Building Empathy through Children’s Books

Empathy, Reading Lists

Books are a great way to provide an immersive experience into the lives and feelings of people we may never meet. And by opening a window into unfamiliar worlds, books nurture empathy for people with lives very different from ours.

Empathy is regarded as one of the most vital life skills for living in peace and harmony, not just within our communities, but even as global citizens. Former president Barack Obama cited  the ‘empathy deficit’ as one of the most disturbing factors in modern societies.

One of my own empathy role models, Harsh Mander, said in a talk, ‘‘We need more outrage, much more empathy and public compassion.”  We need to ask ourselves, he says, has hate lynched my conscience? We need our conscience to ache by what we hear and see around us.

As a children’s author, I’m often approached for suggestions and book lists. In response, I’ve drawn up lists of books for babies and toddlers, books for early readers, children’s books which adults will love, mystery books, and funny books.

Recently, I decided to create a book pack which sensitizes  readers to the  injustice and inequality in our society by giving them a brief glimpse of what it could mean to walk in someone else’s shoes.  Some of the books are just joyful stories set in communities far removed from our lives of privilege. Others were chosen to help the readers question stereotypes deeply ingrained in our minds. Some books deal with gender, several deal with forest rights.  I wanted the books to help spark conversations about difficult issues such as domestic violence, caste, intolerance.

I roped my friend Vidya Mani of Funky Rainbow pop-up children’s bookstore into this project. Vidya helped me finalize the titles by first making me question every choice and then confusing me further by plying me with enough book-suggestions to fill a library (a small one!).

 We argued about whether we should restrict the list to fewer themes and focus on books for primary and middle school children (we did!). We relooked our decision to leave out books on ability and its different shades and went with our feeling that the issue of disability rights required a focus and list all on its own. I enjoyed the process and we’ve managed to put together, as a model, a pack which costs a little less than Rs 2,500 at today’s prices, and which we feel is an essential one for every school and every home library.  Regard this as a basic list meant for parents to draw from and for educators/librarians to tweak and customize.

Though there are many wonderful books on all of these issues, this list abounds in our personal favourites — books which tell a good story and tell it well.

Kali and the Rat Snake by Zai Whitaker, art by  Srividya Natarajan (Tulika): Young Kali from the Irula tribe of traditional snake catchers hates going to school. He is hesitant to open his lunch box at recess time as he is worried about his classmates’ reaction to the food his mother has prepared for him – fried termites. But when a harmless rat snake wanders into the classroom one day, Kali’s classmates begin to recognize how special he is. Kali’s own apprehensions about how he will be perceived is very sensitively portrayed without any finger-pointing at his more privileged schoolmates.  

The Why Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi, art by  Kanyika Kini, (Tulika) Based on the true story of Moyna a young girl of the Shabar tribe. Curious and intelligent, Moyna just can’t stop asking questions. Childlike these questions may be but they also question the inequalities her community accepts so passively. How Moyna manages to change the timings of the school in order to accommodate the responsibilities she and other Shabar children take on routinely – like grazing the goats – and how she finally gives back to her community. Beautiful art by Kanyika Kini.

Boy Who asked Why by  Sowmya Rajendran, art by  Satwik Gade (Tulika)

Deals sensitively with the indignities and injustice that Dalits face. Based on the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Movingly describes how young Ambedkar was forced to remain thirsty on the days the school peon was absent, and there was no one available to pour  water into his outstretched palms. Being a dalit, he was not permitted to even  touch the earthen pot in which water was stored.

For older children ‘Bhimayana’ is an excellent read, supported by the illustrations by Gond artists Durgabai and Vyam.

Mukund and Riaz story and art  by Nina Sabnani (Tulika): Mukund and Riaz are inseparable friends playing in the streets outside their homes. Till the violence and uncertainty of the Partition of India-Pakistan forces Mukund and his family to leave for India under very dangerous circumstances. How friendship transcends all boundaries and how people can remain caring in spite of political turmoil and the narratives of hate.

Kali Wants to Dance by Aparna Karthikeyan art by  Somesh Kumar (Pratham Books)  Kali, a young dalit boy, wants to be a dancer, even though his friends tease him that only girls dance and his uncle warns him that dancing will never earn him any money. Based on the true story of Kali Veerapathiran who grew up in a fishing village, went on to study dance at Kalakshetra supported by his widowed mother, and a patron of the arts, to finally achieve his dream of becoming a classical Bharata Natyam dancer.

Sadiq wants to Stitch by Mamta Nainy art by Niloufer Wadia (Karadi Tales) Sadiq belongs to the nomadic Bakarwal community of Kashmir. Sadiq’s Ammi creates beautiful embroidered rugs. Sadiq has learnt to stitch and sometimes helps his Ammi. But he is expected to tend the sheep and goats. When Ammi falls ill just before an important order is due, Sadiq steps in to help.

Arya in the Cockpit by Nandita Jayaraj art by Upamanyu Bhattacharyya (Pratham Books)

Arya always wanted to fly. She dreamed of being a trapeze artist, a fighter pilot or an astronaut.  In this she is inspired by so many real life women. She attends flight school and becomes a commercial pilot. 

Anna’s Extraordinary Experiments with  Weather by Nandita Jayaraj art by Priya Kuriyan (Pratham Books)  The inspiring story of Anna Mani the Indian scientist who invented and built over a hundred gadgets to measure the weather. The book starts at Anna’s eighth birthday and shows how her fondness for ‘book, books and more books’ enabled her to pursue her dream.

Shabana and the Baby Goat by Samina Mishra art by Roshini Pochont (Tulika) An evocative glimpse of village life with a diverse set of characters. Starting with 4-year old Shabana and her pet goat Kajri. Kajri constantly gets Shabana into trouble by nibbling on Phuppo Jammo’s burkha while Shabana is reciting from the Koran, or by chomping up  Masterji’s books so that he cancels class. Everyone wants to send Kajri away till  Shabana discovers a great solution to the problem.

Behind the Lie by Asha Nehemiah art by   Aindri C (Pratham Books) Valli and Ramesh live under a cloud of fear always anxious about their abusive father’s short temper. The story offers a glimpse of what might happen if communities stop normalizing domestic violence and provide support to women who might be victims of such violence. A gentle and warm story.

Chuskit goes to school by Sujatha Padmanabhan art by Madhuvanti Anantharajan (Pratham Books) Living in the rocky terrain of Leh, wheelchair-bound Chuksit longs to go to school but the rocky lanes and streams make it impossible for her. Till the community gets together to find a solution.

Ismat’s Eid by Fawsia Gilani-Williams art by Proiti Roy (Tulika) A warm and funny story adapted from a Turkish tale. Set in India, it tells the story of Ismat,  a shoemaker, who buys Eid gifts for his family. The backdrop to the story is the customs, rituals and foods prepared during this festival. 

Jadav and the Tree Place written and illustrated   by Vinayak Varma (Pratham Books) Based on the inspiring real story of Jadav ‘Mulai’ Payeng, a conservationist from Assam, single-handedly transforming  a barren area into a lush  forest by planting trees. Jadav is moved to start his tree-planting project when he sees snakes dying on the sand bank of the river. Starting with a few trees, Jadav works tirelessly till the forest once again becomes home to birds and animals, and finally the snakes return too.  

The Forests Belong to Us by Subhadra Sen Gupta art by  Tapas Guha (Teri’s Terrapin books)

With her dramatic narrative flair, Subhadra Sen Gupta tells the story of how women and children saved trees from mass cutting by the simple, peaceful  measure of hugging them. Chipko takes Root written and illustrated  by Jeyanthi Manoharan (Pratham Books) is another narration of the Chipko Andolan, a standout movement which was powerful and effective  in its simplicity. Both books fictionalize the true story of the little girl who first spotted the men with axes and alerted the women in the village. Lovely insights into the life in the Himalayan region and the power of collective action.

The River of Life by Subhadra Sen Gupta art by  Tapas Guha (Teri’s Terrapin books)

The story of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.  Through the stories of two young girls, Kanti and Deepal, the author provides us with both sides of the Narmada dam story.  It also provides insights into the lives of the tribal people in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The Seed Savers by Bijal Vaccharajani  art by  Jayesh Sivan (Pratham Books) The wonderful story of a group of women farmers who come up with an idea of a Seed Bank where the seeds of cotton, paddy, millet and other crop are banked. These seeds can be ‘withdrawn’ and then ‘returned’. Inspired by a real-life event, this heartwarming story underlines the power of community action and the creative solutions rural folk can devise.

Three essential collections of stories are:

 A Clear Blue Sky – Stories on Conflict and Peace (Puffin) With stories by some of our best-loved Indian writers ranging from Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Manjula Padmanabhan, Poile Sengupta, Rohini Chowdhury, Adithi Rao, Asha Nehemiah. This anthology deals with wide ranging issues from communal riots, religious intolerance, to caste divide and moral policing.

Invisible People by Harsh Mander (Duckbill) The book is a collection of true stories from an India which few of us will ever encounter. Harsh Mander explains in his foreword that his books  chronicles ‘memories of begrimed city pavements and demolished slums. Of hunger and stolen childhoods. Of life within and beyond prison walls. Of hate in the air and blood on the streets. Of stigmatized castes.’

Sorry Best Friend (Tulika) Shorter stories  with a fantastic list of contributors: Zai Whitaker , Shama  Futehally, Githa Hariharan, Swapna Dutta.  The story ‘The Lights Changed’ by Poile Sengupta remains an all-time favourite of mine. While the stories speak of conflict, suspicion and diviseness –they also hold out hope!

One nice way to use the individual stories from these anthologies is to read them  and then throw them open to discussion. What would you have done in the protagonist’s place? Can you think of another way this problem could have been resolved or this conflict defused? Could you tell this same story from another point of view?

Listen with your heart to the children’s responses and discourage judgmental behaviour.

© Asha Nehemiah