Understanding and Empathy Through Children's Books

Reading Rockets helps parents and teachers address the aftermath of natural disasters with children through reading and books.

How can parents and educators talk with kids about natural disasters like the powerful earthquakes in Japan and Haiti?

Learn how you can help Haitian students affected by the 2010 earthquake in this article from Colorín Colorado.

In the wake of September 11, education websites scrambled to come up with resources on how to calm fears, provide solace, and help children cope. With recent natural disasters, like the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the response has been more muted.

The reason for the difference is probably distance. The Haiti and tsunami disasters happened "over there," in countries that seem — to many U.S. students — far, far away as measured by miles and cultural differences.

Even so, the Reading Rockets staff wanted to do something to help parents and educators address the disaster, but what? We're not a news or international agency or counseling group, we're an organization about reading and books. And that's when we got our a-ha.

One of the best resources for discussing the natural disasters with kids may in fact be children's books.

Using picture books to make a connection

Quality children's picture books — richly illustrated and often poetically written — can introduce young readers to people, places, and times they might not otherwise experience. The books may reveal differences in dress, language, and landscape, but the stories and emotions are recognizably the same, no matter what latitude and longitude you live in.

To help children in the U.S. to understand better what is going on in another part of the world, a good starting point is to read stories about children who live in the affected country. Many multicultural stories and folktales have universal themes — like going shopping with mom or walking to school with friends — that allow a child to connect with children in a faraway place like Haiti. Through the picture books, your kids can recognize children whose lives are outwardly different but inwardly the same as their own. This is where empathy begins.

Some kids have a driving need to understand better what actually happened, and why. Reading together a quality nonfiction book about earthquakes may help lead into a broader discussion about where earthquakes can occur, where Haiti is in relationship to your home, the Haitian people, and how you can help. Historical fiction is another genre that can help a young child understand a current event. Stories in this genre take kids back to a time and place and help them imagine how they might feel if they were in a similar situation. No matter what the genre, the discussion that goes on around the books is key.

Guidance from parents and teachers

It's important not to scare children when talking about something powerful and real like an earthquake. Parents and teachers should take care to assure children of how rare an event it was and how safe they are. Many websites for children, such as Time for Kids, do a good job of screening out inappropriate images and news while providing an understanding of what happened.

Children's books are both a timely and timeless resource because of the way they encourage kids to make a connection to the people and places portrayed. They build upon the news and facts by providing a context for understanding who was affected and what was lost. With the guidance of a parent or teacher, picture books can be used to develop understanding and empathy and perhaps the will to help.

Kids who care can have an impact. A child who ties a ribbon around a tree may motivate someone else to act. Children can write letters thanking and encouraging rescue workers. Older kids can talk about what makes an effective donation – should we ship used clothes or send money? – as well as how to fundraise or choose a trustworthy and effective charity.

In the end, neither children nor adults can control natural disasters. What we can do, though, is encourage feelings of compassion and a helpful response.

Children's picture books

Circles of Hope

Circles of Hope
by Karen Lyn Williams
From Booklist: Facile, a boy in Haiti, struggles to grow a tree on the bare mountainside as a gift for his new baby sister, Lucia. The first sprout is eaten by a goat; the second is washed away by a rainstorm; then a scrub fire kills his tiny tree. The baby gets sick, and Mama takes her far away to a hospital. While they are gone, Facile builds a circle of stone to protect the sprout as it grows strong — a "gift of hope," which is ready when Lucia finally comes home.


by Karen Lynn Williams
From Booklist: The journey to market is long, and eight-year-old Sasifi wants to take the "tap-tap" — the brightly painted bus that is the principal mode of public transportation in Haiti — but her mother tells her that they do not have enough money. At the market the child does an excellent job helping to sell oranges, and her mother rewards her with a straw hat and a few coins. The girl chooses to spend them by treating herself and her mother to a tap-tap ride home.

Running the Road to ABC

Running the Road to ABC
by Denize Lauture
From School Library Journal: A lyrical, freewheeling tale of a group of Haitian children on their way to school. Leaving at dawn, these barefoot students race through the countryside and town to their school to learn to read and write another letter, sound, word, line, and page in the "great and beautiful books on the Road to ABC.

Life Doesn't Frighten Me

Life Doesn't Frighten Me
by Maya Angelou
Renowned poet Maya Angelou's text urges us to face what frightens us, whether it is real or imaginary. Haitian-American artist Jean Michel Basquiat's full-color paintings capture just how challenging it is to be brave.

Please, Malese! A Trickster Tale from Haiti

Please, Malese! A Trickster Tale from Haiti
by Emily Lisker
Malese, a clever lazybones, sets out to get new shoes and he briefly winds up in jail — that is, until he convinces his jailers that it's more trouble than it's worth to hold him there. Bold illustrations evoke the Haitian setting and the humor of one trickster.

Children of Yayoute: Folk Tales of Haiti

Children of Yayoute: Folk Tales of Haiti
by Turenne Des Pres
From Publisher's Weekly:Together art and text build a vision of Haiti, with its abundant vegetation and rich customs. Wry prose explains why cats are always running from dogs and why chickens scratch for roaches. Tricksters, kings, and magic fish appear as well.

Children's books about earthquakes

Earthquake in the Early Morning (Magic Tree House #24)

Earthquake in the Early Morning (Magic Tree House #24)
by Mary Pope Osborne
From Amazon: It's a quiet, peaceful morning in San Francisco, and Annie is eager to start exploring. All too soon, the siblings figure out that they have arrived in this lovely city a moment before one of the biggest earthquakes the U.S. has ever known shakes the Bay Area to pieces! Stunned, Jack and Annie wander the streets, but quickly find a purpose. Lots of people need help transporting goods to safety, and many more are left without any idea where to go or what to do.

A Day That Changed America: Earthquake!

A Day That Changed America: Earthquake!
by Shelley Tanaka
From School Library Journal: Using dramatic material culled from the adult recollections of four survivors, Tanaka re-creates a series of events during and following the great San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. Liberally laced with contemporary photos and some colorful artwork, the book also contains fact boxes on earthquakes, fire horses, and Chinatown.

If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake

If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake
by Ellen Levine
From Amazon: This book takes you to San Francisco, California, shortly before, during, and after April 18, 1906. What would you have done when the quake struck?


by Seymour Simon
From School Library Journal: A visually outstanding book with large, high-quality, full-color photographs depicting earthquake damage. Simplified, yet accurate, nontechnical language is used to describe the geologic processes that cause earthquakes, their impact on people, and some devastating historic events.


by Franklyn M. Branley
From School Library Journal: The simple, easy-to-read narrative describes the causes and effects of earthquakes (including a tsunami) and safety measures to be taken during one.

Jump into Science: Earthquakes

Jump into Science: Earthquakes
by Ellen Prager
From Amazon: What causes earthquakes? Where do they happen most? What should you do if you feel the earth shake? Just follow the friendly crow-in-the-know for all the answers.

Reading Rockets (2010)


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This is truly a wonderful resource or children, parents and teachers I'd love to see this done for a differet country even without the event of a natural disaster. A list of fiction and nonfiction books that are apropriate for small children to help teach them about different cultures and places around the world and ultimately empathy for and acceptance of allpeople. Thank you!!

Thank you for this wonderful list. I would love to see a list where we teach empathy across all cultures and nationalities. Especially for kids on the autism spectrum to help build awareness and empathy.

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