Before positive action, comes Empathy: Six books to mark Empathy Day 2021

Published on: 10 June 2021 Author: Onjali Q. Raúf

BookTrust Writer in Residence Onjali Q. Raúf and EmpathyLab co-founder Caroline Scott share their favourite books to mark Empathy Day.

Illustration: Erika Meza

“Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

One simple action

This year, to mark Empathy Day UK on 10 June, EmpathyLab are asking all of us to undertake one simple action: to grab our walking shoes, and embark upon an empathy walk, be it in our own gardens, the playground or our local parks or streets. And on this walk, to do one thing: actively imagine what it might be like to be someone else, living a completely different reality to ours.

That imagining could be of someone feeling grief and confusion over the loss of a loved one… or someone who has just aced their exams when no-one really expected them to. Or maybe a heart who lost their entire universe to war or racism and violence, or perhaps someone who has just triumphed over their bullies and is now ready to take on the world.

Whatever the scenario our minds and feet may conjure up, chances are that their equivalent can be found in children’s books placed on shelves across the world.

Because the truth is (keep it secret): the job of inspiring and instilling a lifelong capacity for empathy, and gifting a reader brand new eyes through which to navigate a world unfamiliar to them, is the primary role of every children’s writer ever. (Sssssh! Don’t tell anyone.)

From teddy bears to neuroscience

That is why children’s books have never shied away from the difficult or the painful, and are so often the first beacons to be lit when it comes to celebrating and respecting or heeding the need for different stories and perspectives. From rotund teddy bears searching for honey and spouting wisdoms, to changing family dynamics, disability, bullying, poverty, real-life wars, climate change, racisms, and gender inequalities - every possible experience and walk of life can be found waiting to be explored on the shelves of our children’s libraries. Each equipping their young readers with the tools they need to exit one reality, enter another, and if they’re ready to do so, mobilise. Because without the capacity for empathy - that ability to extract ourselves from our own worlds, and truly explore another person’s experiences and deepest needs - humanity would be in dire straits.

Empathy is the foundation and foreground of every good deed, seen and unseen, and all acts of kindness and compassion offered daily.

To mark this year’s Empathy Day, I asked EmpathyLab’s co-founder and education lead, Caroline Scott, two questions. The first was why stories and the world of books seem so integral to children’s capacity for empathy. She answered:

“Fascinating neuroscience shows that when we read,the brain reacts almost as if we are experiencing the situation in real life. We know that empathy is like a muscle that is strengthened the more we use it, so reading really helps children develop and practice the empathy skills that will be so beneficial throughout their lives.”

Naturally, I then had to ask her what her three favourite children’s or YA books were. Braving the difficulties which lay in only getting to pick three (sorry Caroline!), she finally managed to overcome that feat.

So here they are, along with my own three favourite empathy reads. Here’s to happy reading, happy walking, and flexing those empathy muscles!  

Explore the extensive reading picks available in the #ReadforEmpathy book collection here. And share your pictures and stories of your #EmpathyWalks or #EmpathyReads with @empathylabuk.

Caroline's favourite empathy reads  

Illustration from Felix After the Rain by Dunja JoganIllustration from Felix After the Rain by Dunja Jogan

Felix After The Rain by Dunja Jogan, translated by Olivia Hellewell

A beautiful picture book exploring how worries might weigh us down and how we can each lift that burden. A wonderful resource for young children to help them speal about sad feelings and how we can all feel better if we confide in another person.

Bright Bursts of Colour by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

A thought provoking and empathetic poetry collection highlighting the silly and selfish, to the tender and thoughtful.

Read our review of Bright Bursts of Colour

Illustration from Run Rebel by Manjeet MannIllustration from Run Rebel by Manjeet Mann

Run Rebel by Manjeet Mann

This YA book, shortlisted for so many awards including the Carnegie Medal and the Branford Boase this year, has a brilliant central character determined to escape an oppressive household.

Onjali's favourite empathy reads

Illustration from The Happy PrinceIllustration from The Happy Prince

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde

Ever cried so hard you thought you might go blind? If you’re nodding, chances are this was the book that forged those tears!

One of the most beautiful, forceful tales ever written about empathy and selfless compassion. As timeless as the statue of the prince himself, and very likely the sole reason why I have to wear glasses. Forever.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

From the very first word to the very last full stop, no-one can help but fall in love with Archie, Bell and Seb, as they go on an epic quest to understand why Archie’s family seems to have fallen apart at the seams. A funny, gorgeous, and honest depiction of changing relationships and a heart-touching quest to find the P in Pride and grapple with the L in Love.

A perfect story in every way, and a beautiful fit for this (and every) Pride month. 

Read our review of Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow

Illustration from When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen GettenIllustration from When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten

When Life Gives You Mangoes by by Kereen Getten

Troubled and traumatised by a mysterious event, the journey Clara makes in this stupendous story truly gifts readers an insight into just how frustrating and difficult fears which others around you don’t seem to have, can be. Clara’s struggles and difficulties become your own as you read on, and combined with the immense examples of compassionate kindnesses embodied by all around her, this makes for an unforgettable, deeply empathetic read.

Read our review of When Life Gives You Mangoes

What's your favourite book to celebrate Empathy Day? Let us know on Twitter.

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