1. Encouraging and Modelling Empathy: Some Recommended Children’s Books

Encouraging and Modelling Empathy: Some Recommended Children’s Books

Published on 03 May 2023
Child Development
General Article

Written by Choo Li-Hsian.

What we do daily as parents matters a lot. It matters a lot more than what we say to our children. Whether we like it or not, our children are watching our every move. They are always looking at us to learn how the world works, and seeking to model what we do. Therefore, we do need to be consistent and self-aware. We need to be conscious of our own manners before preaching to our children, remembering to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as well as to be grateful for the things we receive. We must also try to show kindness and consideration to everyone, whether a member of the family, a friend, our domestic helper, the condominium security guard, the less fortunate or even a stranger.

What troubles me the most is undesirable or inconsiderate behaviour displayed by parents in the presence of their impressionable young children. Living in a larger community, we do need to try our best to show respect to and empathy for others living together with us. I am neither a model citizen nor a perfect parent myself, but I do believe that as parents, we should try our best to model the behaviour we would like to see in our own children and show them how to be thoughtful towards others in their daily life.

Even on those days when we are far from being the parents we want to be (for example, when we lose our temper or are not as patient as we would like to be), we can still feel comforted that we do not always need to put forth a perfect example for our children to emulate. We can use these ‘imperfect’ situations to let our children know that it is ok to make mistakes. In doing so, we show them how to cope with real life and to recover from these situations through a sincere apology, self-reflection, or some other remedial action. We should also not be above saying we are sorry to our children if required. After all, if we want to encourage positive changes in our children, we need to commit to change within ourselves.

Aside from modelling desired behaviour and attitudes, another good way to encourage empathy is to expose children to various real-life scenarios is by reading good picture and story books to children. Such books about empathy can help children to better navigate their world and understand others who are different or live under different circumstances. The ten books below are appropriate reads for school-going children on this topic. They not only have messages of empathy, but also talk about kindness, friendship, and compassion.

1. The Invisible Boy written by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton

The French philosopher Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In today’s busy and loud world, this statement must resonate with many adults and with most children. It is very easy to overlook a shy classmate, like this book’s main character Justin. It takes just one child like Brian, who is willing to extend some kind words and a hand of friendship to help Justin come out of his quiet shell and build enough confidence to shine during a class project. This is one of the favourite books in our home, with an evergreen message that is always relevant as there is always a child, new or otherwise, like this in the classroom. It delivers a nice reminder to my children to always chose kindness.

2. Those Shoes written by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

All Jeremy wants is a pair of those shoes, just like the ones everyone at school seems to be wearing. However, Jeremy’s grandmother tells him that what he really needs are new boots for winter. When Jeremy’s shoes fall apart at school, he is so determined to buy “those shoes” that he even settles on a secondhand thrift-shop pair that are much too small. Jeremy soon realizes that sore feet are not much fun, and that the things he has – warm boots, a loving grandmother, and the chance to help a friend – are worth more than the things he wants. This book is another favourite in our house and made me cry when I first read it to my children.

3. The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade written by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson

This story is a lovely reminder of how important each person is in contributing to make the world a better place – even if you are the smallest person in your grade like little Sally McCabe. Told in rhyming text and colourful illustrations, the story covers themes of bullying, injustice, courage, empathy and finding your own voice.

4. Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

CJ’s Nana (or grandmother) helps him to see the beauty in his surroundings, whether it is on the bus they take or at the soup kitchen they visit to help at every Sunday. As Nana says, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what is beautiful.” Nana’s words help to remind CJ and little readers that everyone we encounter has talents, skills, and their own story, but we need to be kind, interested and open-minded in order to hear it.

5. Hey, Little Ant written by Phillip Hoose and Hannah Hoose, illustrated by Debbie Tilley

Here is an absolute winner for starting conversations about compassion and understanding with children. The 20th anniversary edition of this hilarious picture book poses the classic conundrum: To squish or not to squish? When a boy comes across an ant on the sidewalk and lifts his shoe to squish it, the ant quickly speaks up to make a case for why his life should be spared by asking the boy to imagine how he would feel if their positions were switched. Their funny dialogue shows how differently each of them sees the world. The book ends by asking children, “What do you think that kid should do?” and invites children to share how they would respond. What would you do if the ant you were about to step on looked up and started talking? Would you stop and listen? With its meaningful message about the importance of caring for all creatures big and small, it is also a great book to read in conjunction with Earth Day or events celebrating environmental causes.


6. I Forgive Alex written by Kerascoët, Sebastien Cosset, and Marie Pommepuy

This stunning wordless picture book from the creators of “I Walk with Vanessa” teaches children an important life lesson about apologies and forgiveness. Alex’s whole class gets upset with him when he accidentally ruins a classmate’s art project. Alex knows he needs to apologize and hopes that the other children will forgive him. Through expressive illustrations, this simple story shares a powerful message for children about kindness, compassion, and inclusion.


7. The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

Many parents (like me!) have grown up reading stories about this charming family of bears and the fact that the books are still around is a testimony of what excellent go-to books they are for teaching children valuable life lessons. In this book, the Bears realize they have too much stuff and decide to donate their unneeded items to those in need. In the end, the Bear family feels good about donating not just their preloved items but also their time and energy to help others in their immediate community.


8. A Sick Day for Amos McGee written by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Friends come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In Amos McGee's case, all sorts of species as well. Amos spends a little bit of time daily with each of his friends at the zoo. He run races with the tortoise, keeps the shy penguin company, and even reads bedtime stories to the owl. One day, when Amos is too sick to visit the zoo, his friends decide that it is time to return the favour.

9. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunts

This book for older children will help them realize how they need to foster empathy both for themselves as well as for others. Ally has dyslexia, but she tries to manage this by tricking others. However, a teacher at her new school soon realizes what is happening. Ally eventually learns how differences make us special and that we also need to show ourselves some empathy at times.

10. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This book also for older children is about 10-year-old August Pullman (or Auggie), who has a genetic facial difference. After being homeschooled, he enters school for the first time in fifth grade. Auggie must cope with reactions to his unusual appearance, as well as some middle school drama. Unkind kids use hateful language and suggest that Auggie is mentally deficient. In the end, good triumphs over everything in this inspiring and uplifting tale. The book was also adapted into a 2017 film starring Julia RobertsOwen Wilson and Jason Tremblay.


Do you have a favourite children’s book on empathy that you would like to share with others? Write to us at enquiry@mint-communications.asia

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