opportunity with my kids at the San Antonio Food Bank, so I plan to read this one just before we go. (If you are interested in finding a day for you to do the same, just click here!) 




People Aren’t Socks by Liza Dora—This one isn’t available through SAPL, so I plan to request it. We bought the Kindle edition, and it is great for your younger readers. I love this story because the author is a genuinely wonderful person whom I consider my friend. Exploring the curiosity of a child who doesn’t look exactly like her family members, this story could be a terrific option for biracial families or even adoptive families. “It’s not the looks that matter, it’s the love.”




Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh—Available through SAPL and free to download to Kindle if you are an Amazon Prime member, this true story, set in the 1940s, follows a California family that fought for equal education for their daughter 10 years before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. The story does include some legal terms and Spanish words, so it may be challenging for younger readers. Segregation in America is a big topic to tackle, but this story’s family lens is a plus. It may also give you an opportunity to discuss inequalities in education that are still problematic in America.  




Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson—Told through the eyes of a little girl that rejected a new classmate’s attempts at friendship, this story will lead to great discussions about the opportunities we have to show kindness to others. We checked it out through the library and—spoiler alert—my kids were surprised that it doesn’t have a perfect fairytale ending. I appreciated that it was a realistic story of how we don’t always get another chance to do the right thing, while encouraging children to see how even small gestures can make a world of difference to someone looking for hope. Highly recommend for kids of all ages.





She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History by Chelsea Clinton—The follow-up to her original best seller (which we have and love!) that featured only American women, this book includes some seriously admirable ladies! Not just for female readers, this is a great chance for kids to learn the incredible stories of Marie Curie, J.K. Rowling, Malala Yousafzai, and more. They will love these simple profiles about activists, inventors, ambassadors, and career trailblazers. Many of these names were unfamiliar to me—another reminder of how often women’s work can be overlooked or forgotten.




Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz & Amy Shrodes—When an Iraqi family is forced to leave their home, they do everything they can to keep their sweet cat with them. Separated in a busy place, they are devastated to think that Kunkush may be gone forever. Through the kindness of strangers and aid workers, the family is reunited and can begin a happy phase of life in their new home. Recommended to me by an amazing elementary teacher, this book will open your child’s eyes to the difficulties facing refugee families who just  want the same thing we do: a safe place to call their own.




Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola—Recommended for ages 3–7, this classic book is a gentle explanation of the death of a loved one. Tommy goes to visit his grandparents house every week to see his grandmother and great-grandmother. At the age of 94, his “Nana Upstairs” passes away, and Tommy is comforted by his mother’s explanation that she will come back to him every time he remembers his love for her. If your child liked the movie Coco, this may be a winner too. Even if your family has yet to experience a loss of a loved one, reading this may allow you to talk about other friends who may be sad or missing someone.




The Feelings Book by American Girl—This one is clearly targeted more for daughters, but this was a good fit for my nine-year-old. I am a big fan of the way it helps girls put a name to how they are feeling and learn to communicate in a healthy way. It also gives specific scenarios that many girls may be faced with and gives practical ideas on how to address common emotions like anger, jealousy, loneliness, etc.  You may choose to read through this with your daughter if she is on the younger side and then let her refer back to it on her own when she is older.  





I truly hope that your children enjoy these books and have thoughtful discussions about the people they are connected to. Please share your own recommendations in the comments! For more options, you can go through the Amazon menu for children’s books, then click the category “Growing Up & Facts of Life,” then click on “Difficult Discussions.” Here are a few more honorable mentions that were suggested by friends:

All Families are Different
How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids
My Secret Bully
Maybe Days: A Book for Children in Foster Care
Good Pictures, Bad Pictures (about protecting kids from pornography)
Fish in a Tree (about dyslexia)
Super Duper Safety School: Safety Rules for Kids & Grown Ups!

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