You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It

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Children’s Books

Written by Paige Britt
Illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
32 pp. Viking. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 3 to 7)

Written by Holly M. McGhee
Illustrated by Pascal Lemaître
32 pp. Putnam. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Written by Siska Goeminne
Illustrated by Merel Eyckerman
40 pp. Westminster John Knox Press. $17.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Written by Michael Leannah
Illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris
32 pp. Tilbury House Publishers. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 3 to 7)

Written and illustrated by Jess Hong
32 pp. Creston Books. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

The tricky part about teaching empathy to children is that you can’t really teach it. You can only inspire it. Like its sister words, kindness and compassion, empathy is wakened in the soul. With very young children, it’s best to tickle it awake, but it takes a light touch. That’s where a good picture book comes in handy. If a child can relate to a character or become immersed in a story, she begins to have feelings outside of her own direct realm of experience. The spark of empathy, delivered gently, can then grow. These five new picture books not only embolden children to think, but inspire them to feel.

“Why Am I Me?,” written by Paige Britt and illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, follows two children on their journeys home from school one day. The children don’t know each other, but they share similar questions about themselves and the world around them. They wonder, as they ride a subway full of all kinds of people, why they are who they are. As the subway takes them through neighborhoods, they see people playing in parks, dancing at an outdoor concert or simply walking home from work. Their reflections on the world around them connect them to it, and to each other. The beautifully textured artwork by Qualls and Alko adroitly captures the mood and feel of a city in which diversity among people is such a natural occurrence, it doesn’t need to be called out — it simply is.

In “Come With Me” by Holly M. McGhee (“Matylda, Bright and Tender”), with pictures by Pascal Lemaître (“Always”; “Who’s Got Game?”), a little girl, saddened by the news on TV, asks her parents what she can do to make the world a better place. Her papa takes her on a walk through the city and greets everyone he sees with a kind smile and a tip of the hat. Her mother takes her to a market full of foods from around the world, and tells her to be unafraid “because one person doesn’t represent a family or a race or the people of a land.” The little girl is inspired by her parents’ gentle regard for the world, and invites the boy next door to walk the dog with her. She comes to understand that the goodness of people, with their small acts of kindness and bravery, makes the world a better place. Lemaître’s whimsical cartoons add some needed lightness to the earnest text. Together, the words and pictures work seamlessly to deliver a powerful message: What we do matters. Given that the epigraph of the book is a quote by Yvette Pierpaoli, the humanitarian who died while assisting refugees from Kosovo in 1999 (and who was Lemaître’s mother-in-law), adults will understand that the most pressing context of the book is the need for tolerance toward displaced people around the world. That children won’t get those larger implications is fine. All they need to hear is that they have a part to play, as “tiny” as it may be, in making the world a better place.

“No One Else Like You,” written by Siska Goeminne and illustrated by Merel Eyckerman, doesn’t follow a character, but approaches diversity from a distance. “In this world there are more than seven billion people,” it begins, then explores the many things those people do. Some work, some drive around. Some have tattoos. Some people are happy and some people are sad. People believe all kinds of things and practice all forms of religion. Everyone is different. Those differences, however, are what ultimately unite us: We’re all different, and that’s what we all have in common. The illustrations do a nice job of conveying the great diversity of people in the world, but it might have been helpful to introduce a character or point of view to help bridge the distance between young readers and that large world around them. While readers might see a relatable character or two in one of the many beautiful representations of people around the globe, it’s hard to inspire true empathy from a bird’s-eye view. That said, one of my new all-time favorite literary quotes is from this picture book: “People are fragile. You shouldn’t drop them, because they might fall to pieces.”

There’s a similar big-picture approach to diversity in “Most People,” written by the first-time picture book author Michael Leannah and illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris (“May I Please Have a Cookie?”), but the art wisely introduces repeating characters that weave in and out to form a separate narrative that aligns beautifully with the text. “Most people,” we are told, love to smile and laugh. Most people want to help other people. Most people love the sunshine. Most people are good. There are some people who aren’t good, of course, but if you could line up all the good people and all the bad ones, the line of good people would be much, much longer. That simple reasoning is perfectly pitched for its young audience, who will enjoy piecing together the story-within-a-story of the two main characters as they illustrate the messages of the text within the context of their own lives. “Most People” works especially well because it doesn’t just tell children to “be” good. It shows them how to “do” good.

“Lovely,” a debut picture book written and illustrated by Jess Hong, is a lively ode to being different. “What is lovely?” the text asks. “Lovely is different.” A girl with one blue eye and one brown eye looks directly at the viewer. Then comes a series of illustrative plays on words. The word “Black” is next to a white woman wearing black clothes. On the facing page, the word “white” accompanies a black woman with white hair. On other spreads, we see a tall woman walking a short dog (“tall”) opposite a short man walking with a tall dog (“short”), and a red-haired girl with a “fluffy” cat opposite a straight-haired girl with a “sleek” snake. As with any successful picture book, the art in “Lovely” doesn’t just illustrate the text, it expands it. This is why a spread like “Fancy. Sporty. Graceful. Stompy” works so well: Illustrated with four sets of legs — hairy legs wearing fancy red stilettos, prosthetic legs playing soccer, black legs in pink ballet slippers, and fishnet-stockinged legs in punk-rock platform boots — it shows the multifarious world in all its glory.

The common thread in all these picture books is difference — myriad ethnicities and differently abled people and all kinds of families living and working and playing side by side. For those of us who remember the 1960s and ’70s, when “peace” and “harmony” were catchphrases, it’s hard to imagine that children’s books that show diversity are still so needed. And yet, here we are. As far as we’ve come, we still have a ways to go. Tolerance. Inclusion. Compassion. Kindness. Empathy. As the song says, teach your children well — or better yet, inspire them well.