Every parent I know wants to raise their kids to be compassionate and caring towards others.
We want our kids to be the type of people who:
- Listen when a friend is struggling, instead of interrupting to put the focus back on themselves
- Drop off a home-cooked meal when someone in their community is recovering from surgery or illness
- Try to understand others with differing opinions or values—not blurt out, “You’re wrong!” and storm off
But if we want that for our kids when they’re grown, we need to nurture the seeds of empathy in our children now.
Empathy is a prerequisite for kindness and compassion because it requires you to take someone else’s perspective and imagine how they’re feeling.1 Riess, H. (2017). The Science of Empathy. Journal of patient experience, 4(2), 74–77. If you struggle to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you won’t feel compelled to show compassion towards your fellow humans.
And with a low level of empathy, you’ll have poor communication skills,2Cherry, K. (2022, November 29). What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy. Verywell Mind. struggle to maintain healthy relationships,3Drake, K. (2021, July 21). Is It Possible to Lack Empathy? PsychCentral. and be less likely to help friends and family when they need support.4Cherry, K. (2022, November 29). What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy. Verywell Mind.
On the other hand, when your ability to empathize is strong, that correlates with a positive well-being and improved life satisfaction.5 Grühn, D., Rebucal, K., Diehl, M., Lumley, M., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2008). Empathy across the adult lifespan: Longitudinal and experience-sampling findings. Emotion(Washington, D.C.), 8(6), 753–765.
If You Want Your Child to Learn Empathy, This Is a Must
Research shows that empathy isn’t just an innate trait you’re either born with (or not). Rather, empathy is like a muscle you can develop.6Manning-Schaffel, V. (2018, May 29). What is empathy and how do you cultivate it? NBC News. But if nothing engages your child’s empathy while they’re growing up, they might struggle to feel empathy as an adult.
Just as you supported and encouraged your child as they developed the muscles they needed to sit up, crawl, and walk, your child needs your help to develop their empathy muscle, too.
Luckily for us as parents, we have one powerful parenting tool that will build our children’s empathy like nothing else: children’s books about empathy.
Why It’s So Important to Read Kids’ Books About Empathy
Studies have found that one of the best steps you can take to develop your child’s empathy is to read books that foster empathy.7Kucirkova, N. (2019). How Could Children’s Storybooks Promote Empathy? A Conceptual Framework Based on Developmental Psychology and Literary Theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
Plus, reading books works way better than lecturing kids on the meaning of empathy.
Lectures typically go in one ear and out the other. But when you read fiction, research shows that the brain reacts the same way as if you were living the story in real life.8 Murphy Paul, A. (2012, March 17). Your Brain on Fiction. The New York Times. In other words, reading kids’ books about empathy is akin to setting up a virtual reality simulation where your child can fully enter the experience and understand different perspectives.
But Don’t Miss This Essential Step
To make sure your child gets the maximum empathy boost while you’re reading books together, what works best is to talk about the book you’re reading.9Ornaghi, V., Brockmeier, J., & Grazzani, I. (2014). Enhancing social cognition by training children in emotion understanding: a primary school study. Journal of experimental child psychology, 119, 26–39. Experts recommend pausing here and there to ask your child how the character might be feeling.10Cain Miller, C. (n.d.). How to Be More Empathetic. The New York Times.
You can ask, “How do you think they’re feeling?” and then give your child time to think about it. If they seem stuck, you can point out facial expressions or remind them what just happened in the story. You can also reframe it like this: “If that happened to you, how would you feel?”
That one simple step encourages your child to step into that character’s perspective, which is exactly what empathy requires.
Bonus: For kids who can consistently articulate the character’s perspective, you can help boost their empathy skills even more by asking them a follow-up question like, “What would help them feel better?”11Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum. Developmental psychology, 51(1), 44–51.
50+ Best Children’s Books About Empathy
A while ago, my kids and I spent months putting together a list of the best children’s books about kindness, and parents wrote back with sweet notes of gratitude. But they also had another request: What are the best picture books about empathy?
And so my family set out on another months-long research project to find kids’ books about empathy that both kids and parents will enjoy. (Because if kids are going to ask us to read it again and again, it may as well be something we’ll appreciate, too!)
Every week, I put 30+ books on hold at the library, plus at every visit I browsed the shelves for even more books about empathy for kids. All told, my kids and I read hundreds of picture books on the topic of empathy.
The list below is the cream of the crop from those hundreds of books: the books I loved reading, and the books my kids couldn’t get enough of. Read these children’s books about empathy, and you’ll be priming your child’s brain to grow into a kind, compassionate soul. We all know the world could use more of those!
Note: indicates my family’s absolute top favorites on the list. These are the books my kids can’t get enough of!
Classic Children’s Books That Teach Empathy
Some children’s books about empathy have stood the test of time, decade upon decade—not just with book critics but with kids and parents, too. Here are the best classic picture books that teach empathy.
This is a classic children’s book about empathy, but it’s a little wordy for younger kids. With that said, my kids couldn’t get enough of it starting around 3.5 years old. They’ve loved the display of kindness from the community in this story, and the book has been a jumping-off point for great conversations about what would most help others in need.
This is one of the classics for a reason. Kids love this story because they can relate to Max feeling shame for disappointing his grown-up. One study even showed that this book in particular is excellent for helping kids learn to recognize others’ emotions.12Iordanou, C. & Mattock, K. (2022). Where the Wild Things Are: understanding of emotions in a picture book. Education, 3-13(50:5), 627-639.
To boost your child’s ability to empathize, you can go beyond just asking how Max feels and also ask how the Wild Things are feeling and how the parent might be feeling.
The way the boy in this story puts himself in the old woman’s shoes will melt your heart! As an added bonus, the special friendship between the boy and the woman shows kids that friends come in all shapes and sizes (and ages).
Funny Books About Empathy
Kids’ books about empathy don’t all have to be heavy. Humor can be a powerful tool for the learning process because research shows it improves a child’s ability to remember what they learned.13Henderson, S. (2015, March 31). Laughter and Learning: Humor Boosts Retention. Edutopia.
A silly little story about two friends who see the same situations in completely different ways. By the way, this book has only four unique words, which is perfect for beginning readers.
4. Poe Won’t Go
One of the most important lessons about empathy I ever learned was from a (fairly dry) adult book about communication. When someone is behaving in a way that you can’t understand, ask yourself: Why would a reasonable person do that? But I wish I’d come across this funny picture book first because I could have learned that lesson much quicker—while laughing.
When you stop to wonder what reason someone might have for acting a certain way, you’ll tap into new levels of understanding and compassion.
This hilarious picture book shows kids the true meaning of the Golden Rule. When their new classmate turns out to be a dinosaur, the kids at school are cool with that—until the new
kid dinosaur starts eating them. Humor + powerful life lesson = SCORE.
6. Who Done It?
Each spread of this picture book is a puzzle for kids to solve. But in order to solve the mystery, they’ll have to look at the facial expressions and body language of the characters for clues as to what each person might be feeling. An excellent exercise in empathy!
Books About Being a Good Friend
Part of being a good friend is extending empathy to your friend when they’re struggling. Here are the best kids’ books about empathy and friendship. For more books about what it means to be a good friend, check out The Ultimate List of the Best Picture Books About Friendship.
This is a wordless picture book about a girl who saves up for something she wants but then sees the situation from her little brother’s perspective. And in the end, she decides to brighten her brother’s day instead.
Friends make mistakes, and when they do, they need to apologize. But an effective apology requires more than just saying “I’m sorry”—you need to first think about how your actions have impacted the other person. This heartwarming book teaches kids how to do that in a fun, approachable way.
This book is so good. No matter how many times I read it, it still makes me tear up.
This is the best children’s book I’ve ever read about how to empathize with a friend who’s going through a hard time. Because sometimes what you need most of all is a friend to look you in the eye and say, “That must have been really hard for you.” This is a book every child should read!
You can’t go wrong with the Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. Technically, these books are early readers not picture books, but even babies and toddlers love these stories.
This one in particular is about how to be there for your friend when they’re upset. Funny and heartwarming!
In this heartwarming story of empathy, a young boy promises his elder friend that one day, he’ll fix up her house for her so she can be more comfortable and happy. She assures him that his presence is all she needs, but the story doesn’t end there. This one will give you all the feels!
I never get tired of reading this picture book to my kids. It’s a simple but perfect example of how to be there for a friend who’s struggling with an everyday bump in the road, without trying to jump right into fixing it.
My kids ask for this little gem at least once a day. This is my favorite picture book in this whole list!
For any child who has a grandparent struggling with dementia or other memory problems, this is a must read. This gentle story will help your child understand what their loved one is going through in a powerful way.
Being a good friend means being there for them when they’re having a hard time, even if all you do is offer your calm presence. No other picture book demonstrates that as beautifully as this charming story does. The main character Amos McGee works in a zoo, so when he doesn’t show up to work one day, the animals check in on him. Adorable!
10. Thank You, Omu
Omu makes herself a delicious stew for her supper, and one by one her neighbors smell the deliciousness and show up at her door. Acting out of empathy, she gladly shares the stew with everyone. But when it comes time to dig in for her own supper, it’s all gone. Then her neighbors practice empathy in return and come back with a surprise. This is a sweet story of the power of sharing and community.
11. Virginia Wolf
This heartwarming story of empathy between siblings is based on the real-life relationship between author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. When young Virginia is in a “wolfish” mood, her sister tries to cheer her up to no avail. But she stays with her through the growling and howling, and eventually she helps her sister crawl out of that funk.
Books About Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes
Just like adults, children can struggle with extending empathy to someone they don’t know yet, something who different from them, or someone they aren’t getting along with. These empathy children’s books will give your child powerful examples of how to take the perspective of someone else, even when it’s hard.
In this lovely story, a girl named Chloe knows her classmate Adrian Simcox is lying about having a horse. How could a boy with holes in his shoes afford a horse? But Chloe’s frustration leads her on a journey towards finding compassion for Adrian, which she discovers is more important than being correct.
A young deaf boy lives in a kingdom where a dragon and the kings’ knights are constantly battling. One day, he wanders into the middle of a battle without realizing it, and everyone stops fighting. By asking an innocent but important question, the boy helps both sides see things from the other’s perspective.
While digging up earth to build a city, an excavator spies a lone flower and sees the situation from the flower’s perspective. This is a heartwarming story of empathy—and taking action from a place of compassion.
Fair warning: This thoughtful story does have a sad ending. However, my kids enjoy talking about what the main character could have done differently. We ended up having an ongoing discussion about regret and how we all have those moments in life we look back on and wish we’d acted differently. So many great conversations come out of this one every time we read it!
7. Great Joy
In this story set in the 1940s, a young girl notices an organ grinder and his pet monkey out in the cold on the street. The girl’s journey of awareness to empathy and then to finding her voice for change is powerful. The ending also sparked a lot of discussion with my kids about how we can help those in need during the holiday season. Beautifully illustrated and written.
For more holiday stories, check out The Most Heartfelt and Meaningful Christmas Books for Kids.
For a child who witnesses someone being mean to another person, empathy can feel overwhelming because they often don’t know what to do with those feelings. This book shows kids exactly what it looks like to move from feeling empathy to acting with compassion.
A rabbit and a mouse decide to plant a garden, but when it bears fruit, they don’t want to share their bounty with hungry birds. A food fight ensues, but the mouse has a moment of clarity and acts out of empathy, which leads to a beautiful outcome.
If you’re familiar with the bestselling chapter book The One and Only Ivan, this is a picture book version of that same story. This is a powerful book that encourages kids to reflect on what life is like for animals in captivity. A must read!
On the surface, this book is about an ordinary slice of life as a little boy and his grandma take the bus together through town. Ultimately, where they’re traveling to delivers a powerful message about acting out of empathy, but to me, how the grandma and the boy approach their journey is the bigger message of choosing kindness in those small, everyday moments. So many great conversations with this one!
In this beautiful wordless picture book, a young fox cub finds a child’s lovey and falls in love with it. But instead of taking it back from the cub, the child sees the situation through the cub’s eyes and makes a difficult decision.
This is a sweet (and true!) story about a service dog who supports a sick boy during his time at the Ronald McDonald House. When you share this book with your child, you’ll kick off important conversations that will open your child’s eyes about kids who are sick, service dogs who help them, and the people who train those service dogs.
15. Nerdy Birdy
This book shows that everyone deserves to be treated with compassion, even if they’re different from you. Kids who feel like they don’t quite fit in tend to especially love this story.
16. The Other Side
One of the most important reads in this whole list and a beautiful story. A young girl’s mom tells her it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates her town. But the girl ends up forming a friendship with a girl who lives on the other side of the fence.
Everyone ignores Sally because she’s so short, but she pays attention to everything going on around her. She sees how kids treat each other, and her empathy for them inspires her to speak up. Kids often feel powerless in this big world, so this story delivers an important message: You can always speak up for others, even if you’re small or young (or both).
19. Stick and Stone
This is an adorable story about empathy and standing up for others, plus the puns are fun for parents. This book is in our regular bedtime story rotation because the kids love it, and so do we!
This cute book helps kids reflect on the ramifications of excluding others and how that makes others feel. The perfect way to teach your child to be an includer! My whole family adores this book.
In this book, you see a cat through several different pairs of eyes—starting with a child and progressing through other animals’ perspectives like a dog, a mouse, a bee, a snake, and more. This thought-provoking book cleverly lays the groundwork for the idea that everyone has a unique perspective, which is an essential building block for empathy skills.
To open your child’s eyes to different cultures and ways of living around the world, cuddle up with this book together. The illustrations feature seven real families from different countries, and on each spread you learn details about their daily lives, like what they eat for lunch, how they get to school, and what chores they help with. This is a lovely book for expanding your child’s understanding of other kids and their experiences.
23. Those Shoes
Your heart will break for Jeremy in this powerful story. He dreams of wearing the latest high-tops that are all the rage at school, but his grandmother can’t afford them. She explains, “There’s no room for ‘want’ around here—just ‘need.'” But then at a thrift shop one day, he finds the shoes! Unfortunately, they’re too small. Ultimately, he makes the difficult decision to prioritize someone else’s needs above his wants.
This gorgeous, simple book invites you to consider what’s happening behind the windows in your neighborhood. Are your neighbors eating dinner? Watching TV? Cuddling up to share a story with a loving parent, just like you? Such a sweet way to broaden a child’s perspective to think about the lives of the people around them.
Heartwarming Chapter Books That Teach Empathy
These chapter books are excellent picks for your next family read-aloud because they’ll nurture your child’s ability to empathize and act out of compassion. For more excellent chapter books for kids, check out 48 Awesome Chapter Books for Kids Your Child Will Devour.
In this sweet chapter book, Opal has just moved to a small town with her dad, and her whole life changes when she crosses paths with a stray dog in the grocery store. The dog shenanigans provide comic relief, but the beauty of this story is how Opal develops empathy for people she initially writes off as mean or odd.
I’ve read this aloud to my kids three times now, and the story captures their hearts every time!
In this memoir in verse, the author shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the South during the 1960s and 70s. Seeing the world through her eyes creates a deep sense of empathy for what she experienced as she tried to find her place in the world.
3. El Deafo
This is another memoir but in graphic novel format. Cece becomes deaf at the age of four after an illness, then she has to start first grade at a new school. Her hearing aid makes her feel like a superhero, so she adopts the nickname “El Deafo” for herself. This is a funny and heartwarming story that will help your child see the world from another perspective they’ve likely never considered before.
Ally has trouble reading, but she doesn’t realize it’s because she’s struggling with dyslexia. Because of her frustration, she acts out at school, which in turn frustrates her teachers and opens her up to bullying from other kids. She can’t seem to do anything right, even when she tries to. Read this important story to your child to foster empathy for those with learning differences.
5. Front Desk
Mia lives in a motel where her parents work. While her parents clean rooms, Mia decides to manage the front desk and do her part to make the guests’ stays enjoyable. This is a powerful story of what it means to treat others with kindness and respect and of doing what’s right even when it’s hard. This one also has a sequel: Three Keys.
This is a classic chapter book for teaching empathy. First published in 1944, this quiet book tells the story of a girl named Maddie who stands by as her best friend teases another girl. For the best experience, read this aloud to your child so you can talk after each chapter, and you’ll have powerful conversations about empathy, compassion, and standing up for others.
When three sixth-grade boys find out their favorite teacher is battling cancer, they decide to skip school so they can give her the “last day” she deserves. At times, this book is funny, and at others, sad—but it all blends together into a heartwarming experience. I’m so glad I read this with my kids because it gave them a much-needed example of the power of empathy.
Ivan is a silverback gorilla who lives at Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, a run-down circus-themed roadside attraction. For years, Ivan is bored but content in this bizarre flavor of captivity for a wild animal. But when he meets a baby elephant named Ruby, he makes an important decision that will change everything. This story is sad in parts but very much worth the read. Such a deeply moving story!
If your child loves this book, hand them The One and Only Bob next, which is a follow-up featuring the stray dog named Bob in the first book.
Melody has cerebral palsy, and she can’t walk, talk, or write. She feels stuck in her head. Then one day, she discovers a way to speak for the first time. This is an important story about a smart girl with an unflagging spirit who has to find a way to navigate a world that isn’t always accommodating or even understanding.
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For more books about empathy, compassion, and kindness, check out these lists:
What are your favorite empathy books for kids? Share in a comment below!