The magic of a good book is its ability to reveal someone else’s life, thoughts, and feelings. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, the perfect time to read about the experiences of others, to think about empathy. Here are some books that make great conversation starters about why empathy, kindness, and respect matter.
Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Each Kindness shows what happens when the smallest gestures of kindness are withheld. A new student named Maya joins Chloe’s class and, instead of welcoming her, Chloe and her classmates whisper about her and refuse to play with her.
All of this doesn’t seem to bother Chloe until the class has a discussion about the effects of kindness. When the students are asked to share something nice they’ve done, Chloe can’t think of anything at all. She fills with guilt and regret about the way she’s treated Maya. When Maya abruptly moves away, Chloe misses her chance to apologize or be kind. The book ends with Chloe’s behavior weighing heavily on her conscience.
Each Kindness shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of meanness, but also what it feels like to recognize yourself as a bully. The lush but somber watercolor illustrations by E. B. Lewis show unsmiling faces, sidelong glances, and lowered heads. This is not a happy picture book, but its simple message about the effects of kindness is an important one.
Wonder, a powerful novel by R.J. Palacio, also shows the effects of kindness, but it uses chapters narrated by different characters to let the reader experience the story from several points of view. The main character, August "Auggie" Pullman, is starting middle school and is in for more trouble than most. He was born with a severe facial deformity, and years of corrective surgeries have kept him out of regular school.
We follow Auggie through his 5th-grade year, his first in school with other children. Auggie is confronted with the whole spectrum of meanness at school. But over the course of a school year, many of the children who started out ignoring him or whispering about him end up becoming his friends.
Wonder isn’t just Auggie’s story of growing up; we see changes in almost all his classmates. Chapters by Auggie’s new friends help to show the changes in the other students. From them we learn what the other kids in school are really saying about him and how it feels to be his friend. Despite all that Auggie goes through during his first year, he treats everyone with the kindness he wants to receive and inspires his classmates to do the same.
Kindness seems to be the last thing on the minds of Piddy Sanchez’s classmates in Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Piddy has always gotten good grades and stayed out of trouble, but everything changes when she and her mother move to a new apartment and Piddy has to attend a new high school.
Out of the blue one day, a kid tells her, “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.” Piddy’s life becomes unrecognizable. She doesn’t even know who Yaqui Delgado is, but soon Yaqui becomes the cause of Piddy’s dropping grades and dissolving self-confidence. Yaqui’s invisible but threatening presence seems to follow Piddy everywhere. On top of that, Piddy has to deal with her best friend moving away, questions about the identity of her father, and whether she has the courage to tell her mother and teachers about her bully.
Tiny glimpses of Yaqui Delgado’s life reveal absent parents in a tough neighborhood. But Piddy has little sympathy, especially after Yaqui jumps Piddy one night and leaves her badly scratched, bruised, and humiliated. Piddy is fighting for her safety and her future, and by the end of the book, she learns she needs help from her family and teachers to survive.
The stories of Piddy, August, and Chloe may be a bit painful to read, but stepping into their lives for a short time may help inspire the kindness we all need from each other.
Ruth Gilbert is a children’s librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Nancy Paulsen Books. 32 pages.
Written by R. J. Palacio
Knopf Books for Young Readers. 315 pages.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Written by Meg Medina
Candlewick Press. 260 pages.