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By Andrea Hunt

Want your kids to be kind, compassionate, and open-hearted? Then you’ll be pleased to know emotional intelligence, including empathy, is learnable. As parents, there’s a lot we can do to model and teach it to our children—from showing them how we engage with others in daily life to imaginative role play games. Still, there’s no one-and-done way to teach empathy to kids. It’s a gradual process, and (as parents can testify) younger children don’t always find it easy to understand others’ perspectives, put words to feelings, or react compassionately. Which is where kids’ books that teach empathy come in.

Books, especially story books, are powerful tools for building empathy skills. To quote Neil Gaiman, “Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes.” And for younger readers, picture books—through subtle interplay of words and illustrations, or even illustrations alone—can distill complex emotional ideas without feeling prescriptive or labored. Best of all? They often spark enlightening conversations around feelings. 

Like the idea of including books for empathy as part of your child’s reading? From true stories to playful explorations in perspective and deeply moving tales, our list of empathy books for toddlers and preschoolers has got you covered.   

The Little War Cat by Hiba Noor Khan book cover

The Little War Cat by Hiba Noor Khan

This poignant tale—inspired by the true story of the “cat man of Aleppo”—deftly shows how compassionate empathy is a learnable skill, one with a profound power to comfort and heal in times of distress. After her world is turned upside down by human conflict, a little grey cat despairs. That is, until a compassionate man finds her. When, in turn, the cat finds a bewildered and frightened boy, she knows just how to help him feel better. 

Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

This moving story exploring and celebrating fluid gender identity follows Julián’s daydreams of mermaids and tentative self-expression as one himself. But what will his Nana think? While the illustrations are rich and evocative, Love’s text is spare—a wonderful touch that leaves lots of space for “looking deeply” at each scene, and talking about what the characters might be thinking and feeling, but not saying. 

Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon book cover

Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon

When it comes to the environment, encouraging empathy with the creatures of the natural world is a powerful way to effect positive change, and very relatable for children. When Rocket finds a baby turtle caught in plastic on the beach, her perspective shifts radically from happy-go-lucky vacationer to someone who sees the impact pollution is having on her grandparents’ island. She spreads the message to kids and grown-ups alike, soon mobilizing a high-energy clean-up crew to restore the local environment.      

The Invisible by Tom Percival book cover

The Invisible by Tom Percival

Inspired by the author’s own experiences, this visually powerful book is great for building empathy skills, discussing the importance of feeling seen and valued, and starting conversations around poverty and marginalization. When Isabel’s family circumstances take a turn for the worse, she has to move to a greyer, colder part of her city. People start to look through her, not noticing her—she becomes “invisible.” But then she notices other “invisible” people, who are elderly, homeless, or living with disabilities, all as sad and lonely as she is. Her empathy spurs her to begin building a vibrant community, restoring her sense of self and “home” again, and helping others to become visible, too. 

We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio book cover

We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio

This picture book version of the best-selling book for older children, Wonder, will chime with toddlers and preschoolers. An extraordinary-looking boy longs to be seen and accepted for who he is, and for people to change the way they see him. This “eye-catching” tale on the importance of looking with kindness and accepting difference is a great starter book on empathy for little readers. 

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel book cover

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

This is a delightfully thought-provoking book exploring perception and perspective. A cat walks through the world, “with its whiskers, ears and paws.” All the living beings the cat comes across see a cat, of course … but what does that look like for each of them? The ending is an eye-opener for readers of all ages—and a brilliant jumping-off point for continuing the conversation. 

How to Change the World by Rashmi Sirdeshpande book cover

How to Change the World by Rashmi Sirdeshpande

Would you like your kids to see the real-life power of empathy? Then this nonfiction title might be for you—15 true stories of people coming together to effect positive social change. From the fight to save the whales to the movement for marriage equality, many of the case studies in this informative and detailed book share a common thread of empathy as a motivating force. The vocabulary and amount of text make this a great choice for kindergarten and early elementary readers, though younger ones should also enjoy dipping in and out of it, as each story provides lots to talk about.    

Small in the City by Sydney Smith book cover

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

Reading this gorgeously illustrated and tender book is a wonderful exercise in perspective-taking and interpretation for kids and grown-ups alike. A small child shares tips for navigating the city’s dangers and seeking out its safe places, as they make their way home. But who are they talking to? And why? The child’s worries and impressions will strike an empathic chord with young readers, while for parents the fragmented visual depiction of the city is a poignant reminder of just how intimidating the world can seem when you’re small.     

Migrants by Issa Watanabe book cover

Migrants by Issa Watanabe

This breath-taking and uncompromising picture book addresses issues around migration, from a universal, symbolic perspective. The wordless tale follows a group of animal migrants through forest and over sea, a symbolic skeletal figure and blue ibis never far behind. Tragedy strikes, but there is tentative hope too, both in how the animals help one another, and in the “new place” where they arrive. The story offers lots of opportunities for children to exercise their empathy, put themselves in the characters’ shoes, and come up with their own words to narrate what unfolds.  

Note: Definitely give this one a solo reading first to check its suitability for your child’s age and sensitivity, as the subject matter and treatment might be a little distressing for some.

No Longer Alone by Joseph Coelho book cover

No Longer Alone by Joseph Coelho

For children dealing with the death of a loved one—or whose friends or family members are—this sensitive book illustrates that an empathetic audience helps us share difficult feelings we might struggle with alone. In this tale on the power of being heard, a young girl is labelled as “shy” and “quiet” by people close to her, though her internal world is anything but. Another takeaway? Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about others.     

Hello, Friend! by Rebecca Cobb book cover

Hello, Friend! by Rebecca Cobb

A tenderly observed and heartwarming tale about making friends, this book follows a little girl’s enthusiastic efforts to win over a little boy. The witty illustrations will help little ones read between the lines, drawing their attention to noticing body language and facial expressions to interpret feelings. The sweet ending also showcases how kindness and empathy catch on. It’s a great choice for school starters and any children beginning to navigate the complexities of wider social dynamics.    

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan book cover

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

This empathetic portrayal of the emotional challenges older siblings face—like continual expectations to share or include younger ones in every activity—will have big brothers and sisters everywhere feeling understood. When Rubina is invited to a party, she’s reluctant to take her younger sister Sana along. But, as her mother makes it clear, it’s not a choice. Rubina suffers the consequences. A long time later, when Sana receives her own party invitation, and littlest sister Maryam demands to tag along, will Rubina help Sana out or sit back and watch history repeat itself? A great option for talking about sibling and social group dynamics and feelings.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson book cover

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

A haunting story about the importance of showing kindness in the moment, or else risk living with regret. When new girl Maya arrives at school, her clothes mark her out as different. She strives to make friends, but Chloe and the other kids give her the cold shoulder, and as time goes on, begin to call her names. Then, one day, Maya does not turn up at school. It’s only after a lesson on the ripple effect of kindness that Chloe reflects on her own actions towards Maya. The beautiful, impressionistic illustrations work with the restrained text to create room for discussions on exclusion, difference and the possibilities open to us if we choose empathy and acceptance.  

What Happened to You by James Catchpole book cover

What Happened to You? by James Catchpole

Here’s a refreshing, funny, and “own voices” book on disability that helps children understand what it might feel like to be physically different, especially when that difference is something people ask you about every day. Joe loves playing in the playground. That is, until curious kids sidetrack him with endless questions and comments about what happened to his leg. As well as being a lovely story for putting readers into the “shoes” of another, it also shows the importance of respecting boundaries and practicing sensitivity in our interactions.    

Which children’s books about empathy sound good to you? Have a suggestion to include in our list? Let us know!

Andrea Hunt is a writer, editor, and storytimer who shares and reviews picture books in the margins of work and family life (@hellobookcub on Instagram).