I’ve been looking forward to Empathy Day 2021 all year! Picture books are an amazing way to help instil empathy in young children. They can help children (and adults) to step into the shoes of someone else. Often, they can convey complex emotions and situations in a simple way for children to relate to. Here are five outstanding picture books (and a graphic novel) that instil empathy.
What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George
One of the most incredible things about children is their curiosity and fabulous imaginations. But curiosity should never invade another person’s privacy. What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George is the first picture book to answer a very important question: how do we teach our children, despite any curiosities they may have, to always be respectful to disabled people?
At the back of the book, James chooses to share with us a personal note on his lived experience. Like Joe, the author has one leg. James has said that he wrote this book for his five-year-old-self, and I think it will be a brilliant book for disabled children. But it is also a much-needed book for non-disabled children and adults, to help instil empathy. This is a book everyone should read.
Published by Faber & Faber, 1 April 2021
The Invisible by Tom Percival
I want to start by saying I recommend ALL of Tom’s Big Bright Feelings picture book series for instilling empathy (you can read my reviews here: Ruby’s Worry, Ravi’s Roar, and Meesha Makes Friends). But I really wanted to showcase The Invisible on empathy day. This picture book brought me to tears and then filled me with hope. The Invisible by Tom Percival is not only stunningly illustrated, it is a story that has been created from the heart. Based on Tom’s lived experience of growing up without much money, The Invisible is the story of a girl called Isabel, living in poverty, who finds a way to bring the community together.
The Invisible is a refreshing, authentic picture book on poverty, a theme that is so often overlooked. For some children, The Invisible will be a glimpse into a way of life that they can barely imagine. For others, it may be the first time they can see their life reflected in a book. Either way, The Invisible acts as a reminder to every reader that we can all make a difference in the world.
Published by Simon & Schuster, 4 February 2021
Coming to England by Floella Benjamin & Diane Ewen
This picture book is based on the inspiring true story of Baroness Floella Benjamin celebrating Windrush generation. From the excitement of meeting the queen, to disappointments of reality in the UK, Floella and Diane explore racism, friendship and living out your dreams.
Reading this book to my daughters was incredibly emotional for me as my great-grandad made a similar journey from Jamaica to England in the 1930s. For me, the most powerful page was when Floella explained what it was like going to school in England, something picture book age children can really relate to. At first, the children weren’t very nice to her at school, but overtime they’ve become friends. Floella and Diane have told this real-life experience with vibrant energy, using relatable emotions for children.
Published by Macmillan, 8 October 2020
Just Being Ted by Lisa Sheehan
It is so important for children to feel accepted for who they are. Whether they’re starting school, or want to explore a new hobby, or have a point of difference. But it is equally important for children to learn to accept people for they are. Just Being Ted is a beautiful picture book that allows children to explore themes of individuality, acceptance and friendship. Ted the dragon lives all alone in the woods. He LOVES being creative but he wishes he had some friends to play with. But however hard he tries, his fiery breath puts them off. So Ted decides to take things into his own claws, but going undercover to a Bears-Only Picnic. Will the bears discover the truth and what will happen if they do?
Just Being Ted is a fun story that invites the reader to question discrimination in a non-confronting way. I love how a light-hearted story can help instil empathy. This is a great book to share with children who are starting nursery or school and learning to make friends.
Published by Buster Books, 13 May 2021
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson
Milo and his big sister are going on a long train journey to visit their mum in prison. Milo looks around at the other people on the train and imagines their lives. He draws what he thinks they might do when they get off the train.
Physically, Milo is going on a train journey. But emotionally, Milo is going on a much more powerful kind of journey. Milo realises that you can’t judge someone by their appearance. And it is the masterful way Matt and Christian have intertwined this emotional journey with the train ride that makes this picture book timeless.
Published by Macmillan, 16 February 2021
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed
This isn’t actually a picture book, it’s a graphic novel, but I had to include it because it is so powerful. It tells the incredibly moving true story of Omar and his brother Hassan who had to flee their home in Somali after their father was killed by soldiers. They were separated from their mother, and after a gruelling walk with the other villagers of Mareerey, they arrived in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya known to those who lived there as an “open prison”. They spent fifteen years there, being cared for by their foster mum, Fatima, who had lost all four of her sons in the war. Split into three parts, we see Omar’s physical and internal battle to protect his brother who suffers from seizures, gain an education and search for their mother.
I think creating Omar’s memoir via a graphic novel has allowed this important but complex story to be much more accessible to middle grade readers and adults. Amongst some truly heart-wrenching scenes, are moments of humour and readers will be inspired by Omar’s bravery, resilience, and determination – I certainly was. It is a rare thing to find a book that can change your view of the world. When Stars Are Scattered is truly masterful and I highly recommend it.
Published by Faber, 2 July 2020
Finally, I want to do a shout out to the Empathy Lab. There is an absolutely incredible line up of events today (see here).
I am very grateful to the publishers for providing me with a complimentary copies of these books. This voluntary feature contains my honest opinion.