Five Empathy reads for primary schools

In this blog post I introduce you to 4 picture books with empathy themes and one short chapter book, all of which would make an excellent edition to any primary school library. Three of the titles are in Empathy Lab’s 2024 selection.


The Girl Who Became a Fish

  • By Polly Ho-Yen, illustrated by Sojung Kim-McCarthy

What a gem of a book, I can see there are many reasons why this short chapter book was chosen for the Empathy Lab 2024 primary school collection. It explores moving house, being afraid, changing family circumstances and being brave and discovering that you can deal with new situations. 


Ita is afraid of alot.


“ She is afraid of talking to her class mates at her new school. She’s afraid her family is drifting away from her. But most of all she is afraid of water. “


The story joins Ita and her family 5 weeks after they have moved to a new town. Her older brothers describe it as ‘Biscuit Town’ because all the houses look the same.


She is often left behind by her older brothers. When out for a walk she looses them, when they rush ahead. She accidentally finds a river, hidden from view by the brambles. Ita is afraid of water and swimming but she finds the courage to put her hands in the water, and discovers that when she does something magical happens, they turn into sparkling scales, rather like a fish.


Running parallel to Ita’s story is her Dad’s. The reader slowly learns why her dad is not at home as much and why when he is at home he is distracted. It turns out this is because he has to take care of Grandma, and this is why they moved house, to be closer to her.


I love how the story captures so well the feelings of all members of the family, but especially Ita and her Dad.  During the story Ita finds within herself the confidence and bravery to deal with her new situation. 


For pastoral leaders, the insights into how caring responsibilities for a family member can impact on the whole family are invaluable. 


Highly recommend for 8 to 13 year olds, and those supporting them. 


Nours Secret Library

Bu Wafa Tarnowska, illustrated by Vali Mintzi

I love how the first 3 double pages in this picture book introduce Nour’s life in Syria before the war came. This is another powerful and stunningly illustrated empathy story from publishers Barefoot Books. 


You learn that she loved to play with her cousin, get delicious snacks from Baba’s bakery, including yellow saffron cake, and was going to set up a secret society with friends. But, then war came.


During the fighting Nour, Amir and their families and neighbours took shelter in Ali’s basement. The reader is gently introduced to some of the hardships of war. From the sweet treats from the bakery that were brought into the basement for the first few days, to just bread once a day and Nour saying ‘her family often went to sleep hungry”.


But, then something remarkable started to happen. When the kids were allowed out of the basement in-between the fighting, they noticed among the rubble; piles of books and started gathering them up and bringing them to the basement. Then Nour and Amir and find an empty basement in a half destroyed building and start setting up a library.  When ever there was a lull in the fighting they would carry books there. Before long the new library, which was open every day except Friday had thousands of books.


There are some great endnotes on Syria and the ‘real’ secret library.


Highly recommend for 8 to 12 year olds.


Speak Up!

By Nathan Bryon and illustrated by Dapo Adeola.

Rocket loves reading all sorts of books and visiting her local library. One day disaster strikes, the librarian hands her a note for a ‘good bye’ party, because the library has to close. The next day Rocket tells her classmates lots of wonderful facts about libraries, soon they all want to help save the library. So they organise a peaceful protest.


Fans of Look Up! by the same author and illustrator will love seeing the protesters wearing orange space suits.  When people find out about the protest all around the world, enough money is raised to keep it open. 


A fun thoughtful story about the power of standing up and taking action for your community.


Gina Kaminiski Saves the Wolf

By Craig Barr-Green and Francis Martin 

An imaginative re-telling of a little Red Riding Hood, which will encourage children to re-write and re-imagine stories their own way. 


The protagonist of the story, Gina is autistic. The reader learns how she perceives some aspects of school life and the challenges this presents. But also how her emotions chart and time out in the library with Anya can help.


After Gina and Anya read Red Riding Hood together. Gina says the Red Riding Hood made 3 mistakes and she then explains what mistakes she thinks she made and how to fix them.


A wonderful insight into the imaginative brain of an autistic child, an original retelling of a classic, which is sure to encourage plenty of discussion.


The Lost Homework

By Richard O’Neil, illustrated by Kirsti Blautyman

I love Richard O’Neils picture books, which explore different aspects of the lives of Traveller communities.  I especially like this one because of it’s focus on how family activities outside of school can be great learning opportunities. 


I enjoyed learning about a traditional traveller wedding, which provided plenty of opportunities for home learning.  These included using a road map to plan and calculate a non Motorway route to his cousins wedding, and after the wedding joining in with the storytelling. I know how passionate Richard O’Neil is about the importance of story to the Traveller community so it was lovely to see him representing this in a story.


On Sunday afternoon Sonny tried to find his homework book, but he could not find it anywhere. He kept being asked to help with jobs, from painting and old wooden traveller caravan, to helping his Aunt make aprons for market the next day. I love how when he told his teacher he had not done his homework, she understood and gave him the chance to tell his whole class what he had been up to at the weekend. Then students in the class joined in with examples of what school subjects he had covered.


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