Every year or so there is an introduction of a new buzz word among educators.
A few from the past few years have been empathy and diversity. The thing with “buzz words” is that they tend to come and go. What does not need to happen with these particular words in our classroom is the latter; they don’t need to go. We need to continue to open the eyes of our students beyond the 20 mile radius they tend to stay within on a daily and weekly basis.
Whether we are discussing diversity in reference to race, home life, learning abilities, religions, physical disabilities, culture, gender equality, or socioeconomic status, one of the first things students need to focus on is building empathy.
Students, nor adults, will recognize the need to relate to someone that is unlike them until they feel a connection, or find a level of understanding, within the realm or circumstances that makes them different than someone else.
Ultimately, we want all of our students to choose empathy over anger; compassion over hate; connection over brokenness.
I have chosen 10 of the best picture books that I know of that are perfect for “big kid” read-alouds for grades 4 and up. These books have so much more emotion and a lot more of the story to tell than what is written on the lines or illustrated in the text.
Take a closer look at some of my favorites…
Book #1: The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
Diversity Topic: Students with learning disabilities
Summary: This beautifully illustrated book is an autobiography of Patricia Polacco’s experience as a student in a classroom full of “misfits”. In this book, we find how students that are typically seen as “odd” or “incapable” find success and growth during their time in the classroom with a loving teacher named Mrs. Peterson. In the end, no matter how the school sees them, Tricia and the other students find hope and joy in the daily classroom discoveries as “The Junkyard Wonders”.
“At recess that day, I couldn’t wait to ask Thom, ‘Why is our class called the junkyard?’
‘Because we are…didn’t you notice…all different. You know…odd. Like stuff in a junkyard.'”
Book #2: Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco
Diversity Topic: Generational Racism
Summary: Mr. Lincoln is the “greatest principal” ever, and everyone loves him, except Eugene. He is hateful to Mr. Lincoln, but Mr. Lincoln doesn’t let that stand in the way of him getting to know Eugene and building a real relationship with him. This story is a beautiful tale of overcoming hate and seeing a person for who they are, regardless of skin color or home life.
“And [Eugene] was a bully. He always seemed angry, picking on kids and calling them names.
‘He’s not a bad boy, really,’ Mr. Lincoln said. ‘Only troubled.’
To just about everybody in school, though, Eugene WAS trouble, spelled with a capital T.“
Book #3: The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pintwater
Diversity Topic: Understanding Differences
Summary: This book is everything empathy is about. Accepting someone’s differences, but also hearing them out. Understanding why it’s okay to be different or even a little weird makes the world go around. And the main character, Mr. Plumbean, finally accepts that he is different and decides to share his creativity and colorful dreams with the world. His bravery to do so, and his neighbors’ willingness to hear him out changes the minds of everyone Mr. Plumbean knows. (This is also a great book to teach theme. It’s the very first read aloud I do for the school year as a mentor text. Check out more here.)
“‘My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams,’ Mr. Plumbean said.”
Book #4: Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
Diversity Topics: Racism, Riots (based on the Rodney King riots in the early 1990’s)
Summary: I remember reading this book for the first time when I was student teaching. It has stayed with me for over 11 years. The main characters, Daniel and his mama, watch out the window in their neighborhood as rioters and looters break into local businesses, destroying and stealing everything in sight. The little boy holds his cat, Jasmine, protecting it in the dark as he watches out the window. Mama protects Daniel. The book takes some twists and turns as Daniel and his mama are evacuated from their apartment in the middle of the night. It is on fire because of the looting. Through tragedy and the loss of Jasmine the cat, the community is brought together. They see each other for the first time, after passing by each other every single day in the neighborhood.
“Mama and I stand well back from our window, looking down. I’m holding Jasmine, my cat. We don’t have our lights on thought it’s almost dark. People are rioting in the street below.”
Book #5: Tea with Milk by Allen Say
Diversity Topic: Cultures, Gender Equality
Summary: This book follows the story of a young girl named Ma-chan, which is short for Masako in Japanese. However, when Ma-chan is around all of her English speaking friends, she is known as May. After graduating highschool, May’s family left San Franciso to go back to live in Japan. May struggles with going back to Japan and leaving the only home she has ever known in the America. Through different experiences along the way, May is able to accept her parent’s culture, and find happiness in an expected way.
“At home, [May] had rice and miso soup and plain green tea for breakfast. At her friends’ houses she ate pancakes and muffins and drank tea with milk and sugar.”
Book #6: Walking to School by Eve Bunting
Diversity Topic: Religion
Summary: The tension between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland is centuries old. Because of their differences, children and families have been harassed for years if they “crossed” into territories that did not belong to them. The story of Allison, a Catholic girl, is heartwrenching as her and her family are belittled and harassed by Protestant members of their town as she walks to school. Through childhood innocence and hope for something better, Allison experiences a moment of kindness from an unexpected source: a Protestant girl.
“All I know is, I met a Protestant girl who was nice. She said she hated this fighting, and so do I. I think we could be friends, if we had the chance. I know we could.”
Book #7: As Good As Anybody by Richard Michelson
Diversity Topic: Racism, Religion
Summary: The book follows the true story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s journeys as little boys until manhood, marching together – as a white Jew that survived the Holocaust and a black Baptist that had survived years of segregation – toward freedom. Told from each boy’s perspective, this book encapsulates the journey of hope, compassion, and empathy that these men traveled together – all the way across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“Martin took a step forward.
Abraham took a step beside him.
‘This too is God’s work,’ Abraham told Martin. ‘I feel like my legs are praying.'”
Book #8: Jin Woo by Eve Bunting
Diversity Topic: Adoption, Culture, Family Dynamics
Summary: Adoption is not something we talk about in our classrooms often. However, it affects many of our lives. Adoption is a beautiful thing, and this story of acceptance of a new baby boy into David’s home makes him question his parent’s affection for him. Told from David’s perspective, it opens our hearts to see through the eyes of children who are affected through a change in a family’s dynamics; especially one from a different culture.
“Then the lady frees one of his arms from the blanket and makes him wave to us.
We wave back. Mom is sobbing out loud. They are leaning so close to the glass that it’s getting blurry with their breaths.
My stomach hurts.”
Book #9: One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
Diversity Topics: Cultures, Language Barriers
Summary: Eve Bunting does a beautiful job of connecting the reader to a girl named Farah, who goes on a field trip with her new school in her new country. While she doesn’t know how to speak English and she wears a dupatta with her jeans and t-shirt, she recognizes similarities with two new friends through laughter, talks about dogs, and the ever-so-obvious giggle starter, burping. It just takes one person to make a difference to someone new. Perfect book for opening our eyes to see how one kind word and gesture can make a huge difference to someone around us.
“Jim pats his stomach, and a belch jumps from his throat.
Everyone laughs. I do, too.
Laughs sound the same as at home. Just the same. So do sneezes and belches and lots of things. It is the words that are strange. But soon I will know their words. I will blend with the others he way my apple blended with the cider.
I take a deep breath.”
Book #10: The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco
Diversity Topic: Racism
Summary: A little girl named Monique thinks she sees a little ghost, only to find out it’s a little girl named Sevrine, a Jewish girl Monique’s family is hiding from the Nazis. This book is full of acceptance, hope, and friendship that can only be formed through compassion and empathy.
“The tall shining boots of marching Nazi soldiers. Their heels clicked like gunshots along the cobblestone path. People froze and tried not to look at the soldiers. The girls wanted to run, but knew better. They had learned to chat and laugh as if they had no cares in the world.”
What are some of your favorite books to build empathy and diversity awareness?