Empathy has entered the conversation – and for that I’m grateful.


I was talking to a mom-friend the other day about the truly awesome and terrifying responsibility of parenting. I mean, just the typical conversation at 8:30am after drop-off!


But seriously, now that I’m out of the woods with car-seat research, diaper-changing and pureeing of orange foods, I’ve noticed a real shift in parenting concerns.  Parenting has become less about the big things (like eating and sleeping) and more about subtle emotional issues.  Namely, I want to make sure I’m helping my son toward becoming a GOOD person…whatever that means.  


Empathy has become a buzzword of late, and for real reason. A study from the NYC Department of Education shows bullying has increased by 10 percent in 2017. Schools are trying to figure out ways to increase their social emotional learning (SEL).  To that end, foundations like the excellent Riley’s Way have been established to help their partner schools prioritize SEL in their communities.

Riley's Way Foundation kids created a booklist to inspire kindness
Riley’s Way Foundation kids created a bookclub to inspire kindness

Finally, we at Child’s Play NY created an entire residency program to foster more dialogue around perspective taking, compassion and bullying using Shakespeare as a way in! 

empathy building workshop
Child’s Play NY teaching artists in performance of Midsummer


As educators and parents we grapple with modeling kindness, even as our caustic national conversations seem to have little to do with taking another’s perspective.  How can spark true discussion and understanding about compassion?  How can we turn empathy into something that kids can really practice?


Characters, and humans are complex.  We regularly talked about, and practiced, “perspective taking” in my own acting training at NYU Grad.   From Nora in The Dollhouse to eponymous Richard III, great characters are only so because they present real human behavior.  This includes the good, (and especially) the bad, the ugly.  So now, I apply these thoughts to child-rearing and teaching.  However, as a mom I don’t work from a play.  Instead, I love to use great kids lit to get into crackling conversations complicated situations.  


So, this week, I’m bringing you a conversation I had with my colleague, Paula Zamora-Gonzalez.  Paula is the children’s librarian over at our partner school, Friends Seminary in Manhattan.  We talked a lot about empathy.  Specifically I asked her about her book recommendations for YA readers to spark kindness and compassion.  I first met Paula when she chartered a van to go the the Women’s March and I happened to be her passenger.  Her enthusiasm for kids lit is infectious.  Furthermore, her reasons for loving what she does are truly wise.   


If you have kids in in the 4-7 range, you might want to check out my post on Kids Lit that Boosts Kindness.  In it, Paula speaks about other great literature for kids K-3. 


Watch this video to see her speak about her 3 favorite Books for Empathy.  These are appropriate for ages 8 and up. 



Conversations on Empathy with a Librarian


Paula says:  “So with our political and social climate the way that it is, I feel like there’s a lot of parents who come to me often asking, ‘What do I talk to my kids about? How do I begin to broach these really difficult conversations?’ And at least here at school our general strategy has been to talk about empathy as the first and maybe the foremost skill that we need to be developing and exercising on a regular basis. So I think that there are some books that really help support that.  Especially fiction books right now. I think stepping into someone else’s story, stepping into their shoes for 100, 200 pages can really change our perspective. And to that end I offer you a few books.


George by Kate Pavao

For readers ages 9 and up

book cover of george

When George’s class is going to put on the play of, Charlotte’s Web, George is excited to audition for Charlotte.  However, the teacher says, the role is only open to girls.  George is a boy.  Written profoundly and simply, this book is a way into to talking about gender identity, assumptions and stereotypes at a developmentally appropriate age-level (for 9+ readers).   We meet class bullies and supportive advocates.  Paula says, “I have to say I’ve never met characters like these ones before. I’ve never met a story like this before.  I absolutely fell in love with it.  It’s a first step into understanding these questions of gender identity.”  Use this as a springboard for bigger discussions about what it means to be transgender and how to be an ally.  


Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

For readers ages 8 and up

empathy books

This fantasy graphic novel explores the relationship between two sisters, Catrina and Maya. Maya is coping with cystic fibrosis and their family moves to a small town to make her more comfortable. Although she is ill, Maya is still spunky and adventurous even seeking out the neighborhood ghosts! While the issue of a serious illness is at the fore of the story, there is levity and humor so the concept of empathy is accessible to kids.  Paula says, “the roles start to shift so it’s actually at some point Maya who’s consoling Cat.  She leads her in an in-depth understanding of her experience of being ill.  Raina Telgemeier does a beautiful job of keeping it light-hearted, fun, funny.  It really is about this relationship between the two sisters.”


Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weeks, Gita Varadarajan

For readers ages 8 and up

empathy books and bullying


Like the beloved book, Wonder, this novel helps to foster empathy simply because of the style in which it is written.  Told in the alternating voices of Joe and Ravi, we navigate the landmines of 5th grade.  For example this book tackles bullying, parents who don’t fully understand, school lunches, learning disabilities and what it is like to be an immigrant.  


Paula says, “we’re seeing the story go back and forth between the two of them and assessing their social contexts. Who’s a bully? Which teachers are nice? What’s difficult, what’s easy, what’s fun? We really see how the experiences that we have form our opinions and the foundation for our understanding. So, by suspending our our experience and stepping into someone else’s, we gain an appreciation for the things that are happening around us that we thought we did understand.”  



Check out my posts on The Best Wordless Picture Books and recommendations for how to make reading a game with these simple tools:




Thanks for watching and reading!