Read for Empathy

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Ten books chosen by the judges of EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy book collection  

Scientific research shows that empathy is learnable and that books are a powerful empathy-building tool. The world so badly needs more empathy, and non-profit EmpathyLab aims to raise an empathy-educated generation, to build a more caring and less divided world.

Every January EmpathyLab launches its annual Read For Empathy collections – 60 books for 4-16 year olds. You can download the Guides here to the primary and secondary collections, and to a bi-lingual Welsh collection.

The books are a brilliant resource to use as part of Empathy Day on 9 June, and any time afterwards too. This year’s Empathy Day theme is empathy, our human superpower and to help everyone build that power there’s a special challenge with nine very practical, creative activities. You can do these at any time, and on 9 June watch an amazing array of authors and illustrators model the same activities, as part of Empathy Day Live!

To help make the most of the Superpower Challenge, schools can get their free toolkits here, and there’s a special Family Activity pack here.

Judges choose 10 Read For Empathy books to get you started!

EmpathyLab founders Sarah Mears and Miranda McKearney chair the panels of primary and secondary experts who select the annual collections. Here they highlight ten from the 2022 collection to give you a flavour of how powerfully books can be empathy-building, in very different ways.

4-6 year olds

Barbara Throws a WobblerBarbara Throws a Wobbler, Nadia Shireen. Jonathan Cape

The teachers we work with stress how important it is for children to be able to recognise and name their feelings. If you can’t understand and articulate your own emotions, it’s hard to share and understand someone else’s . Barbara Throws a Wobbler is a brilliant example of how books can help, as it explores the range of emotions involved in feeling angry.  Barbara is furious, ready to explode and doesn’t really understand her feelings until she meets her “wobbler” and realises she can take charge of it.

My Beautiful VoiceMy Beautiful Voice, Joseph Coelho and Allison Collpoys, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

A perfect empathy-building book, with a joyful ending which brings a lump to the throat.  A totally silent little boy is nurtured by empathetic teacher Miss Flotsam who builds his confidence to realise his voice is beautiful, until he finally uses it, very movingly. Every child deserves the chance to have an empathetic adult in their lives, and Miss Flotsam shows how powerfully transformative this can be.

7-9 year olds  

The QuiltThe Quilt, Valeriane Leblond, Y Lolfa

Empathy appears in the new Welsh curriculum 35 times, and EmpathyLab works closely with many schools in Wales. This year we introduced a Read for Empathy Wales collection with 17 books in both Welsh and English. A wonderful picture book called The Quilt is one of these. It the story of a family leaving their Welsh homeland for a better life in America and builds empathetic insight into the trauma of economic migration. They take their family quilt with them, and it reminds them that even in a strange land, they are connected by their love for each other, and the love helps them thrive.

Sona Sharma, Very Best Big SisterSona Sharma, Very Best Big Sister, Chitra Soundar, illustrator Jen Khatun, Walker Books

Sona’s family are expecting a new baby and her feelings are all mixed up. It helps to talk to a best friend, her toy Elephant. As Sona takes part in the naming ceremony, choosing one of her baby sister’s new names, things start to fall into place. A warm, gentle book which helps explore the universal experience of first-born children, with fascinating insights into life and cultural traditions in India.

8-11 year olds

The Soup MovementThe Soup Movement, Ben Davis, Oxford University Press

Over and over again, teachers and librarians feed back about the impact of this book. Our judges are always looking for texts which help young readers understand the big social issues of the day where more empathy would help, and for characters who are activists. The Soup Movement explores homelessness through the very engaging story of Jordan, who has a strong sense of social justice and a drive to improve the lives of homeless people. His small act of kindness – giving a flask of soup to Harry – sparks a hugely heart-warming movement of good deeds across the community. Empathy in action.

Front Desk, Kelly Yang, Knights Of

Front DeskOne of the criteria the judges use in choosing books for the collection focuses on titles which can help combat tribal thinking, and prejudice. Front Desk brings new perspectives on racism and injustice, and is an inspiring and very accessible read. The main character is Mia whose hard-pressed immigrant family are running a motel for a greedy, discriminatory owner – she ends up on the front desk. Her parents’ compassion and sense of community leads them to hiding other immigrants in empty rooms…and everything starts to go wrong until Mia cuts through to a solution. Another activist character, determined to make the world a better place.

12-13 year-olds

Show Us Who You AreShow Us Who You Are, Elle McNicholl, Knights Of

Elle McNicholl is an important writer. Her events are both fun and powerful and she shares her experience of being autistic wisely and inspiringly. Her books are superb and should be in every home and school library. In Show Us Who You Are the main character is Cora, who is autistic. She gets involved in the dubious futuristic Pomegranate Institute, and is confronted by momentous ethical questions: – what is perfection? Are all humans valued equally?  The passionate conclusion affirms the right of everyone to

This Book Is Cruelty Free,
Linda Newbery, Pavilion Children’s

This Book Is Cruelty Free: Animals and UsEmpathy for earth and all its creatures feels especially important right now. The judges chose Linda Newbery’s powerful non-fiction book to help build understanding and action – as she says “it’s not difficult to realise animals have feelings”.

She challenges us to live differently, with empathy and compassion, and the book is packed with inspiring do-able ideas for how we can live our lives without causing cruelty. Really helps us grasp how everyday decisions – about food, fashion and much more – can affect animals, wildlife and the environment .

14-16 year olds

The Blue Book of NeboThe Blue Book of Nebo, Manon Steffan Ros, Firefly Press

Available in both Welsh and English this superb short novel is set in a dystopian world where The End came in 2018. The electricity went off and the ‘normal’ 21c world disappeared. 14 year old Dylan is surviving, isolated, with his mam above Nebo village in north-west Wales. His emotions are wonderfully, sparsely drawn and we really care about him and his tiny family. A great springboard for discussion of powerful emotions, and the connections between us that make life worth living, whatever.

Punching the Air
, Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam, HarperCollins Children’s Books

Punching the AirEmpathy is a potent force against prejudice and discrimination, and this verse novel stirs the reader deeply. Based on true miscarriage-of-justice events, it tells the story of Amal, a black teenager whose life has been utterly blighted by racism and prejudice. We experience his dreams, regrets and memories, and the way his creativity guides him forward. A visceral experience of the impact of a lack of empathy and understanding has on people who are treated unjustly.