It could be said that all books teach kids to have compassion for others by helping them understand the lives of others who are different from themselves, which is why making this list of chapter books that teach empathy could include hundreds of books. However, I have grudgingly narrowed it down to eleven and I encourage you to leave your own recommendations in the comments.
These books are all considered middle grade novels, and in general are appropriate for ages 8 and up. However, I think 10 and up might be a better range for some of them. Not because the material is inappropriate, but because 10 year olds will probably get more out of the stories and see more correlation with their own lives as they prepare to enter the tween and teen years.
I chose a mixture of new and classic titles, but stuck to more contemporary stories, rather than delve into history. I’ve even included a novel in verse, an epistolary novel, and a graphic novel to spice things up. (That list is coming soon!) There are links to more useful book lists at the bottom of the post. As always, you can find our index of over 100 book lists here.
(Note: all book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Ramona the Pest. If someone where to ask you for a book that teaches empathy, this classic may not be the first to jump to your mind, but I bet as soon as you saw the cover you thought, “Of course!” Beverly Cleary is a master at taking the reader through the mind of a child and all the accompanying emotional ups and downs. My son listened to these audio books over and over again last summer and then in conversation he would bring up his observations about the troubles Ramona experienced and how she handled them. Best of all, kids of all ages can relate to Ramona as she grows up in the series.
Wonder received so much praise when it was published a few years ago and it truly is a wonderful book. 11 year old August is nervous about starting a school and making friends but he has the incredible support of his parents and his sister, and Palacio also explores the experience of growing up as the sibling of a special needs child . August’s captivating journey, which is both funny and moving, is the journey of his entire family. I also recommend it as a read aloud.
Counting by 7s. I could not put this book down! Willow is 12 years old when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash, leaving her totally alone. Willow is intensely gifted but doesn’t make friends easily. At the counselor’s office, she makes befriends with Mai and her brother, Quang-ha. The siblings take her home to their mom, who convinces social services to allow Willow to stay with them. Willow’s narration of the story, her observations of others and her approach to learning how to interact with others is compelling. The cast of characters, including her underachieving school counselor, and Vietnamese foster mother struggling against poverty are both touchingly human and quietly funny. Absolutely wonderful.
Lost in the Sun. Since reading Absolutely Almost, (on my list of 5th grade summer reading, but which would fit right in on this list) Lisa Graff has become one of my favorite middle grade authors. A freak accident earlier in the year has left Trent as the town pariah and he is struggling to figure out how to redeem himself, in his own eyes as well as in others. His new friendship with Fallon, a girl with a mysterious scar, acts as a catalyst for his willingness to make better decisions. Trent’s relationship with his brothers, his father, step-mother and his mother are all artfully drawn and nuanced. Graff’s ability to draw us into the lives of her characters is superior.
Blubber. I was glad to see this on the book club list for my son’s 4th grade class last year. It doesn’t have a feel good ending and many of the characters aren’t particularly likable but those can be very effective starting points for learning to have compassion for others. Blume takes a realistic look at bullying, and yes, it can be pretty upsetting to read about the hurtful things the kids do and say, but that’s much better than sweeping it all under the rug.
Same Sun Here is an epistolary novel. A school pen pal program matches Meena, an Indian immigrant girl in New York City, and River, the son of a coal miner in Kentucky. The two write thoughtful letters about their wildly different experiences but across the distance they learn to see their similarities as well as appreciating those differences. Meena describes her life as her father prepares for his citizenship exam and the family tries to avoid being discovered by the landlord as illegal sub-letters. River worries about his absent dad, ill mother and joins his activist grandmother in the fight to save the local area from the devastation caused by coal mines.
In Warp Speed we meet the same cast of characters that were introduced in the first of four companion novels, Millicent Min, Girl Genius (on my list of books for 10 year olds), and all four are worth reading. I just finished this book about Marley, a self-described geek and loser. Marley is getting bullied at school, he lives in a run down old movie theater that his parents own and is a major Star Trek fan. When his AV teacher takes ill, he is transferred to a home economics class. Changes start to happen and Marley makes a few new friends, finds joy in running and figures out a way to stand up to the bullies. Marley’s self-deprecating and humorous narration will make this book appealing to kids and Lee avoids pat and trite resolutions.
Out of My Mind. Full disclosure: I cried a few buckets of tears while reading this book. That said, I read it from a mother’s point of view and I believe a child’s point of view will be totally different. In fact, it is a very positive book. Melody is an 11 year old with cerebral palsey. She has never spoken and can perform almost no physical movement. The school and doctors claim she is also mentally disabled but her mother insists Melody is intelligent. Her mother is right. Melody has a photographic memory and is smarter than any of the other kids. Melody narrates her story, sharing her frustrations and triumphs, and when she gets a communication device and others can finally appreciate her for who she is, not for who she is not. This is another book I read straight through. I think it would be a great read aloud with your older kids, but have tissues ready, because even if your child is focused on Melody’s experiences, you will be bawling.
El Deafo is a graphic novel memoir narrated by Cece, who loses here hearing due to spinal meningitis. A very funny and charming book about the experiences, imaginings and wishes of a deaf girl (actually everyone is a rabbit). Although the story will help hearing kids to see challenges of the deaf, they will also see similarities.
The Great Gilly Hopkins. Do you remember reading about Gilly when you were a kid? Gilly is a feisty foster kid who longs to be reunited with her mother. She imagines her mother as a loving figure and is distrustful of others. Her new foster family is an unusual group and despite her efforts to remain disconnected, she learns about the value of loving relationships and looking beyond appearances.
The Crossover. Kwame Alexander’s wonderful verse novel about twin brothers is touching, relatable and extraordinarily engaging. Josh narrates his story of coming to terms with his brother’s new girlfriend, sibling rivalry, the pressure and joy of playing ball and his relationship with his father. This book does have a sad ending and I recommend it for kids ages 10 and up.
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