Top Ten Children’s Books for Encouraging Empathy


Roald Dahl’s BFG and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird top list of books parents said best helped children develop empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus

A new YouGov opinion poll commissioned by Amnesty International to coincide with the ‘Amnesty CILIP Honour’ – the first ever human rights commendation for children’s books – shows that more than half of parents in Britain think reading a book is the best way to develop their child’s empathy. The poll is being released on International Children’s Book Day (Saturday 2 April).

Parents of children were asked to select the pastime from a list of activities that they thought was most likely to develop the ability of their child to put themselves in other people’s shoes. More than half of parents said reading a book (53%) while 12% of parents thought watching a television programme would be most beneficial. Five percent thought watching a film at the cinema, and three percent thought playing a computer game was the best way to develop empathy.

These findings fit with the academic findings on reading and empathy. Dr Raymond Mar, associate professor of psychology at York University in Canada, has published research indicating that children exposed to more storybooks tend to be better at understanding the thoughts and emotions of other people. Dr Mar, who specialises in the link between reading narrative fiction and social abilities, said:

“Reading with your child may help them to think about others and their feelings, a key to developing empathy for others. It’s great that the intuitions of parents seem to line up with what we know from scientific research.”

Parents were also asked to select a book from a list of titles which they felt had best helped them to learn to identify with others. One in six parents (17%) who selected a book, chose Roald Dahl’s BFG, the most popular choice from the list, closely followed by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (16%).

The Top Ten Children’s Books for Encouraging Empathy

The full list of the ten books in order of popularity, is:

  • The BFG by Roald Dahl (17%)
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (16%)
    The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (14%)
    Goodnight Mr Tom, by Michelle Magorian (13%)
    Charlotte’s Web, by EB White (10%)
    JOINT Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (9%)
    Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling (7%)
    JOINT Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman;
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D Taylor (2%)

The findings come as Amnesty is set to make a special children’s book commendation in a new partnership together with the professional librarian’s body, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). In a first for the world of books, Amnesty and the librarians will select one book from the Carnegie shortlist, and one from the Kate Greenaway illustrated book shortlists, awarding the Amnesty CILIP Honour to the books that most distinctively illuminate, uphold or celebrate freedoms. The shortlists were announced on 16 March and the two overall Amnesty winners will be announced in June, in time to inform parents’ summer reading selections for their children.

Nicky Parker, Amnesty’s Head of Publishing, said:

“There is no doubt that the ability of books to develop a child’s empathy and compassion is unparalleled. Of course the world needs a generation of people growing up with those engrained qualities – now more than ever.

“As Harper Lee’s Atticus had it, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

“We hope the Amnesty award will make it easy for parents and teachers to identify books which will teach children about truth, freedom and justice, and encourage them to feel they can shape a better world.”

Former Carnegie winner and inaugural Amnesty CILIP judge Tanya Landman, said:

“Books break down barriers. They have the ability to show us that we’re all members of one human race. The Amnesty award will have a huge impact in recognising books that open up difficult situations. As a judge, I want to be transported by a gripping story but I want to be moved by it too and know more about an issue than I did at the beginning. I want it to open up hungry minds to what’s going on in the world.”

The shortlists are:

The CILIP Carnegie Medal 2016 shortlist in full (alphabetically by author):

One by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (Faber)
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick (Indigo)
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (MiraInk, HarperCollins)
Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine (HarperCollins)
The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2016 shortlist in full (alphabetically by illustrator):

Willy’s Stories illustrated and written by Anthony Browne (Walker Books)
There’s a Bear on My Chair illustrated and written by Ross Collins (Nosy Crow)
Once Upon an Alphabet illustrated and written by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins)
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett (Walker Books)
Something About a Bear illustrated and written by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln)
Captain Jack and the Pirates illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, written by Peter Bently (Puffin)
The Sleeper and the Spindle illustrated by Chris Riddell, written by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
Footpath Flowers illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by JonArno Lawson (Walker Books)

About Martina Mercer

Martina Mercer is a FMCG PR Specialist journalist and marketer. She combines her psychology and business expertise to deliver public relations and advice on the consumer journey to many big named brands. Her real passion is writing and you'll find her articles and books all over the web along with a few awards she's won, such as The Working Mum of the Year 2014. She always loves to connect and is always open to new opportunities so don't hesitate to get in touch through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email. Martina is also the editor of Sunday Woman Magazine the luxury lifestyle mag for over 30 women with a brain :)

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