20 Books That Encourage Empathy
Looking for books to help build emotional intelligence in your child? Check out our age-by-age guide—and head to your local library for these classics.
You already know it’s important to read to your child, and you can probably rattle off a long list of reasons why. It helps strengthen your bond, speeds his language development, and sparks imagination, just to name a few. But one benefit often tends to get overlooked: When you read fiction to your child, you can help him learn to read other people.
"While books provide a foundation for building empathy, it’s the relatable struggles and feelings of the story’s characters that help kids realize they’re not alone and give them the confidence to talk about their emotions," says Elly Swartz, author of the middle grade novel Finding Perfect. "A book’s characters can be a window, a mirror, and an unconditional best friend connecting us all."
The 20 books listed—by age-appropriateness—here can all help kids learn to handle their intense emotions and learn to be more empathic friends.
Up to Age 2
Select books with bold lines and big faces, since babies, whose eyesight isn’t fully developed, tend to zoom in on these. Vary your tone of voice so kids pick up on emotions.
1. Baby Faces by Margaret Miller
Expressive kids’ faces peer out from the pages, along with a word describing each emotion.
2. Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers
Babies love seeing other babies. This book features them playing, getting fed, being rocked, and experiencing feelings.
3. Moo, Baa, La La La! by Sandra Boynton
Use the unforgettable animal grimaces in this funny book to discuss how emotions can be written on someone’s face.
4. Spot Goes to the Farm by Eric Hill
A nice introduction to slightly more complicated plot, this book follows the adventures of a dog. Does his father look happy when he ends up in a pond?
5. Baby Faces Peekaboo! by DK Publishing
The faces in this lift-the-flap book reveal a full range of emotions
Pose questions like “How do you think the duck feels?” to help your child empathize with characters, suggests early-literacy expert Roslyn Haber, Ed.D., of New York City.
6. Little Elliot, Big Fun by Mike Curato
An elephant visits an amusement park but fears rides at first. Kids will relate to the concept of facing unfamiliar situations.
7. Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins
Talk to your child about the cake’s facial expressions and reactions of the other characters. How does the cake’s behavior affect them?
8. Moo! by David LaRochelle
A cow makes off with a farmer’s car and hits the road. The mood changes from moment to moment, as fun and fearsome events arise.
9. A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards
Sophia decides to knit a hat for an older lady who needs one but finds it's tough. Since little kids’ dreams often outstrip their abilities, they’ll feel her struggle.
10. The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm by LeVar Burton and Susan Schaefer Bernardo
This poetic tale is a plug for diversity and provides inspiration for dealing with adversity and strong emotions.
Even if your child can read on her own, keep reading to her. “She may be so focused on the mechanics that she loses the meaning of a story,” says Pam Allyn, founder of the global literacy movement LitWorld.
11. Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate
Your child will find it easy to sympathize with Ivan, who eventually gets a better life at a zoo.
12. Stevie by John Steptoe
This book about a boy who resents having a foster brother but also misses him helps kids talk about complex feelings.
13. Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn
Sam receives money to spend for Chinese New Year. Then he meets a homeless man who puts “good fortune” in a different light.
14. Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
The main character’s face in each drawing can spark conversations about envy and feeling left out.
15. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
When a Korean girl is teased about her name, she refuses to use it. Will she swap it or be true to her roots?
Big kids are ready for books that tackle tough subjects. After reading, discuss these questions: “What problems did the characters face?”; “Is the world different today?”; and “Could they or someone else have made a difference?”
16. Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
A boy and his father are homeless and sleep in an airport. When a bird that’s been trapped in the terminal finds its way out, the characters are inspired as well.
17. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
After teasing a girl for wearing the same dress every day, her classmates realize that unkind words can’t be taken back.
18. Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola
Based on the real experiences of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, this story evokes empathy and shows the power of compassion.
19. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Lanesha wonders why she doesn’t have the same comforts as her wealthier uptown relatives do. Then an even bigger problem looms: Hurricane Katrina.
20. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
This story about a slow learner trapped in a giant teenage body drives home the benefit of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.