11 Touching Books to Boost Empathy in Teen Readers
by Michel Stone
Somehow my firstborn child, Mary-Eliot, is in her last semester of high school and, after excitedly and anxiously awaiting news from colleges to which she applied, we recently found out that she’ll be attending Wake Forest University in the fall. As cliché as it sounds, just the other day we were snuggled in her rocking chair reading Goodnight Moon and The Little Engine That Could, then I blinked, and we were reading college admissions letters.
During the course of completing her college applications, my daughter was often prompted to reflect on the most impactful books she’d read in high school. Her resulting essays initiated some hearty book discussions in our home. Interestingly to me, the books she referenced, while certainly entertaining and beautifully written, were books that she felt most broadened her perspective and challenged her worldview.
Over the years Mary-Eliot and I have often discussed the concept of empathy, of slipping into someone else’s skin and walking around a while. And now, as my 18-year-old daughter prepares to embark on her collegiate years, I realize my words hit their mark.
Recently one early morning, Mary-Eliot and I discussed what fiction should do. By the time we’d reached the bottom of our coffee cups, my daughter and I had come to the conclusion that fiction at its best examines the human condition. Everyone’s humanity, in all its various shapes, shades, colors, and quirks, is inextricably bound, and fiction worth its ink illuminates that connectedness.
My soon-to-be graduate and I compiled a list of some favorite empathy-inducing reads for teens (and adults, too!):
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s coming-of-age autobiography illustrates the power of literature in a young girl’s life and how books gave her the strength to overcome the racism and trauma she experienced in her early years.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Set during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, this novel follows the budding friendship between two boys who live on opposite sides of the fence of a Nazi Death Camp in WWII. One child is a prisoner and the other is the son of the Commandant.
No Longer at Ease
This novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe illuminates the struggles of a young villager adapting to a Western lifestyle after leaving Nigeria for a British education and a job in the Nigerian colonial civil service.
This late 19th-century novel explores femininity and women’s issues in the American South. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women's issues and is considered an important work in early feminism.
All Quiet on the Western Front
This book describes a young German soldier’s disillusionment upon entering civil life after experiencing the horrors of WWI.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
This is the true story of a poor black cancer patient whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951. Those cells became a vital tool in modern medicine, though Henrietta and her legacy remained virtually unknown until now.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
A coming-of-age story that follows Charlie, an introverted adolescent, through his freshman year of high school.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
A Pakistani man named Changez chats with a nervous American in a café, post 9/11.
To Kill a Mockingbird
This heartwarming novel deals with class and racial inequality in the American South in the 1930s.
The Distance Between Us
This deeply moving memoir explores the author’s childhood in Mexico and the heartbreaking struggles of children who are left behind when their parents head north to the United States.
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