Welcome to Build Your Library’s Homeschool Tidbits: Episode 31 – Five Book Recommendations to Build Empathy. In this weekly video series, I will delve briefly into a topic related to homeschooling and will share some of my knowledge and expertise as a long-time homeschooling mother of 4 children. Three of whom have graduated high school and one that is a new college graduate!
Our world needs more empathy and compassion. Humans tend to think that the way they see the world is the only way to see it. But empathy is the unique ability to understand and share the feelings of other people, to imagine what it is like to be in their shoes. How can you teach that in an increasingly selfish society?
Children who read a wide variety of literature, especially diverse literature, grow up to be more empathetic and compassionate humans. Reading books from perspectives that are different from your own can help you to see the world differently. Build Your Library curriculum seeks to foster that by using engaging and diverse literature. We can use literature to look through a window into the lives of other people who live very different lives from our own.
But reading is only half of it. You need to discuss these books with your children. Read them together and talk about the ideas that the author is presenting through the story. Today I want to share five middle-grade titles that will teach empathy.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes – Honestly, any of Rhodes’s books are going to work here, but I chose this one because I feel like it is a controversial topic that we need to discuss. This book is about a boy named Jerome who is killed by a police officer and becomes a ghost. His story is one you hear on the news all the time, so having a story for children to work through this subject is so important. Through Jerome’s story, we can talk about the difficult subject matter in an age-appropriate way. It’s sad, yes, but such an important discussion to have.
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston – This urban fantasy story centers on a black female protagonist who discovers a world of magic and supernatural creatures. Stories like this are important because they show children that black girls can be the heroes of their own stories too. So often, if there is even a black character in an adventure story, they are just the sidekick, and girls are just there to be the bookworm accomplice or the love interest. I appreciate that Amari is a smart and determined girl who can handle herself in all sorts of strange and sometimes dangerous situations.
Dream, Annie Dream by Waka T. Brown – Another story with a female protagonist of color. This one is set in the 80s and focuses on a Japanese American girl realizing for the first time that the color of her skin might be the thing that keeps her from being able to pursue her dreams. This story is about theater, middle school friendships (and the breakdown of those friendships), and racism. I loved the character of Annie, because while so many people in her life want her to put her in her place, she knows she’s better than what any of them expect her to be, and she is determined to prove it.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling – I adore this story. Aven is an amazing protagonist. In this story we follow Aven, a little girl who was born without arms. Her family moves across the country to run a western theme park in Arizona, so now she has to explain to everyone all the time why she doesn’t have arms. I love the fact that this book does not set you up to pity Aven.
At no point are you meant to feel bad for her for not having arms. One of my pet peeves with disability in literature is that they are often a character who wishes they were normal or that is meant to be sad or less than. Aven is so vivacious and spunky! She is the heroine of her story. She befriends a boy at school who has Tourette’s, and again, it’s portrayed in a way that teaches you what Tourette’s is but doesn’t make you pity him. This is a fantastic story with a lot of heart and a pinch of mystery.
Speak Up! by Rebecca Burgess – This graphic novel is full of heart and music! Mia is a 12-year-old girl with autism, and she struggles at school because of bullies. She has a secret though. Mia and her best friend make music together and her alter-ego, Elle-Q is a viral sensation! She feels stronger and more herself when she can express herself through music and poetry. But at school, the kids just see her as a weird girl who stims a lot and has the occasional freakout.
When Mia and Charlie have the opportunity to perform at a local talent show, she must decide if she is strong enough to perform in front of a live audience and risk telling the world who she really is. Will they accept her? I loved Mia as a character. She has a very strong identity. I love that though she is autistic, this story focused more on how autism is a part of who Mia is, rather than something that is wrong with her. She knows who she is and what she can do, and while the world might want her to be “normal” she would rather the world accept her for who she is instead. I also loved her friendship with Charlie, who had great non-binary representation!
Homeschooling is a big responsibility, and part of that is broadening our children’s worldview. Sometimes, that means reading things together that make you uncomfortable. Reading diversely will help our children to build empathy and see the world from different perspectives. These are just a few of the many amazing books you can read. Check out our Build Your Library booklists for more great diverse literature, as well as History Book by Book!
I hope you found this Tidbit helpful! Come back next week for more homeschooling inspiration!
Until then, happy reading!
Emily Cook is the author and creator of the secular homeschool curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-12 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full-year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been homeschooling her four children in Southern NH for 18 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others. She and her family also make incredibly dorky videos about homeschooling, books, and more on Youtube at ARRRGH! Schooling. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. You can also check out her author page on Amazon.