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Reading for Kindness: How Fiction Books Can Build Empathy

Reading for Kindness: How Fiction Books Can Build Empathy

Reading and Empathy

“Reading puts the ‘unity’ in ‘community!’” declared another public library’s summer reading bulletin board.

While the phrase is catchy and certainly works well for this summer’s “All Together Now” theme, it’s also true: reading certain types of fiction stories cultivates empathy and can even increase the likelihood that people will do things to help others.

While all good fiction stories transport readers to another world and immerse them in someone else’s perspective, certain types of books are more likely to have a demonstrable effect on a person’s ability to empathize.

Particularly, books that feature characters whose behaviors are realistic – complex, unpredictable, and sometimes inconsistent – and whose identities are different from that of the reader have a more significant impact on empathy than books featuring superficial, predictable characters or characters whose identities and experiences are similar to that of the reader.

Put more simply, reading good books that tell the stories of people who are different from you helps you be more compassionate toward other people. This is true for both children and adults. Fiction books in particular have this effect because they allow the reader to be deeply absorbed into the thoughts of the characters, whether that’s their hopes and dreams or their fears and worries or – ideally – all of the above.

So, if you’d like to cultivate kindness in your children (and yourself), a simple first step is to choose books intentionally that will challenge you to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

This summer, make a point to seek out books featuring characters whose identities are different from your own – whether in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. You could also look for books that highlight life experiences you and your family may not have had, such as immigration, incarceration, homelessness, or living in a war zone.

When we are better able to see, understand, and show compassion for another person’s experience and perspective, we are indeed better equipped to put the ‘unity’ in our ‘community.’

Recommended Books

Picture Books

The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino

Marwan’s Journey by Patricia de Arias

My Brother is Away by Sara Greenwood

The Notebook Keeper by Stephen Briseño

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer

Watercress by Andrea Wang

When We Were Alone by David Robertson

Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales

Chapter Books

Note: some of the books in this section may contain difficult subjects or themes. Please make the best choices for your child and family. If a subject matter seems especially difficult, we recommend reading the book along with your child and discussing what’s happening in the story, how the characters are feeling about it and handling the situation, and what your child thinks and feels as they read it.

The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Learn more about the connection between empathy and fiction:

Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

How Could Children’s Storybooks Promote Empathy? A Conceptual Framework Based on Developmental Psychology and Literary Theory

The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components

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