A while ago, I read something by Stephen Covey that sums up how I feel about empathy: “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” On days I am deprived of this emotional oxygen, I often turn to my favorite quotes handwritten in journals or hurriedly typed in my notes app. They remind me to breathe, to hold on and to let go at the same time. I read to feel understood and to offer my understanding to the people I share a home with, people living across the globe and ones alive a century ago. Here’s a list of a few books that generate empathy and challenge every apathetic bone in me:
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
August Pullman is a little boy with severe facial difference who jokes, giggles and braves his way into our hearts and rests there to remind us to always be kinder than necessary.
“Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.”
(We are all wonders—Illustrated version)
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara is a 15-year-old Dominican girl from Harlem whose frustrated passion finds a haven in her poetry. Written in prose poetry format, Acevedo’s words move us with their intensity as well as rhythm.
“We’re different, this poet and I. In looks, in body,
in background. But I don’t feel so different
when I listen to her. I feel heard.”
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The experiences of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, and Sofia remind us of the vulnerabilities and resilience of being women. This Pulitzer winning modern classic depicting African American women devastates you while also leaving you with the taste of hope and freedom.
“Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.”
(Trigger warning : Physical and sexual abuse)
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Aristotle is the embodiment of teenage angst and Dante is drowning in child-like wonder. This book is a journey you take with the two Mexican American boys as they try to understand the meaning of friendship, family and sexual identity. The beautiful and lyrical writing, and the tenderness and wit displayed by the characters makes it stay with you long after you have put it down.
“This is my problem. I want other people to tell me how they feel. But I’m not so sure I want to return the favor.”
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This story explores and excavates motherhood in a way that makes you realize that there are a million ways to raise a child without any being right. The characters feel real even when you disagree with them. They unfold secrets that leave you disoriented and art that leaves you in awe.
“Maybe at birth everyone should be given to a family of a different race to be raised. Maybe that would solve racism once and for all.”
Helium by Rudy Francisco
This is a poetry collection that blends opinions on race, politics, love, toxic masculinity with personal experience to give you perspective and hope. Rudy’s words flow with ease and capture your attention, demanding to be read out loud and cherished.
“She asks me to kill the spider.
Instead, I get the most
peaceful weapons I can find.
I take a cup and a napkin.
I catch the spider, put it outside
and allow it to walk away.
If I am ever caught in the wrong place
at the wrong time, just being alive
and not bothering anyone,
I hope I am greeted
with the same kind
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown urges us to dare greatly by recognizing the collective vulnerabilities of humankind in different scenarios. It encourages connection by asking us to let ourselves be seen, which in turn helps us see other people as their imperfect, glorious, vulnerable selves.
“When I asked people who had survived tragedy how we can cultivate and show more compassion for people who are suffering, the answer was always the same: Don’t shrink away from the joy of your child because I’ve lost mine. Don’t take what you have for granted—celebrate it. Don’t apologize for what you have. Be grateful for it and share your gratitude with others. Are your parents healthy? Be thrilled. Let them know how much they mean to you. When you honor what you have, you’re honoring what I’ve lost.”