The Ultimate List of Books to Read with Your Child to Foster Empathy

Updated Feb. 19, 2019

As parents, there are moments when you look around in the world and worry for your children because of all the "bad" out there. We want our children to make a difference in the world for good, and one huge way they can do that is by gaining empathy.

One of the many wonderful things about books is that they let you see a story through someone else's eyes. You get to step into someone else's shoes and understand their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Whether a book character models empathy and compassion, explicitly talks about empathy, or simply helps you understand another person's point-of-view, books are a powerful tool to help inspire empathy in our children.

We've sifted through so many books to find the best of the best, all sorts of different and wonderful books that will teach your children about empathy and help them develop it themselves.

True (. . . Sort Of) book
#1
True (. . . Sort Of)
chapter book
Recommend Ages: 8-12
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

Such an important read, and a wonderful way to discuss safety and abuse with children by reading it together or talking about it afterwards. The story brings up this important topic in a very age-appropriate and gentle way, allowing children to learn important lessons while loving the adventures of Delly Pattison.

Can friendship save you? The day Ferris Boyd moves to town, Delly Pattison is sure a special surpresent (a present that is a surprise) is on its way. Instead, Delly ends up in even more trouble than usual. The Boyds' arrival in River Bluffs means big changes for Brud Kinney, too. He can't believe who he's hanging around with. Ferris Boyd isn't like anyone Delly or Brud have ever known. Ferris is a mystery and a wonder. Through friendship, though, Delly, Brud, and Ferris discover truths that will change their lives. And bring them the best surpresent of all. Includes an all-new afterword featuring a short story, photographs by the author, and more

A Boy Called Bat book
#2
A Boy Called Bat
Written by Elana K. Arnold and illustrated by Charles Santoso
chapter book
Recommend Ages: 6-10
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

I absolutely adore this book. Bat is a wonderful, developed character that can really help children reading understand and have empathy for those on the Autism spectrum.

The first book in a funny, heartfelt, and irresistible young middle grade series starring an unforgettable young boy on the autism spectrum, from acclaimed author Elana K. Arnold and with illustrations by Charles Santoso. For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter. But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet. "This sweet and thoughtful novel chronicles Bat’s experiences and challenges at school with friends and teachers and at home with his sister and divorced parents. Approachable for younger or reluctant readers while still delivering a powerful and thoughtful story" (from the review by Brightly.com, which named A Boy Called Bat a best book of 2017).

The Snatchabook book
#3
The Snatchabook
Written by Helen Docherty and illustrated by Thomas Docherty
picture book
Recommend Ages: 3-6
Thoughts from The Book Snob Mom

The charming rhyming text and sweet yet spunky illustrations of The Snatchabook were created by a husband and wife team—how cool! Together they weave a FANTASTIC story about a love of reading and friendship that teaches kindness, understanding, empathy, and forgiveness… all while being absolutely enjoyable! This is sure to become an all-time favorite—it is one of ours!

Where have all the bedtime stories gone? A delightful addition to the picture book canon about the love of reading One dark, dark night in Burrow Down, a rabbit named Eliza Brown found a book and settled down...when a Snatchabook flew into town. It's bedtime in the woods of Burrow Down, and all the animals are ready for their bedtime story. But books are mysteriously disappearing. Eliza Brown decides to to stay awake and catch the book thief. It turns out to be a little creature called the Snatchabook who has no one to read him a bedtime story. All turns out well when the books are returned and the animals take turns reading bedtime stories to the Snatchabook.

Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse book
#4
Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse
Written by Marcy Campbell and illustrated by Corinna Luyken
picture book
Recommend Ages: 3-5

A classic in the making, this heartwarming story about empathy and imagination is one that families will treasure for years to come. Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse--the best and most beautiful horse anywhere. But Chloe does NOT believe him. Adrian Simcox lives in a tiny house. Where would he keep a horse? He has holes in his shoes. How would he pay for a horse? The more Adrian talks about his horse, the angrier Chloe gets. But when she calls him out at school and even complains about him to her mom, Chloe doesn't get the vindication she craves. She gets something far more important. Written with tenderness and poignancy and gorgeously illustrated, this book will show readers that kindness is always rewarding, understanding is sweeter than judgment, and friendship is the best gift one can give.

Wonder book
#5
Wonder
Written by R. J. Palacio
chapter book
Recommend Ages: 8-12

Born with a facial deformity that initially prevented his attendance at public school, Auggie Pullman enters the fifth grade at Beecher Prep and struggles with the dynamics of being both new and different, in a sparsely written tale about acceptance and self-esteem.

Bernice Gets Carried Away book
#6
Bernice Gets Carried Away
Written and illustrated by Hannah Harrison
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8
Thoughts from Mr. Stacatto

This is a true hidden gem. The book cover is a little misleading, but this book has cute illustrations and an amusing story about a grumpy cat that gets fed up with getting the short end of the stick. She decides to take matters into her own hands and gets a little more than she bargained for. In the end, she learns to see things from a new perspective and the perks of sharing.

Having missed out on the other treats at a friend's birthday party, a grumpy cat grabs all of the balloons and floats into the sky, where she sees that her problems are not so big, after all.

We're All Wonders book
#7
We're All Wonders
Written and illustrated by R. J. Palacio
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

This book is a picture book based off of the chapter book, "Wonder." I love the message of this book, that when we look with kindness, we will notice we are all wonders. I think this is a fantastic book to use to talk about people that are different than us, whether that be because of a disability, race, color, religion, or personality, and how everyone is unique and special. This book also talks about bullying, and how it can be hurtful.

Auggie knows he is a wonder, but he wants everybody to realize they are all wonders, too.

The Hundred Dresses book
#8
The Hundred Dresses
Written by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
picture book
Recommend Ages: 6-9

Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses won a Newbery Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since. At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is "never going to stand by and say nothing again." This powerful, timeless story has been reissued with a new letter from the author’s daughter Helena Estes, and with the Caldecott artist Louis Slobodkin’s original artwork in beautifully restored color.

Jake and Lily book
#9
Jake and Lily
Written and illustrated by Jerry Spinelli
chapter book
Recommend Ages: 8-12
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

The best part about this book is the lesson on bullying. Not only do you have the characters witnessing bullying, one of the main characters takes part in bullying and walks through the feelings he has after, the empathy he gains, and what he does to try to make up for his actions.

This is a story about me, Lily. And me, Jake. We're twins and we're exactly alike. Not exactly! Whatever. This is a book we wrote about the summer we turned eleven and Jake ditched me. Please. I just started hanging out with some guys in the neighborhood. Right. So anyway, this is a book about goobers and supergoobers bullies clubhouses true friends things getting built and wrecked and rebuilt and about figuring out who we are. We wrote this together (sort of) so you'll get to see both sides of our story. But you'll probably agree with my side. You always have to have the last word, don't you? Yes!

Stick and Stone (Board Book) book
#10
Stick and Stone (Board Book)
Written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
board book
Recommend Ages: 0-0

Stick and Stone are sticking together in this hilarious and heart-warming board book that proves once and for all why best friends ROCK!

The Rabbit Listened book
#11
The Rabbit Listened
Written and illustrated by Cori Doerffeld
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8

When Taylor's block castle is destroyed, all the animals think they know just what to do, but only the rabbit quietly listens to how Taylor is feeling

Baby Be Kind book
#12
Baby Be Kind
Written and illustrated by Jane Cowen-Fletcher
board book
Recommend Ages: 0-3
Thoughts from The Book Snob Mom

I love the gentle rhyme scheme of this book and the beautiful lesson it teaches of what kindness really is. While the message of the words is broadly applicable across ages and situations, the illustrations help bring this book to board book level in a way that is understandable for little reader's everyday situations.

Easy-to-read, rhyming text provides examples of how to show kindness that even a baby will want to try.

Amazing Grace book
#13
Amazing Grace
Written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8
Thoughts from Lemony Snickers

Amazing Grace addresses some important topics. Grace's classmates tell her that she can't be Peter Pan in the school play because she is a girl and because she is black. Thankfully, Grace has a strong grandma and mother who encourage her to do anything she wants. Grace's classmates don't seem intentionally rude or unkind--just matter-of-fact--but their believable examples illustrate in a way that children can understand and empathize with the importance of acceptance and open-mindedness. The book can prompt important and meaningful discussions with children about the dangers of making assumptions, stereotyping or other insensitivities that can chip away at our societal fabric if we allow them to continue unchecked. This story can help children imagine what it's like to have others tell them they can't do something or be something because of the color of their skin, their gender, or a range of other imaginable distinctions and differences and think about how they can be inviting and encouraging.

Although a classmate says that she cannot play Peter Pan in the school play because she is black, Grace discovers that she can do anything she sets her mind to do.

When Your Elephant Has the Sniffles book
#14
When Your Elephant Has the Sniffles
Written by Susanna Leonard Hill and illustrated by Daniel Wiseman
board book
Recommend Ages: 2-4
Thoughts from The Book Snob Mom

Super cute book! The little girl's antics trying to help her elephant feel better are adorable (and hilarious!) and the parody of the parent-child relationship may be lost on your toddler, but it won't be on you :) I love that it creates empathy for the care giver and gives kids a framework for relating to how to take care of sick people (whether that's them, a sibling, or a parent!) It's a little long for my 18-month-old currently, and I have to read it pretty quickly or point out lots of things as we read to keep him engaged, but I'm holding out for the idea that it's planting fantastic ideas in his subconscious, and he'll enjoy it more as his attention span increases.

When your elephant has the sniffles, you better make sure he doesn’t sneeze! This charming and hilarious board book highlights the many ways to make an under-the-weather elephant feel better! Does your elephant have the sniffles? Make sure to take good care of him because you don’t want him to start sneezing. Gather up your tissues and your pillows and make that elephant feel better! But don’t get too close…or you just might end up with the sniffles, too!

A Sick Day for Amos McGee book
#15
A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead
board book
Recommend Ages: 2-6

THE BEST SICK DAY EVER and the animals in the zoo feature in this striking picture book debut. Friends come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In Amos McGee's case, all sorts of species, too! Every day he spends a little bit of time with each of his friends at the zoo, running races with the tortoise, keeping the shy penguin company, and even reading bedtime stories to the owl. But when Amos is too sick to make it to the zoo, his animal friends decide it's time they returned the favor. A Sick Day for Amos McGee is a 2011 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year and the winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal. This title has Common Core connections.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade book
#16
The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade
Written by Justin Roberts and illustrated by Christian Robinson
picture book
Recommend Ages: 3-5
Thoughts from The Goodfather

A small book can share a big message, just like Sally McCabe, the smallest girl in the smallest grade. Rhyming can often be repetitive and predictable, but the rhyming in this story is fresh and original. I also love how the story gives voice to an introvert, little Sally, who though small and easy to miss, is always carefully observing and caring about the people and things around her.

Sally McCabe is a very little girl, and nobody notices her, although she notices everything that goes on around her--but when she speaks out about the unkindness she sees, people start to pay attention.

My Heart book
#17
My Heart
Written and illustrated by Corinna Luyken
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

This beautiful book talks about all the different feelings our heart has, and how we have the power to decide if our heart is open or closed. The illustrations are completely gorgeous--I love the simplicity and style. This book is great to use talk with kids about emotions, our power over them, and how better understanding emotions can help us empathize with others.

From the author-illustrator of The Book of Mistakes comes a gorgeous picture book about caring for your own heart and living with kindness and empathy. My heart is a window. My heart is a slide. My heart can be closed…or opened up wide. Some days your heart is a puddle or a fence to keep the world out. But some days it is wide open to the love that surrounds you. With lyrical text and breathtaking art, My Heart, My Heart empowers all readers to listen to the guide within in this ode to love and self-acceptance.

I Am Human book
#18
I Am Human
Written by Susan Verde and illustrated by Peter H Reynolds
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

This book is full of meaningful truths and lessons suitable for every age. I love that it encourages kindness, love, empathy, equality, and hope. This book is all about being the best you! Plus, the illustrations are beautiful and whimsical.

A child recognizes his own humanity, his capacity for doing harm and being harmed, his ability to feel joy and sadness, and his belief in hope and promise to keep learning.

The Invisible Boy book
#19
The Invisible Boy
Written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patrice Barton
picture book
Recommend Ages: 6-9

A simple act of kindness can transform an invisible boy into a friend... Meet Brian, the invisible boy. Nobody ever seems to notice him or think to include him in their group, game, or birthday party . . . until, that is, a new kid comes to class. When Justin, the new boy, arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. And when Brian and Justin team up to work on a class project together, Brian finds a way to shine. From esteemed author and speaker Trudy Ludwig and acclaimed illustrator Patrice Barton, this gentle story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish. Any parent, teacher, or counselor looking for material that sensitively addresses the needs of quieter children will find The Invisible Boy a valuable and important resource.

Last Stop on Market Street book
#20
Last Stop on Market Street
Written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson
picture book
Recommend Ages: 3-5

A young boy rides the bus across town with his grandmother and learns to appreciate the beauty in everyday things. By the author of the celebrated picture book A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.

The Wall book
#21
The Wall
Written by Eve Bunting
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-7
Thoughts from B is for Bookworm

This is a wonderful book to introduce or teach more about war heroes, memorials, and history. This book gives you a more personal look into the importance and honor for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. I especially think this book is a powerful teaching tool to talk about empathy.

A boy and his father come from far away to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and find the name of the boy's grandfather, who was killed in the conflict.

Hey Little Ant book
#22
Hey Little Ant
Written by Hannah Hoose, Phillip M. Hoose and illustrated by Debbie Tilley
picture book
Recommend Ages: 3-7

A song in which an ant pleads with the kid who is tempted to squish it.

Through Grandpa's Eyes book
#23
Through Grandpa's Eyes
Written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
picture book
Recommend Ages: 4-8

On John's visits to Grandpa's house, his blind grandfather shares with him the special way he sees and moves in the world.

Stand in My Shoes book
#24
Stand in My Shoes
Written and illustrated by Bob Sornson
picture book
Recommend Ages: 8-9

After her sister explains the meaning of empathy to her, Emily decides to pay closer attention to the struggles those closest to her endure.

Each Kindness book
#25
Each Kindness
Written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis
picture book
Recommend Ages: 5-8

WINNER OF A CORETTA SCOTT KING HONOR AND THE JANE ADDAMS PEACE AWARD! Each kindness makes the world a little better This unforgettable book is written and illustrated by the award-winning team that created The Other Side and the Caldecott Honor winner Coming On Home Soon. With its powerful anti-bullying message and striking art, it will resonate with readers long after they've put it down. Chloe and her friends won't play with the new girl, Maya. Every time Maya tries to join Chloe and her friends, they reject her. Eventually Maya stops coming to school. When Chloe's teacher gives a lesson about how even small acts of kindness can change the world, Chloe is stung by the lost opportunity for friendship, and thinks about how much better it could have been if she'd shown a little kindness toward Maya.

Have a suggestion for a book to add to this list? Send an email to [email protected]!