I began to plow through chapter books almost as soon as I could read, and I distinctly remember a handful of “a-ha” moments while submerged in these novels. These moments occurred as I read about experiences I’d never had and people I never knew (I grew up in a pretty homogenous bubble — lots of white, Christian people).
A variety of studies and articles over the years have debated whether reading fiction can increase a person’s empathy. In one of the most widely cited, published in 2013 in the journal Science, researchers focused on whether the type of fiction mattered. Its findings? Reading literary fiction can, in the short term, improve readers’ ability to pick up on and understand others’ emotions. (Nonfiction, romance, horror and sci-fi, not so much.)
In particular, I remember how these old-school books (published in the 1980s or earlier and straight off my own bookshelves) presented compelling stories that can help expand a child’s empathy:
“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” by Mildred D. Taylor
Our narrator, 9-year-old Cassie Logan, lives with her family in southern Mississippi during the Great Depression. Her story tells both the big, sweeping and small, pin-pointed racism her family and other blacks in the area experience: Cassie’s class uses schoolbooks cast off by white students and she’s not allowed at the general store, whose owner is responsible for what happened to Mr. Berry, badly burned and mute.
Persistent Cassie is as relatable as any girl, fighting with her siblings and mouthing off to her parents, but her circumstances highlight the importance of love and acceptance.
“My Brother Is Special,” by Maureen Crane Wartski
Noni Harlow is in eighth grade, and she is so proud when she wins a ribbon in the 91.44m dash. She thinks maybe her brother Kip would like to win something, too, so she enters him in the Special Olympics.
The story is sweet and powerful; Noni’s parents argue over what is best for Kip while Noni wants to do anything she can to help. Be warned: Its 1979 pub date means the word “retarded” is used liberally, which is more than a bit jarring, but can be used as an opportunity to talk about how language and what is considered offensive changes over time.
“A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle
Maybe your child saw last year’s movie starring Reese Witherspoon. That doesn’t count. In L’Engle’s novel, many believe little brother Charles Wallace to be mute and not terribly bright because he speaks so little around others.
He and his big sister, Meg, have the kind of bond parents wish for their children, and the two face grand, cosmic obstacles with bravery and grace, searching for a father who’s lost somewhere in the universe.
“Just as Long as We’re Together,” by Judy Blume
Seventh-graders Stephanie and Rachel are best friends, but brainy Rachel seems to be drifting away. She grows meaner, and she doesn’t seem to like Stephanie’s quirky new friend, Alison.
There are cute boys, hard tests and a father who doesn’t seem to live at home anymore, providing Stephanie with problems that are both relatable and, to her, the worst possible things.
“Tuck Everlasting”, by Natalie Babbitt
It sounds like a dream come true: The Tuck family members have eternal life. Winne Foster sure thinks it’d be great, but the Tucks explain why the blessing is more of a curse — and how they make the best of it.
Life’s got to be lived, no matter how long or short … You got to take what comes. We just go along, like everybody else, one day at a time. Funny—we don’t feel no different … Sometimes I forget what’s happened to us, forget it altogether. And then sometimes it comes over me and I wonder why it happened to us. We’re plain as salt … Still — there’s no use trying to figure why things fall the way they do. Things just are, and fussing don’t bring changes.
“A Separate Peace,” by John Knowles
Looking for a man’s point-of-view (my favourite books were the favourites of a girl), I asked my husband what books taught him empathy when he was young. I came to “A Separate Peace” as an adult, but as a boy, the book had a huge effect on my husband.
Gene and Finny are best friends, but the nuances of their relationship teach how people can be of two minds on something: Gene both loves Finny and is extraordinarily jealous of him, and he learns in a terrible way that we need to see beyond our own personal desires and should appreciate our own talents.
One more empathy tip: As your kids read, check in with them now and then. Ask what they’re learning and how they relate to the experiences of the characters. Who does your child sympathize with in the story? Why? If you’re a reader too, follow along with your child’s progress, book club-style (maybe swap the red wine for some apple juice, though).