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Notes From a Children's Librarian: On Empathy

Books that encourage young readers to relate to and connect with others. 

Book Cover Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


“No matter what you see or hear/ One thing is always true: Each one without a house and home/ Was once a child like you.” This is the line that jumps out in Tim Huff's book, The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge. This simple, rhyming picture book was written as a response to the author's own young children asking about homeless people. For Grade 1 and up, it humanizes those in sleeping bags on a sewer grates, and each page has accompanying thought-provoking discussion questions.


Book Cover We Want You to Know

Deborah Ellis's non-fiction collection of interviews from around the globe, We Want You to Know: Kids Talk About Bullying, similarly demands empathy from the reader. I was disheartened to read kids recount their suffering (often for years) at the hands of bullies and how sometimes teachers hadn't done enough. Then, in the final chapter, one of the bullies, Len, age 15, says, “If I’d known what they were inside, what they did when they weren’t at school, what they were trying to be good at, I probably wouldn’t have gone after them, because you don’t go after people you respect.” He goes on to suggest a proactive solution, a simple way of building empathy; form a group where kids talk to kids they don't know. Ellis's book doesn’t shy away from the truth; each interview is followed by questions that cut to the heart of some tough issues. This is a great teaching tool for as young as Grade 2, right up to high school.


Book Cover The Crazy Man

The Crazy Man, by Pamela Porter, involves characters who go against public opinion by showing empathy. It looks like a novel, but the text is written as a free verse poem which makes it manageable for the reluctant grade 6 reader. It also makes it an interesting readaloud for as young as Grade 4. The book begins with 12-year-old Emaline in 1960s Saskatchewan: “Thirty-two days since that day/my daddy dragged Prince’s body to the burn pole/ and set it afire,/ then walked away from the farm./ And us." The narrative then jumps straight to a tractor accident, the one her dad blamed the dog (Prince) for. The one that leaves her leg shorter than the other. When Mom hires Angus, an ex-patient from the local mental hospital to help on the farm, the community reveals their prejudices. Angus turns out to be a catalyst for Emaline's healing. The book's symbolic imagery and succinct language pulls at the heart strings in a story of compassion, justice, and coming to terms with change.


Book Cover Hurry Up Henry

In Hurry Up, Henry, by Jennifer Lanthier, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, Henry spends his young life being constantly told to hurry up. Even his best friend, Simon, does everything fast. Henry’s grandmother is the only one who moves as slowly, So, for Henry’s birthday, empathetic Simon elicits Henry’s grandmother’s help in moving the clock back by one hour so that Henry no longer has to worry about time. A book any K-3 will relate to.


Book Cover Morris Micklewhite

Who shows empathy to the ostracized boy in the tangerine dress, high heeled shoes, and nail polish? In Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, by Christine Baldacchino, also illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, it's Morris’ mother. She lets him work through his feelings by letting him stay home to create a magnificent painting of elephants swishing through the tall grass, much like the swishing sound the dress makes when he walks. Morris’ belief in himself shifts an atmosphere of putdowns to acceptance; the painting is a hit with the other kids who end up wanting to play astronaut with him, despite their differences.


Book Cover Lily and the Paper Man

Lily and the Paper Man, by Rebecca Upjohn, illustrated by Renee Benoit, is a lesson in empathy for any K-3 child. At first, Lily is scared of the man who stands on the street chanting, "A dollar for the paper..." She avoids him on the walk home, but then she notices his bare feet through his ragged boots in the snow. When her dad gives her a dollar to buy a treat, she ends up buying the homeless man enough winter wear to make him so puffy he can hardly move. When this one is read to kindergartens, you can just see the wheels turning, the beginnings of social action motivated through empathy.  


On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

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