Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Margaret Kingsbury
Unfortunately, children often experience a lack of empathy for their differences, both among their peers and among the adults in their lives. Empathy is a learned skill; it can, and should, be taught. These four children’s books about empathy are excellent ways to introduce empathy skills and an appreciation for everyone’s differences.
Many adults, including myself, find it difficult to read books about bullying at school. It’s hard to admit that kids can behave in cruel ways, and it can raise negative memories from our own childhoods that we’d rather forget. But it is so necessary to actively discuss bullying, both in the classroom and at home, and it can make a dramatic difference in children’s lives. This picture book is a perfect way to discuss bullying with elementary-aged children and to introduce the idea of empathy.
The book presents two sides of a story. In the first part, Sofia is excited about the first day of school, but after her best friend Ava doesn’t let her sit beside her, her excitement turns to tears. At school, Ava continues to shun her for her new best friend Madison. Sofia’s mom teaches her the word empathy, though it takes a little help from her teacher to truly understand its meaning. By thinking about how Ava is feeling, Sofia can be kind to her, despite all the hurt feelings Ava has caused. When Sofia sees Ava sad after Madison bullies her, she practices her newly learned empathy, and the two become friends once more.
In part two, Ava tells the same story from her perspective, how Sofia hurt her feelings when she moved away and stopped visiting over the summer, and how she made a new best friend when Madison moved in beside her. She realizes Madison is bullying Sofia, but once it starts, she doesn’t know how to stop it. Ava’s mom teaches her empathy, and once she starts thinking about how Sofia is feeling, she realizes how mean she’s been, and starts sticking up for her friend. After they’re reunited, they both turn their empathy superpower on Madison, because every child deserves kindness.
Amanda Morin, an early intervention specialist and advisor for Understood.org, provides a “Questions to Consider” section to prompt discussions with children, and to lead them in activities for inside or outside the classroom.
This adorable picture book manages to tackle some weighty issues–like how non-disabled folk treat those with disabilities and the link between depression and disability–in an accessible and engaging way that children of all ages will enjoy. All the other dogs at the animal shelter are jealous of Coaster and his amazing wheels. While the people that come to the shelter admire all the cool tricks he can do on his wheels, no one wants to adopt him. As each family comes and goes with a different dog, Coaster becomes depressed, until he stops doing his tricks and sleeps most of the day. Then one day someone different comes and visits him. He does all his normal tricks to impress her, but she doesn’t laugh or clap at his tricks. She doesn’t treat him like he’s a performance. And when she chooses him to take home, he realizes she has even more impressive wheels than he does.
This book can prompt important discussions on how we treat people who look different than us, while also showing how accolades mean very little if there’s no acceptance as well. While Coaster is probably best for ages 4-10, I’ve read it several times to my two-year-old, who loves pointing out all the doggies and going “Whee” when Coaster wheels in circles.
The author, Dr. Paula Kluth, works with teachers and families to provide inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities.
Eunice is a unicorn and she is constantly being told she’s too much–too excited, too active, asks too many questions, she’s just too much of everything. Her school is holding a speech competition and the winner gets to show the President of the United States around the school. Eunice wins the competition, and when she meets the president, she thinks Eunice is just right exactly the way she is. There’s no such thing as being too much. It turns out that the president considers herself a unicorn, too.
Perfect for elementary-aged children, The Too Much Unicorn shows children that standing out and embracing your unique exuberance doesn’t make you wrong at all–but exactly right. I adored Eunice as well as imagining a future female president that would take the time to make a little girl feel as special as she is. This book shows how frustrating it can be when the adults in your life constantly dismiss who you are, but also how rewarding it is when you find acceptance. Both authors specialize in special education and building inclusive classrooms.
I audibly gasped when I opened the We are Little Feminists three-book set for babies and toddlers. The board books feature gorgeous photographs of inclusive families and children of all types and abilities. The Families book portrays LGBTQ+ families, grandparents, and families of many races. Hair celebrates all the various shapes and places and ways hair can be. On-the-Go is my personal favorite of the three. I’ve never seen disability representation embraced visually in a children’s book to this extent. It’s powerful to see all the ways our bodies can move, and all the different apparatuses that can get us there. At only 14 pages each, these books are great for toddlers and preschool classrooms. On-the-Go can also be paired with this diverse abilities figure set to extend the visual normalization of disability through play. Teaching acceptance and empathy can begin at any age, and the best way to begin for babies and toddlers is through exposure.
The Little Feminist company began as a children’s book subscription box, so if you’re looking for an inclusive book subscription box for your children, I recommend checking it out.
Looking for more children’s books? Check out my list of 10 children’s books with disability representation, and my ongoing series of books with disability representation.
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Margaret Kingsbury writes about disability representation, fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales for Book Riot, The Bronzeville Bee, Star Trek, and more, and she’s co-creator of Baby Librarians where she, a friend, and their children write about the children’s books they love. Her fairytale fiction has been published in Nonbinary Review, Devilfish Review, and Expanded Horizons, among other places. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, daughter, and their many, many books. Find out more on her website and follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians or Twitter @areaderlymom.