For everyone My Favourite Things: 6 books that generate empathy

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 5 years ago.
  • 2 Aug 2019

Six books sure to help children develop a sense of empathy for those who might seem very different.


Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It

Roman Krznaric

According to studies in the US, empathy levels have halved over the past 40 years. This book by Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric attempts to reverse that slide. As well as reminding us why empathy is important – on a personal and societal level – the book offers a few practical tips on how to cultivate it. These include remembering to be curious about strangers (instead of putting in the earbuds and avoiding the risk of conversation), using listening as an attempt to actually understand what our conversation partner is feeling (instead of simply waiting for a chance to talk about ourselves), having a holiday as someone else and reading books about people very different to ourselves. There’s an idea.

A Kid in My Class

Rachel Rooney and Chris Riddell

It’s hard to imagine a book that does a better job of capturing the diversity of a classroom. Poet Rachel Rooney says she thinks of this book as being a collection of people rather than an anthology of poems. Sure enough, the characters – vividly and endearingly illustrated by Chris Riddell – spring off the page, seeming as familiar as they do true. There’s a remarkable lack of judgement and labelling (beyond titles such as ‘Daydreamer’, ‘The Poet’ and ‘Tomboy’). And by keeping her focus on personality rather than identity, Rooney summons up a universal humanity that transcends the usual lazy boundaries that keep us apart from one another. A perfect introduction to poetry and empathy for primary kids.

Young Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu won a stash of literary awards for its extensive research and compelling first-person accounts of the early days of colonisation. It went a long way to dispelling long-held myths about our nation’s first people – previously labelled hunter-gatherers, they were shown to be careful cultivators of the land who established permanent settlements and farmlands across the country. Young Dark Emu makes use of the same techniques in kid-friendly terms, introducing youngsters to Australia as it was before the British declared it empty. By using the diaries of settlers in all their staggering ignorance, young readers will be encouraged to empathise with indigenous Australians, find out more about our native flora and fauna, and rethink their own attitudes.

Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories

Michael Earp (editor)

Young adult fiction is thriving in Australia, with a rich and diverse community of writers coming together online via the #LoveOzYA hashtag. This is the second short stories anthology to spring from that tag, recruiting 12 writers of diverse genders, sexualities, backgrounds and identities. The focus is very much on #OwnVoices (another hashtag, meaning writing from your own identity and lived experience) examining what it means to be queer in twenty-first century Australia. The writers are a mix of old hands, such as Christos Tsiolkas and Benjamin Law, and emerging voices.

The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

The Story of Ferdinand

Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson

Forget the gawd-awful film, this 1936 picture book classic encourages a breaking of gender stereotypes and even a bit of non-violent resistance. The eponymous bull is supposed to be duelling with matadors, but he’d prefer to spend his days flouncing about in fields and sniffing the flowers. His mother worries he’ll be lonely and encourages him to fit in, but ultimately realises he’s happy being who he is. When his big day in the ring arrives, Ferdinand eschews violence for running around sniffing the flowers worn by all the women in the crowd – humiliating the matador, who is hungry to prove his manliness via a bit of bovine bloodshed.

Hey Jack!

Sally Rippin

There’s a similar bending of stereotypes in this illustrated chapter book series from Sally Rippin. Spun off from her bestselling Billie B series, these tales see the quiet, shy Jack embark on real-world adventures such as school musicals, birthday parties and camping holidays. As Rippin’s recent Polly and Buster series (also excellent empathetic reading) shows, the author has a real gift for drawing out the emotional lives of kids in all their complexity.

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