Instilling empathy: Books that explore special-needs kids, themes


We all are the same: We share DNA and the desire for family, community, prosperity, safety and respect.

We all are different, too, thanks to that DNA and the circumstances of our lives.

Some differences are visible; some are significant. All leave marks, all merit understanding and acceptance.

And so our biology gives us the ability to empathize — to comprehend the thoughts and feel the emotions of our fellow beings. We even are born with specialized neurons to enable empathy, but it must be practiced and nurtured to properly develop.

One of the best ways to do this is with stories, which are magic mirrors we peer into to see ourselves, gazing back through the eyes of others. Unlike Dumbledore’s Mirror of Erised, which reveals the observer’s deepest desire, a story mirror reflects the longings of another human heart.

Picture books

“Be Good to Eddie Lee,” by Virginia Fleming, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Two kids on a summer ramble dodge their neighbor, Eddie, who has Down syndrome, but he tags along and teaches them an important lesson. Ages 4-8.

“The Deaf Musicians,” by Pete Seeger and Paul Dubois Jacobs, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. A jazz pianist loses his hearing and learns to sign. He meets three other signing musicians on the subway, and they make beautiful music together. Ages 4-8.

“Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah,” by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls. A Ghanaian boy born with a deformed leg hops to school, where he plays soccer. Later, he rides a bike — 400 miles across his West African country — to prove “disability is not inability.” Ages 4-8.

“Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism,” by Laurie Lears, illustrated by Karen Ritz. Two sisters take their autistic brother to the park. Julie, loving but resentful, talks about how Ian is different, then uses that knowledge to find him when he gets lost. Ages 6-9.

“The Seeing Stick,” by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela Terrazzini. A gorgeous new edition of the 1977 classic about a Chinese emperor’s search for a cure for his daughter’s blindness and the wise man who lets her see. Ages 3-6.

Middle-grade novels

“El Deafo,” by Cece Bell. This hilarious autobiographical graphic novel — where the humans are rabbits — tells the story of the author’s battles with deafness, her super-size hearing aid, school life and finding a real friend. Ages 8-12.

“Fish in a Tree,” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Middle-schooler Ally hides her dyslexia and loneliness behind a smart-alec façade. Her new teacher sees through it. Slowly, they begin to deal with her situation. Ages 10 or older.

“Out of My Mind,” by Sharon M. Draper. Ten-year-old Melody is brilliant and gutsy, but no one will ever know. She has cerebral palsy and cannot walk, talk or write. When her family gets her a computer, Melody’s life changes dramatically. Ages 10 or older.

“Rain Reign,” by Ann M. Martin. Rose’s high-functioning autism makes her different from others, but not in her love for her dog, Rain. When Rain is lost, Rose must struggle against herself and a storm to find her. Ages 9-12.

“Tangerine,” by Edward Bloor. Would-be soccer goalie Paul, who’s legally blind, moves to Florida with his family and begins to see them in a whole new light. Ages 10-12.

“The War That Saved My Life,” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Ada, who was born with a clubfoot, escapes war-torn London and her horribly abusive mother by sneaking on an evacuee train with her brother. Will she ever learn to trust her new guardian? Ages 9-12.

“Wonder,” by R. J. Palacio. An amazing first novel, told by eight voices, most importantly that of Auggie, a fifth-grade boy with a severe facial deformity who attends a real school for the first time. Ages 8-12.

Related: StoryTime program helps expand children’s inner universe


Special Needs Resource Fair, 2016, Raising Arizona Kids magazine, RAKmagazine, kids, Arizona