The Importance of Being Empathetic

Part of the joy of working with writers who are smarter and more knowledgable than you is that you learn stuff. They do the research and make sense of the material and then you get to absorb it, process it, and then go to dinner parties and act like you know what you’re talking about. I’ve just finished editing a book about bullying by the amazing journalist and Slate gabfest fixture Emily Bazelon – and, obviously, being the parents of two girls, this is a topic Jenny and I spend time thinking about. Emily’s book – Sticks and Stones, out in February — is about the phenomenon in general, how it works and why it happens and what can be done to alleviate it. One of the words that comes up in the book over and over again is empathy, in that it is a crucial trait for kids to possess – or learn, as the case may be – if we are to make strides in making kids less mean, and more forgiving. Since October is officially “Bullying Prevention Month,” and since our kids, for some reason, have been reading in and around this subject area a lot lately, I thought we’d highilght three books that help instill some empathy and might lead to some fruitful dinner table discussions on the idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — always a good thing to think about. Apart from the subject matter, they also happen to be really excellent books. I now hand the mic to Abby and Phoebe. — Andy

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What it’s about: ”A boy named August (they call him Auggie) who has a deformity on his face. I know that doesn’t sound nice, but his ears look like tiny fists and his eyes are too low and he has no eyebrows or eyelashes. I don’t know how to explain him. Auggie has been home-schooled until his parents decide that it’s time to send him to a real school, Beecher Prep, and Auggie is resistant at first. He’s afraid. But when his parents tell him that the principal’s name is Mr. Tushman, Auggie laughs and decides to go. The rest of the book is about his year at school and how he manages to survive bullies, ‘the plague’ — which is a mean game, kind of like cooties — and a jerk named Julian.”

The moment that hurts the heart: “When Auggie overhears his friend Jack saying bad things about him. Jack tells Julian that he had pretended to be friends with Auggie, and Auggie didn’t know that. Auggie overhears this and goes on the staircase and just starts crying. He trusted Jack and thought that he didn’t care about how he looked. When you read it, you can feel how sad he must be.”

The lesson it teaches: “Looks can be deceiving.”

Phoebe score: 10. “One of the best books I’ve ever read.”

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

What it’s about: “A girl named Melody who has cerebral palsy and is incredibly smart. I think she’s twelve. The thing is, she can’t speak because of the cerebral palsy, and so people misjudge her. A lot. She has one friend, beside her aide, named Rose. Rose believes in her and one day, Melody gets a special computer that allows her to finally communicate. When she types in a word, the computer says it out loud, so it’s like she can talk. This helps her prove that may be different, but she’s not stupid. This book is enough to make people cry.”

The moment that hurts the heart: “Melody’s school has a team of these super smart kids who go to compete against other schools in a trivia game that is on tv. Melody is on this team. One time, the team had to go to Washington to compete and Melody was a little bit late and they left her behind. One student thought that she wasn’t as important as the others. This made her realize again that, no matter what, people would always think of her as different.”

The lesson it teaches: After Phoebe read this book, she sent Sharon Draper an email. This is what it said:

Dear Ms.Draper, 

I read Out Of My Mind on Thanksgiving weekend. I think that if everybody had a copy of that book, it would change the world. It completely changed the way I looked at people that have cerebral palsy and autism. Do you know any body with cerebral palsy? Did you write the book to make people look at people with cerebral palsy and autism differently?

That night, Sharon wrote back, and this is what she said:

Dear Phoebe, 

Thanks so much for your kind letter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed Out of my Mind.  That book is very special to me. I tried very hard to capture the essence of what it means to be different. Melody is a song to me that will forever sing. Yes, I know lots of people with disabilities, and I hope the book helps people see them as real people.

Phoebe score: 9. “Soooo close to a 10, but not quite as good as Wonder. Still, a great book for people who want to look inside somebody’s mind.”

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff

What it’s about: ”It’s about a boy named Georgie who has something called dwarfism, and what happens in his life. It’s not a book that has a lot of action, but it still makes you want to read on and read on and read on. A lot of the chapters end on cliffhangers and it makes you really think about how different people are in this world. This book is about friendship, too — and how it’s hard for kids like Georgie to find friends because people make fun of him for his height and the way he looks.”

The moment that hurts the heart: ”When you hear about all the times people stare at Georgie and make fun of him just because of how he looks. One time, he’s knocking on a door and a car drives past and the man in the car stares — like, eyes wide open — and I can imagine how hard it would be to deal with that every single day.”

The lesson it teaches: ”Everyone, no matter how they look or how they act, is always the same as you on the inside.”

Abby score: 10. “Ten. Ten!”

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26 Comments

Melissa

My 9-yr-old son read Out of My Mind this summer, and I believe he would echo Phoebe’s review. It was also a book that he talked about for weeks and months afterward. Thanks for the other recommendations–I’ve already requested them from the library. :)

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Taylor

Thanks for these suggestions. They look great. I love the empathy focus, and I wonder whether you have any book ideas for kids a bit younger? We are just getting into chapter books at my house, and even a few pictures go a long way. Many thanks.

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andy

Taylor — Start with The Sneetches. I don’t care how old you are, that book rules. I just read it to our kids last week, and they were riveted. And, I always talk about this one, but it’s really worth investing in a copy of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders. It’s an empathy manifesto.

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Cali Kliewer

I just finished a whole unit using Wonder with my 6th grade gifted students. I agree that it is, the most amazing book ever! I think everyone should be required to read it! My students loved it, and actually asked if we could read it again. Listening to their insight and comments as we read was fabulous!

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Britt

I need to start making a list for my future children. This makes me feel better about the future!

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Julie

My daughter is 7 and a voracious reader. We’ve talked a lot about bullying because it is a frequent topic at school, especially this week which is “respect week” at her school and is focused on preventing bullying and learning how to handle it if it does happen. She still seems confused about the topic though. Are these books appropriate for a 2nd grader? Perhaps I’ll preread them, which would give us the added bonus of being able to discuss them. My bottom line advice to her is to always live by the rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

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Melanie D.

Thanks so much for this post. My nine-year old daughter and I have been reading Out of My Mind and LOVING it. I teach special education and have absolutely loved sharing that experience with her through reading this book. I immediately ordered the other two books in this post and will plan to read those with her as well. I really appreciate the suggestions and reviews!

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jennie

finished wonder the other night–loved it. read out of my mind last year–loved it! will have to look at georgie. thanks.

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Maya

What ages of children do you think those books are best for? I don’t know how old your daughters are… I’m always looking for good, engaging books for my sons, and ones with a good lesson will be an added bonus.
thanks, Maya

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Alyssa

As an adult (and med student) all of these books sound amazing – I think it’s so wonderful that you guys are able to take time to share such meaningful literature, even if it is meant for kids, with your children. Kudos!

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Julie

Agree, agree, agree about Wonder! My son and I both read it last year when he was in 4th grade. We had great discussions about bullying and empathy for weeks afterwards. Can’t wait to check out the others.

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654carroll

The version of Sneetches that we have also has “What Was I Scared Of?”, also an empathy tour de force (value added: spooky, for Halloween). “So I put my arm around their waist, and sat right down beside them. I calmed them down, poor empty pants, with nobody inside them. And now we meet quite often, those empty pants and I. We never shake or tremble. We both smile and we say hi.”

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Elizabeth

Wonderful post, and so appreciated particularly by those of us in the disability world. My seventeen year old daughter is severely disabled, and slurs against her affect my two sons, aged eleven and fourteen. Thank you for making a difference!

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Wendy

Having psychotherapists as parents, my girls hear about empathy all the time. So glad to hear about these books & can’t wait to share them with my girls! They will also be great to share with my clients who are parents & my adolescent clients struggling with empathy. Thank you!

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Lucy Mitchell

Thanks for these, I’ve nearly bought Wonder for my son a few times, so its great to get a kids review. You’ve made my mind up for me. Totally different but similar from an empathy point of view is The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. (for ages eight and up, I’d say).I won’t give away anything about the main protagonist, he tells it way better himself!

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KellyM

What a great list. My daughter is 3 1/2 years old and I am always adding all the books you recommend to my wishlist on Amazon so I make sure I can remember them for when she gets a little older. Your site and your book have changed the way I view family dinner at my house. I love to cook just like you, but just like you the weeknight grind of cooking is more like a job and less like a hobby and having a strategy makes it some much easier. I now plan all my meals on the weekend for the week ahead and even do some of my cooking then. I have been keeping a dinner journal since 6/30, which is when I finished your book. I have also started a freezer inventory in the same book so I can keep track of what I have coming in and going out of my 2 freezers. That makes it easier for meal planning and shopping because I have a true picture of what I already have and I am not guessing! I have been wanting to write to you for some time and let you know how much your book and your site have my an impact on me and my family. You and your family are so great! i figured I would combine it with my giveaway entry. Also I READ YOUR NEWSLETTER. DO I WIN PLACE MAT ART.

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leah kalish

Just want to add that for children who need a more embodied experience, we created the Move with Me play-along movement stories that teach self-regulation skills. In these fun video classes, kids act out the story through movement, yoga and Brain Gym. They get engaging active play and embodied self-care and regulation practice. Children follow-along with characters in the stories when they use their “adventure skills” to manage emotions and overcome obstacles.

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Samantha Steele

I love Phoebe and Abby’s choices! I am a fourth grade literacy teacher, teacher author, mother, (miserable cook, sorry…) and book enthusiast. I just read one that I want to recommend to the girls and to everyone. Absolutely Almost, by Lisa Graff (she wrote The Thing About Georgie, which is on your list) is a wonderful book about bullying. Albie, the main character, can be seen as slightly different, but the “why” is not as obvious as in some of the other books on the list. There is another character who is also bullied for a more obvious reason (she stutters). I love how this book has rich characters that you fall in love with immediately, like Wonder, but also, so many children will relate to Albie, who does not have an outward difference, but who struggles with learning and using social strategies. There are also lots of characters who celebrate some true growth by the end of the story. The best part is, unlike many books about bullying, nothing happens that causes the bullying to stop. Albie finds strategies within himself to stop the pain, making for a very quietly empowered character. Please read Absolutely Almost!

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