Building Empathy through Children's Books


          Developing empathy, reducing impulsiveness, improving decision-making even when upset – these are all social and emotional skills that children build slowly, with lots of help from caring adults.




Locally, the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board provides the Second Step program to schools and child care programs where children can work on these skills in an environment that’s fun and interactive.



          “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst, one of the books used in the program, is a classic picture book with a memorable first line: “Last night I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink when the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”



          Poor Alexander! Adults see the humor in Alexander’s dramatic storytelling, but both kids and adults can relate to how he feels. And what does he do about all the bad things that happen? After threatening repeatedly that he’s moving to Australia, Alexander goes to bed and waits for things to get better. Not a bad strategy on a day when the stars are aligned against you!



          Like the best books about human emotions, this one works well as a story, but Alexander’s situation can also prompt some family discussion about how we handle bad days of our own, whether adults or kids.



          With Papa out of work and no one asking Mama to make dresses any more, Lydia Grace Finch is sent to her uncle in the city until times get better. Sarah Stewart’s “The Gardener” tells this Depression-era story in letters from Lydia to her family, while David Small’s ink and wash drawings are a marvel of color and page design.



          The loneliness and apprehension Lydia Grace feels at leaving the country for the gray, forbidding city are fully expressed in a wordless double page spread. The girders and vertical lines of the enormous train station almost dwarf little Lydia Grace, an oasis of color tucked into one corner of the page. Her uncle is a dour man who doesn’t smile, but Lydia Grace plans a surprise for him – a rooftop garden she creates with help from the neighborhood.



          Lydia Grace’s story, complete with a well-earned happy ending, will reassure children facing their own hard times or dealing with adults who don’t easily express their feelings.



          Anyone who’s ever been called names will empathize with the hero of Helen Lester’s “Hooway for Wodney Wat.” Not only can Rodney Rat not pronounce his r’s, but he’s a rodent – a wodent – to boot. The other kids at school taunt him by asking him questions that force him to say things like “A twain twavels on twain twacks.”



          Life for shy, miserable Wodney changes forever the day Camilla Capybara barges into the classroom and proves herself to be bigger and meaner than anyone else. What will she do when Wodney is picked to lead the class in Simon Says?



          Wodney’s speech impediment proves a blessing in disguise when literal-minded Camilla does exactly what he says – ending with a march into the sunset and out of their lives when Wodney commands, “Go west!” at the end of the game.