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Teaching Children Compassion with Books

How do we teach compassion?

By Luisa LaFleur, The Children’s Book Review
Published: February , 2012

Kids can be mean. Sometimes our kids are on the receiving end of the taunts and name-calling and that’s hard to deal with. But other times our kids are on the giving end and that’s even harder to deal with. Teaching children to be compassionate—to understand someone else’s suffering and to try and alleviate that suffering—is not easy. A key first step is to get children to understand that mean actions—teasing, name-calling and the like—can be hurtful. Here are a few books that can help impart the message that being kind to one another is essential and that the golden rule is paramount.

The Hundred Dresses

By Eleanor Estes; Illustrated by Helena Estes and Louis Slobodkin

Reading level: Ages 5 and up

Paperback: 80 pages

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing

What to expect: Lessons about friendship; allusions to poverty and immigration; harships

In The Hundred Dresses, which takes place around the time of World War I, Wanda wears the same faded blue dress to school every day. One day, in the midst of playful banter, Wanda tells her classmates that she has one hundred beautiful dresses at home, all lined up and that she wears the dresses on special occasions. The other girls don’t believe her and begin to tease her about it daily. One girl, Maddie, feels bad about the teasing but doesn’t speak up for fear the teasing will turn to her. But as time passes, she comes to see the error of her ways and learns how important it is to stand up for your friends.

This is an intricate story that offers many opportunities for discussion. Wanda is poor. She’s an immigrant from another country at a time when there were no social networks to provide support. She speaks with an accent that automatically sets her apart from the other girls. But in essence, she’s just a little girl who wants to fit in and have friends.

Add this book to your collection: The Hundred Dresses

Watch Your Tongue, Cecily Beasley

By Lane Fredrickson; Illustrated by Jon Davis

Reading level: Ages 5 and up

Hardcover: 22 pages

Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books

What to expect: Rude behavior and its aftermath

Cecily is a ghastly child. She’s rude, impertinent, ungrateful and can be downright mean. She doesn’t say please or thank you, she doesn’t share, and she sticks her tongue out at her classmates and teachers. But one day, her tongue gets stuck and she can’t put it back in her mouth. She has a hard lesson to learn about kindness and it takes some time but eventually Cecily realizes that she’s not been very nice to anybody.

This simple story has a strong message—sometimes we don’t realize how hurtful we can be to others until the tables are turned.

Add this book to your collection: Watch Your Tongue, Cecily Beasley

Speak Up, Tommy!

By: Jaqueline Dembar Greene; Illustrated by Deborah Melmon

Reading level: Ages 5 and up

Hardcover: 28 pages

Publisher: Kar-Ben Publishing

What to expect: Mean behavior in a school setting; immigration; foreign languages; lessons about compassion and utility.

Speak Up, Tommy! tells the story of a little boy who’s in a new school in a new country and feels out of place. Tommy has to learn a new language, new games, new rules and despite his attempts to try and fit in, his classmates aren’t helping. Tommy begins to pull back and withdraw from his class until a visit from a rescue dog gives him a reason to try again.

This gem of a book is based on a true story about a police dog that was trained in Israel and only understood Hebrew commands. Much like Tommy, the dog also felt out of place and alone. The meeting between the two is heartwarming and provides the perfect opportunity to explain to children the need to care for those that may be hurting, or alone.

Add this book to your collection: Speak Up, Tommy!

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Luisa LaFleur reviews bilingual books for The Children’s Book Review to help parents choose the best books for their budding linguists. She was born in Argentina, attended school in NYC and speaks three foreign languages–Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Formerly an editor in NYC, Luisa is currently a stay-at-home mom to two little ones.

  • Hi Luisa,

    Great post. “The Hundred Dresses” has surely stood the test of time. Nice to see some new books coming out on empathy and compassion. Trudy Ludwig has a great list of her favorite books to teach empathy. In particular, we like “Something Else” and “A Little Bit Scary People” and “Hey, Little Ant!”
    Her complete list is up in an interview a while back.
    Looking forward to checking these other two out!


    August 25, 2012
  • I would add to this list a wonderful recent fiction book, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. My 9-year-old has read it, but so has my book club–it is truly ageless because of the wonderful way it is written in the voices of various characters, and how it tackles being different. The central character has a major facial deformation, but as adults we all know that especially in middle school it doesn’t take much to be ostracized for any little thing that makes you stand out. I just purchased a copy for my 4th grader’s classroom library.

    September 4, 2012
    • Melissa,

      Thank you so much for your input. Wonder is getting so much positive praise and I think it’s great that you purchased a copy for your son’s library.



      September 6, 2012
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