“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character.
These are the qualities that define us as human beings,
and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”
— RJ Palacio, Wonder —
A few weeks ago, the movie Wonder released in theaters around the world. Based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder introduces us to August “Auggie” Pullman, a fictional 10-year old boy born with rare facial deformities. After years of homeschooling and nearly 30 facial surgeries, Auggie will attend fifth grade at a public school for the first time. Auggie is accustomed to stares and insensitive comments from strangers, and at first, Auggie is indeed ostracized and bullied by his peers. But Auggie perseveres and over time, he makes new friends.
Some of our fifth grade students here at WISS read Wonder earlier this school year. My son Jonathan was one of those fifth graders. He loved the book and really connected with Auggie on a personal level. As a mom, I was thrilled when I found out that his class would start the year with Wonder. I have for years said that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if everyone read Wonder. When you read it, you can’t help but feel Auggie’s pain and triumphs right along with him. If everyone read this book, I reasoned, compassion and empathy would surely follow.
Two fifth grade classes, Red and Green, recently had the opportunity to read Wonder. When I asked why the teachers chose to teach Wonder, Ms. Lucy King from Grade 5 Red said, “I feel like Wonder makes me more compassionate. Every time I read it, it reminds me of just how challenging it is to be 11 years old and figuring out what kind of person you want to be.”
In a 2010 study, psychologist Raymond A. Mar and others examined the effects reading stories has on the empathy of young children. According to Mar, empathy is best-learned when we are young. The study concluded that “the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others” (Zaki). The same study also concluded that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic (Zaki). It seems that as we grow older, faced with pressures of careers, finances, family, time-management, and stress, our personal struggles lead us to turn inward, which may erode our ability to empathize with the struggles those around us.
In her article, “Children and Empathy: Reading to Learn Empathy,” Kylie Rymanowicz writes, “When children read stories, they are given the opportunity to understand the story from the perspective of the characters.” By reading about other points of view, readers are encouraged to think about how they would feel if they were in that character’s shoes. They can see what the characters who struggle need, as well as what other characters do (or do not do) to help someone who faces difficulty. Readers experience how the actions of the characters affect one another, either positively or negatively.
When selecting books that teach empathy and kindness, teachers, librarians, and parents should look for titles that offer diverse characters who take risks to help others. Stories told from different characters’ perspectives help students see that there is more than one side to every story. Over and over, WISS students I interviewed talked about how they loved Wonder because they could identify with Auggie. Charles in Grade 8 read Wonder just last year, and he told me, “The book was very deep. How Auggie was treated in school was really sad at the end. It really touched me and was very emotional.”
Luka from Grade 5 Green says she also connected emotionally with August. Luka says, “I liked Wonder because I could connect with Auggie. It was powerful for a child to go through so much just because of his looks. We should judge people by their attitude. August goes through so much because he was born with the condition he has.”
When readers can put themselves in the place of another person, when they connect so well with a character that they experience the character’s emotional pain as if it were their own…that’s when our young people, tomorrow’s leaders, learn how to be kind and compassionate. Ellie, also in Ms. King’s fifth grade class, tells me that “The other students started feeling bad for Auggie because they knew how Auggie felt. But Julian, a boy who bullies Auggie, doesn’t understand Auggie. He isn’t there to understand how Auggie feels.”
Thankfully, Wonder is not the only book that helps cultivate compassion in readers. The fifth graders I spoke with recommended some other titles that can help build empathy and make the world a kinder place. I have included their recommendations with this article. The WISS Library team also put together a list of books available in our library that will help our leaders of tomorrow practice kindness, caring, and compassion.
Rymanowicz, Kylie. “Children and Empathy: Reading to Learn Empathy.” Michigan State University Extension. Published 3 April 2017. Accessed 29 Nov 2017. http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/children_and_empathy_reading_to_learn_empathy
Exposure to Media and Theory-of-Mind Development in Preschoolers. R. Mar, J. Tackett and C. Moore in Cognitive Development, Vol. 25, pages 69–78; 2010.
Zaki, Jamil. “What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic.” Scientific American, 11 Jan. 2011, www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/
Books recommended by Ms. King’s class:
Chmakova, Svetlana. Awkward. JY, 2015.
Chmakova, Svetlana. Brave. JY, 2017.
Dahl, Roald. The BFG. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. Puffin, 1982.
DuPrau, Jeanne. Books of Ember (series). Yearling, 2003-2008.
Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet (series). Graphix, 2008-2016.
Riggs, Ransom. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (series). Quirk, 2011-2015.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter (series). Scholastic, 1997-2007.
Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. HarperCollins, 1964.
Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events (series). Scholastic, 1999-2006.
Walliams, David. Billionaire Boy. HarperCollins, 2010.
Recommended by WISS Librarians:
Bell, CiCi. El Deafo. Harry N. Abrams, 2014.
Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. The War That Saved My Life. Dial, 2015.
Cooper, Helen. Pumpkin Soup. Square Fish, 2005.
Elvgren, Jennifer. The Whispering Town. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2014.
Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. HMH Books for Young Readers, 1944.
Hoffman, Mary. The Color of Home. 2002.
Klassen, Jon. We Found a Hat. 2016.
Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad Are Friends. HarperCollins, 1970.
Oskarsson, Barour. The Flat Rabbit. 2014.
Palacio, R.J. We Are All Wonders. 2017.
Palacio, R.J. Wonder. Knopf Books, 2012.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Each Kindness. 2012.
Boyne, John. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. David Fickling Books, 2006.
Chmakova, Svetlana. Brave. JY, 2017.
Erskine, Katherine. Mockingbird: (Mok’ing-bûrd). Scholastic, 2010.
Hunt, Lynda Mulally. Fish in a Tree. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1060.
Leyson, Leon. The Boy on the Wooden Box. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Ember, 1993.
Morpurgo, Michael. War Horse. Scholastic, 1982.
Polacco, Patricia. Pink and Say. Philomel, 1994.
Reynolds, Jason. Ghost. Atheneum/Caitlyn Douhy Books, 2016.
Sones, Sonya. Saving Red. HarperTeen, 2016.
Sonnichsen, A.L. Red Butterfly. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Stone, Tamara Ireland. Every Last Word. Disney-Hyperion, 2015.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pocket Books, 1999.
Grande, Reyna. The Distance Between Us. Atria Books, 2012.
Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. Riverhead Books, 2003.
Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. Penguin, 2001.
Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. Knopf, 2015.
Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor and Park. St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
Sepetys, Ruta. Salt to the Sea. Philomel, 2016.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishing, 2010.
Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. Balzer + Bray, 2017.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wong, 1958.