When we launched StartEmpathy.org at the beginning of last month, we asked you and your fellow readers to contribute some of your favorite empathy-building books and movies. We’ve boiled your suggestions and our favorites down to this list of five, so before you head to the beach with the family, pick up some of these classics. And don’t forget that reading is only part of the equation. Ask your child—and yourself—questions about what you’re reading. Don’t just consume a text: engage with it.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Contributed by Elisabeth Eliir Rowan and Danielle Goldstone
Age Range: 13+
Where is empathy in Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill A Mockingbird? Everywhere. In a racially divided town in Depression-era Alabama, Atticus Finch defends African American Tom Robinson in a trial against a white woman who claims the man has raped her. Finch is among literature’s most empathetic characters, and the lesson he teaches his children, his community, and ultimately his readers, is Empathy 101: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it," Atticus says in what is perhaps the book’s most quoted line.
Contributed by Become an Upstander with endorsements by others
Age Range: 6-10
In post World War II America, Polish immigrant Wanda Petronski is a poor and friendless outcast among her classmates. In an effort to fit in, Wanda, who is ridiculed for wearing the same faded dress to school every day, claims that she has one hundred dresses in her closet at home. This obvious lie only escalates the teasing Wanda already suffers, forcing the girl’s father to pull her out of school and take her to a new district. A twist that we won’t spoil here helps Wanda’s classmates stand in Wanda’s shoes—or, rather, in her faded dress. “I’m never going to stand by and say nothing again,” concludes one supporting character in this book that is a perfect tool for broaching bullying and bystanding with younger students.
Contributed by Christina Heuschen with endorsements by others
Age Range: 5-8
Privileged Sara Crewe is brought to Miss Minchin’s boarding school when her father goes off to war. Once the bright girl’s wealthy father is presumed dead, Miss Minchin goes from doting on the girl to despising her. Even when her fortune takes a turn for the worst, Sara is a model of empathy and compassion. What’s more, Sara, who spins imaginative tales to explore her own difficult emotions, is a reminder that not only does consuming stories help us understand emotions but also that telling stories helps us work through our own.
Contributed by Roman Krznaric
Age Range: 15+
Down and Out is a non-fiction account of George Orwell’s adventures dressing up as a tramp and living rough on the streets of East London in the early 1930s. “The experience utterly transformed his life, and is pure inspiration for the empathic challenge of stepping into someone else's shoes,” writes empathy expert Roman Krznaric, who suggested the book.
Age Range: 9-12
In a futuristic, highly-regulated dystopia, 12-year old Jonas learns that he is going to be his community’s “Receiver”—receiving glimpses of a more human humanity from the aging repository of humanity’s memory, a man called The Giver. In this year of absorbing memories from a different kind of world, Jonas learns for the first time about war and art, pain and love, and the full range of the human emotional experience. Lowry’s must-read captures the intangible connection between memory and feelings, and awakens its readers to the power of human emotion and connection by depicting a world in which they don’t exist.
Image by Beggs.