Building empathy in both children and adults is important, even more so in these violent times where hate seems to take centre stage. Empathy is something that is lacking everywhere you turn. As a librarian I’m constantly trying to put books into hands of students so they can experience things through other people’s eyes. Here are 15 middle grade books with a great message, books that will build empathy in those that read them.
Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga
This story by Jasmine Warga is written in verse follows the story of Jude and her mother as they travel to the U.S. from Syria. Leaving her father behind, Jude struggles to fit in, find her voice, and protect the ones she loves.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
New Kid is an awesome graphic novel about a a boy named Jordan who is obsessed with comics. He wants to go to art school, but instead his parents send him to a prestigious private school where he is one of the few black students. Full of humour and heart, not to be missed.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
Written from the perspective of Nisha, who is half Muslim, half Hindu, as she travels in a desperate journey with her father and siblings to India after the division of the country in 1947. Essential reading for anyone interested in post WWII history and stories written in diary format.
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
Set against the backdrop of segregation and Jim Crow of the American South. This story follows an 11-year-old boy and his grandmother as they go on a road trip to beat all road trips. Funny, sweet, and with a really important message.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
Addie is a young girl who is autistic. She lives in a small Scottish village with her family. Her sister Keedie is also autistic, and together they share a very special bond. When Addie discovers that her village executed suspected witches centuries ago, she attempts to get the government to erect a memorial for the wrongdoing. Heartbreaking and vital, it’s a book that every student and teacher should read.
Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Haggar Holt
Izzy thinks she’s got a pretty normal, boring family. That is until her father announces that he’s transitioning into a woman. Izzy’s sister is appalled, the town seems to turn against them, and she starts to receive horrible bullying at school. Important read with a lot of great moments.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Jerome is a boy who is a ghost. No, it’s not a fantasy story, it’s based on real life events. Jerome is playing with a toy gun when he’s murdered by a policeman. His ghost emerges and meets other ghosts, namely Emmett Till. As he watches his family grieve, the judicial system crumble, and his own spirit rise, we the reader are hit with the stark reality that this is something that happens too many times in America.
White Bird by RJ Palacio
Heart wrenching graphic novel from the author of Wonder. It follows the plight of a young girl who is forced to hide in a hay barn after the Nazis overrun her small French village. Separated from her parents, she must try to learn to trust those who claim they want to help.
Roll With It by Jamie Sumner
Lots of hope, empathy and triumph in this tale of a girl with cerebral palsy who won’t be held down. Her dream is to one day become a professional baker, wheelchair be damned. When she moves to a new town, her life changes forever.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Castle Cranshaw has a temper, but he has a good reason for it. His father’s not around, he can’t stop getting into trouble at school, and his basketball dreams seem to be taking a side track. When he’s scouted for the school track and field team, he finds hope in the coach, a father figure that he sorely needs.
Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines
Hilarious debut from comedian Samantha Baines. Harriet is surprised when she discovers that her hearing aid has helped her track an alien in her room. To top it off, her family are MIB-esque spies working for an outer space agency! Harriet soon becomes the Earth’s only hope, great, rollicking fun with a super protagonist.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee
When 12-year-old Shayla enters junior high, she soon finds out that being a rule follower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Her older sister gets involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and Shayla can’t help but be drawn to the need to have a voice. Still, she’s scared to do the wrong thing, but knows she must face her fears if she’s going to stand up to bullies and wrong-minded teachers.
The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Raúf
Told through the eyes of 10-year-old Aniyah, this is the story of children in foster care and the confusion, fear and anxiety that they can sometimes deal with constantly. Determined to pay tribute to her mother, Aniyah, her sibling and her friends embark on an adventure to get a star named after her. Heartbreaking and thrilling, a huge hit.
I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina
A powerful graphic novel about a boy who is shot to death by an off duty policeman while shopping for new clothes. It’s a rallying cry for justice to those who never receive it and it’s a history lesson. I was really impacted by this story, I think it should be read by classes everywhere as it’s crucial for building empathy.
Illegal by Eoin Colfer
A timely story about a boy’s perilous journey from Africa to Europe in a desperate attempt to stay alive. This story has beautiful artwork, a powerful message, and an important topic on the refugee crisis, tolerance and acceptance. You’ll fall in love with Ebo and he will break your heart.