Last week marked the first round of parent teacher conferences at school. Our school follows the format of student lead interactions, but, of course, the teacher always imparts insights on skill and social development. We are lucky to have a very bright, engaged teacher in my daughter’s class whose opinion I value. I could not have been prouder when instead of talking about the fluency of my second grader’s reading or her ability to joyfully tackle timed math sheets, the teacher explained how empathetic my daughter was. There are multiple studies (such as this one) emerging over the past few years citing a decline in empathy in youth. I believe empathy is the foundation to a functional society and, while the ability to acquire any educational concept can occur at any point in life, the ability to think about others and understand how they feel allows all intellectual concepts to resonate more soundly and translates into kinder actions.

One of the best ways to start developing awareness of oneself and others is simply by talking about actions and feelings, and what better way to do that than to snuggle up with a thought provoking book. Here is a list of children’s books that address different important issues and encourage thoughtful conversations in a gentle way at an any age. Most of these books are older and can be purchased at used book stores or on Amazon for a price lower than the shipping cost.

The Flower 1. The Flower by John Light & illustrated by Lisa Evans

When a boy finds a “banned” book in his public library it sends him on a city-wide search for an “item” he uses to change his world. This book is beautifully illustrated mostly in gray scale with sparing and thoughtful use of color.

2. Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson & Hudson Talbott

Jacqueline Woodson wrote Show Way after the death of her Grandma as a way to commemorate her personal history for her newborn daughter. It speaks of slavery, inequality and slow change while consistently maintaining a tone of hope. This is my older daughter’s favorite book. I think we have read it a thousand times. Though Jaqueline’s history is different from my family’s, my daughter relates to the fear and ultimate bravery of all the little girls in Woodson’s lineage and their stories have fed incredible conversations about what is right and wrong and why we must never stop working for change.

3. One by Kathryn Otoshi

One is a very simple book with astounding depth. Otoshi addresses the idea of bullying in an unaffected and poignant way, using watercolors of basic colors and numbers. The characters are colors — Red is the bully whom all the other colors are afraid to stand up to, until the day “1” comes along. “1”, who is a different shape, rallies the colors (eventually also including Red) and brings out their courage to believe in and transform themselves so that in the end, “everyone counts”.

4. When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire by Pija Lindenbaum

When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire follows Owen, the only child of a hard working single mom. One day when Owen’s mom awakes, her usual hectic routine is interrupted by her transformation into a dragon.

The story of frogbelly ratbone 5. The Story of Frogbelly Ratbone by Timothy Basil Ering

The illustrations in this book are fantastic. They mix accessibly “naive” line drawings (like a child him or herself might draw) with a sophisticated sense of motion and character interaction. Frog Belly Rat Bone spins what a “treasure” truly is and how friends can help in achieving a mutually beneficial goal.

6. Rosie’s Fiddle by Phyllis Root & Kevin O’Malley

This is a re-telling of the challenge of the devil and the mortal at the cross-roads. Rosie is a relative recluse but when she plays her fiddle, everyone has to listen, including the jealous Devil himself. Of the many books I have read to preschool and grade-school aged children, this is consistently a favorite. The plot and imagery captivate reader and listener alike as Rosie duels with the Devil for her soul.

7. Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

The death of Sendak last year was a loss for children’s literature and the world at large. While he is known globally for Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy are two books that speak to very important personal and social issues.

In Outside Over There, Ida is charged to watch her baby sister while papa is away at sea and mama is in the arbor. Yet while she plays her “wonder-horn” to rock the baby to sleep, she fails to notice the goblins have stolen the baby and replaced it with another made of ice. Hauntingly illustrated, the images of absent parents, loss, bravery and a reversal on the original telling of the Pied Piper, leave the reader chock full of things to think about.

8. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy by Maurice Sendak

We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is a magical statement on the difficult topic of poverty and child abuse. The images are compellingly vivid and cartoonish in classic Sendak style, but the underlying message is extremely direct and poignant.

9. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening poetry by Robert Frost & Susan Jeffers

Some years ago, my Mom moved from our family home. While helping to weed and sort through generations of family items, I found this book in my personal boxes. My Mom had inscribed the cover, apologizing for giving me a “children’s book” at the age of 11. I promptly read it to my daughters, and read it, and read it… Susan Jeffers illustrates Robert Frost’s famous poem. Despite the beautiful serenity of Jeffers’ images, my daughter started asking about death. Her questions surprised my adult biases of the complexity of what a child understands. She realized the subtext within the poetry and was creating her own construct. Each reader will have their own interpretations of the poetry, but it is a great way to introduce kids to a different, layered way to read.

10. The Elephant Wish by Lou Berger and Ana Juan

Eliza Prattlebottom is the daughter of an opera singing mother and a business man father. Feeling lonely and ignored, on her 8th birthday, she wishes for an elephant to come and take her away and it does. This book is filled with colorful, whimsical images of Eliza’s escape from her life, her adventures, and ultimately the woman who helps her return home. I expected this book to be a simple fairy tale, but found myself sobbing at the end. Berger and Juan masterfully grapple the concepts of childhood isolation, depression, aging, death and second chances.

*NOTE: I purchased some of these books at probably the best book store EVER for kids while visiting my brother in Minneapolis. It’s called Wild Rumpus and the store is home to multiple animals including chinchillas, tarantulas, naturally tailless cats (Manx), chickens ferrets, etc… They offer an incredible selection of children’s to young adult books in a warm and inviting atmosphere and offer a secret discount (20%) for anyone who buys their reusable bag and brings it back to shop. They also host a variety of different events including store tours, story hours, and book clubs. If you live in the area or are visiting from out of town, it is a must visit attraction.

This is only a few of the many great children’s books out there on empathy and feelings. What are your favorites? We’d love to know.

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