BOOKS: The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss schools kids on the importance of inclusion with this story about the “us vs. them” mentality. The Sneetches is about birdlike creatures that are exactly the same— except some have stars on their bellies, and some do not. The Star-Belly Sneetches think that they are better and look down upon the star-less Sneetches. Meanwhile, the Plain-Belly Sneetches are left depressed and prohibited from associating with their star-bellied brethren. That is, until Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives with his Star-on and Star-off machines and gives the Plain-Belly Sneetches stars. Angry that they are no longer different and special, the Star-Belly Sneetches have their stars removed. And so they go back and forth until no one can remember how they each began, and they realize that it doesn’t really matter—they are all the same. “This is a great story to spark a discussion about excluding an ostracizing people,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist and the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Empathy is about we, not me. Appearances shouldn’t divide us.”
When a young fruit bat gets separated from her family, she must learn how to live like the birds. She has to eat worms instead of fruit, rest at night, and sleep sitting upright. While Stellaluna does her best to adapt to life in Mama Bird’s nest, only when she is older, and reunites with her family, does she realize that it is OK to accept her differences. “Picture books are richer in emotion-charged content than chapter books are,” Borba writes in UnSelfie. “It’s this emotionally charged content (particularly in the first several years of life) that’s crucial to empathy development.” So ask your child, How do you think Stellaluna felt when she landed in that bird’s nest? Why do you think Mama Bird made her promise to act like a bird and not a bat? These questions will help your child get better at putting him- or herself in someone else’s shoes.
E.B. White’s 1952 classic is guaranteed to pull on the heartstrings. Thought by many to be the best children’s book of all time, Charlotte’s Web follows a pig named Wilbur who is destined for the butcher’s block until his friend Charlotte, a spider, intervenes. Not only does the book offer important lessons on friendship, mortality, and the passing of time, it also teaches empathy. “This book is so wonderful because each character is so well defined and so different,” Borba says. “You can ask you child, ‘How would you feel if you were Charlotte? How would you feel if you were Wilbur?’ You can really help kids try on the shoes, so to speak, of each character.” The book also is profoundly sad and stirs up many emotions. “Asking how would you feel and what would you need are wonderful questions to ask when trying to instill empathy,” adds Borba. “Ask, ‘How would you feel if you were Wilbur? What would you need to feel better?’ The goal is to help kids recognize an emotion in someone else, reflect upon it, and determine how they will respond.”
Written in 1944, this children’s book is about a girl named Maddie who doesn’t speak up when she sees a classmate being bullied. Her friend Peggy mercilessly taunts Wanda, a poor, Polish immigrant, for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims to have a hundred beautiful dresses at home, but the girls know that isn’t true. Maddie feels bad for making fun of Wanda—she wears hand-me-downs herself after all—but she is too afraid to stand up to Peggy. When there is an art contest at school, Wanda submits one hundred gorgeous drawings of dresses, each one different and ornate. The girls are stunned. When Wanda isn’t at school to collect her award, the girls learn that Wanda’s father has moved the family into the city where they will not be ostracized for being different. Maddie is heartbroken but has no way of apologizing. “This book gets kids to see that their actions have major ramifications,” says Borba. “It really demonstrates why we need to see where other people are coming from and not jump to conclusions. The girls only look at what she wears, not at who she is as a person.” This book won the Newbery medal in 1945 and remains a classic more than 70 years later.
The second book in Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona series, Ramona the Pest follows the titular protagonist to kindergarten. She is new to the school and finds that it isn’t very easy to sit still and do what she is told. Ramona wants to pull her classmate’s bouncy curls, she wants to chase Davy and give him a kiss, but she doesn’t want to focus at her desk. “What’s so great about this book is that Ramona is a pest,” says Borba. “But she still gets sad and scared.” Kids can learn the importance of understanding why someone might be acting they way they are. Adds Borba, “I observed a teacher read this book to her classroom and I watched one student move closer and closer to the girl who was new to the class. You could see the student realize the pain the new girl might be feeling.”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Teens and adults alike can gain insight into what it is like to be on the autism spectrum with this bestselling novel. The story follows Christopher, a teen math genius who struggles to interpret emotions of those around him. When Christopher finds his neighbor’s dog has been killed, he sets off to solve the murder. By telling the story from the point of view of a boy on the autism spectrum, readers get a glimpse into the inner workings of his brain they might not otherwise see. Readers learn how overwhelming the sights, smells, and sounds of the London underground feel to Christopher and how difficult it is for him to read emotions. “You really feel like you are in his shoes,” says Borba. “You get to see a whole new world. I know teachers who read this book in book clubs and it really helps them understand how their students who are on the spectrum think and process information. It’s so powerful.”
Required reading in many high schools, John Steinbeck’s classic novel won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer prize for its empathetic viewing of the migrant workers during the Great Depression. The novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their home in Oklahoma by drought, poverty, and lack of work. Trapped in the Dust Bowl with little opportunity, they set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies,” seeking land, jobs, and respect. Few books have captured so viscerally what it is like to live in extreme poverty as The Grapes of Wrath. The 1939 novel was so impactful it even inspired First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to call for congressional hearings that resulted in reforming labor laws governing migrant camps.
The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Night allows the reader to do just that, to get a glimpse into the evil and terror he faced in the Nazi death camps. “This is obviously only appropriate for an older, mature child,” warns Borba, “but this is one of the most profound books I have ever read. Not only do kids witness a world of evil, but there are glimmering moments of compassion as well.” Elie Wiesel’s horrific, but deeply poignant, autobiographical account of his survival of the Holocaust is a masterpiece.
Help your child understand what it feels like to be picked on with this Disney classic. When the stork drops Jumbo Jr. off with Mrs. Jumbo, an elephant in a traveling circus, she is ecstatic. Unfortunately, Jumbo Jr.’s enormous ears incite laughter and ridicule from the other circus animals and he is given the demeaning nickname “Dumbo.” Little do they know, thanks to those ears, Dumbo can fly. Parents can use the film as a launch pad for discussion. Try sharing your feelings: “It makes me so sad how the animals are treating Dumbo? What about you?” Talking about emotions with children is one way to teach them the skills of emotional intelligence.
Meet Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, the emotions living inside Riley Andersen’s brain. At age 11, Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a change that causes great turmoil and disrupts the balance of Riley’s emotions. As a result, Joy feels less and less in control each day. When Joy and Sadness find themselves accidentally ejected from “headquarters” in Riley’s mind, the two emotions must figure out how to understand and appreciate each other. Inside Out may be a kids’ movie made by Pixar, but it is a master class in teaching the concept of emotional intelligence, i.e., our ability to understand our own emotions and the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence is what helps us parcel out when we are angry at someone versus when we are really just feeling hurt or disappointed and it helps us determine when our loved ones need comforting. Bottom line: it’s important. “Emotional literacy and intelligence is the gateway to empathy,” Borba says. “You can’t feel for a person if you can’t read their emotions. Inside Out is a great way to talk about emotional literacy with kids at their level.”
Whether you prefer the 1973 original starring Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris or the 2003 remake with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis, the trading places storyline will encourage your young adolescent to think about what life might be like in someone else’s shoes. When a mother and her teenage daughter magically switch bodies, they are each forced to reckon with the struggles that the other one faces. They ultimately learn that it is, in fact, just as hard to be a mom as it is to be a teenager. Flip this on for family movie night and have a discussion about parent-child relationships.
Billy has a secret. His father, a miner, thinks Billy is at boxing lessons when, in reality, Billy has been sneaking over to the ballet classes at the same gym. While Billy’s father and brother are angry at first, they come to see how much joy dancing brings Billy and ultimately support him. Along with important lessons on empathy and understanding how different people have different needs, Billy Elliot encourages tolerance and compassion.
Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief follows a young girl named Liesel who is grieving the death of her brother and the separation from her mother. Left to live with foster parents, Liesel is lonely and plagued by nightmares until her caretaker Hans sits with her and teaches her how to read. Through the death and destruction of the Holocaust, Liesel learns the power of words—both to hurt and to heal. Vivid and moving, The Book Thief transports viewers to another world and reminds us of the consequences of our actions.
French filmmaker Lorraine Levy uses a switched-at-birth storyline to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this moving film. Two babies are born in an Israeli hospital. One is Israeli; the other is Palestinian. When their families are evacuated during a missile attack, the babies are accidentally switched. For the next 18 years, the boys are raised by each other’s families. When the mistake is discovered, how will the families react? Showing both points of view, The Other Son asks viewers to look at each side and how every character feels.