Books to Read for Empathy

By Anne Thompson

In recent years there has been discussion and research focusing on the importance of reading for developing empathy in young readers. The work done by Empathy Lab has done much to promote this and their Read for Empathy collections produced each year to tie-in with Empathy Day include high quality children’s literature across different genres which enable children to learn about and understand experiences other than their own. Books originating from other countries add an extra dimension to this understanding and it has been interesting to see several translated texts for different age groups featured in the selections.

Picture books in particular can be useful tools in developing empathy for a wide age range as sometimes pictures convey emotion in a way that touches the reader and consolidates the impact of the words themselves. I have selected some excellent examples of how illustration and translated text have made important themes, and ones that may be difficult to discuss with children, more accessible. Whilst exploring sadness, each of them offer hope – an essential element when writing for our younger readers.

Felix After the Rain 

Written by Dunja Jogan
Illustrated by Dunja Jogan
Translated by Olivia Hellewell
Translated from Slovenian [Slovenia]
Published by Tiny Owl

Felix is an unhappy young man carrying a large black suitcase around with him everywhere. This suitcase contains the grief, hurt and worry he has experienced over time. When a little boy opens the suitcase while Felix sleeps, he releases the sorrow, fears and troubles that have been hidden inside. Felix is uplifted and, full of joy, he re-joins the world around him and discovers that he is welcomed.

Dunja Jogan’s illustrations are full of feeling and understanding, encouraging the reader to empathise with Felix and, perhaps, to identify their own worries and emotions too. The translated text by Olivia Hellewell is rich and almost lyrical and this would be lovely to read aloud as the vocabulary works perfectly with the stunning illustrations. This beautiful picture book will comfort and reassure and is highly recommended for children of all ages and quite probably adults too.

Captain Rosalie

Written by Timothée De Fombelle
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Translated by Sam Gordon
Translated from French [France]
Published by Walker Books

This short but beautiful novella with its delicate illustrations is a story with a powerful and lingering impact dealing with war, grief and loss. Originally part of an anthology titled, ‘The Great War: Stories Inspired by Objects,’ the author conveys, through the narration by five year old Rosalie, the consequences of war. Set in 1917, with Rosalie’s father away fighting, the reader accompanies the child on her secret mission. Whilst her mother is doing her utmost to shield her daughter from sadness, Rosalie’s quiet determination ensures that eventually she will learn the truth about her father.

Sam Gordon’s translation of the author’s tender words retains the voice of the small child narrator beautifully and it is this that adds to the poignancy. The subtle illustrations in shades of grey, with splashes of red to match Rosalie’s hair, are evocative of war and its impact. This is a stunning book exploring the impact of war, a theme which unfortunately remains relevant today.

Maia and What Matters

Written by Tine Mortier
Illustrated by Kaatje Vermeire
Translated by David Colver
Translated from Dutch [Flanders/Belgium]
Published by Book Island

This powerful picture book is at its heart a story of a young girl and her friendship with her grandmother. Visually stunning, this story never shies away from portraying the truth about old age and death and yet it incorporates positivity too. 

The bond between Grandma and Maia is strong and believable; the two of them sharing similar likes and personality traits. “When Grandma came to visit, it was one big party.” When Grandma has a stroke and is admitted to hospital, Maia is at first unbelieving and then determined that she will recover. Their world is then rocked by the death of Maia’s Grandpa. This story of sadness and grief also displays the manner in which people are able to cope in these circumstances, uniting in shared love of what they have lost and what they still have. The translated text and the unusual illustrations combine in an original and thought provoking picture book for older children.

Meet Anne Thompson

A retired school librarian, I still enjoy reading children’s books just as much as when I shared them in school and love ‘book chat’ of all types. Reviewing books for different publications and websites keeps me up to date with all the fabulous new books being published too. Using books to travel all over the world is fun and I’m now tempted to visit the settings of some of my favourites. Perhaps the Paris depicted in Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell or Venice from The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, translated by Oliver Latsch. Closer to home I’ve recently read several books set in Wales and would love to explore there further.

If I could write a children’s book, I would set it in the house my parents lived in for forty years. It is two hundred years old and I’m sure there are many stories hidden in its walls. One of them may feature my grown up son’s pet rabbit, Kevin, who is most definitely a strong character who young readers would love!

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