The definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like welling up at a friend’s sadness or being moved to tears by the difficulties facing the protagonist in your favourite story. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes.
Although empathy and altruism are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behaviour. However, compassion or kindness is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.
For a while now, random acts of kindness have been big news, with many books and platforms lauding the benefits of being kind and compassionate in your actions. It is heart warming to see people responding to this call for kindness. Whether it be carefully considering shopping choices to lessen the impact on our environment, giving to charity, or making our gardens insect friendly, there seems to be a rallying call, nudging us to explore compassion from all angles and to relish the opportunity to act in the service of others.
As a supply teacher I travel to lots of different schools, many who have core values such as resilience, perseverance and honesty. But increasingly, I also see kindness and compassion being added to these lists. In these tumultuous times perhaps we are realising that approaching people and things in our lives are ill served by anything other than kind words, understanding and love. Only through working together, valuing all and a will to move forward together can we truly affect change. Compassionate acts make you feel good too!
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated By E.B Lewis
When I asked Twitter for recommendations of picture books about kindness, this was the first to come back. I am sad to say I had never heard of it, even though I am a teacher and have read a picture book every day of my 24 year career, (Yikes, how time flies!) I am reminded how many wonderful stories are out there, and as an author, how lucky you are when someone finds yours!
When Maya moves to a new school, she is teased and ignored by her peers. She doesn’t have the cool toys the other kids have and Woodson skilfully portrays the fact that Maya’s family are experiencing financial hardship. The children call her, ‘Never New.’ Chloe, the narrator, is also guilty of this behaviour. The bullying continues until Maya moves school. After being taught about kindness in class, Chloe begins to feel guilty and wants the opportunity to be kind to Maya but it is too late.
I think Woodson’s choice to make the bully the narrator of this story is important – it teaches children that unkind people can learn from their mistakes. Woodson’s storytelling is gentle but with a tone that challenges prejudice and allows space for inclusion and diversity in her characters. The guilt Chloe feels is palpable and the message is clear. I think the gentle rhythm of the story allows Woodson to convey this without it being too didactic. I simply felt the sadness of Chloe’s missed opportunity to connect with Maya and be a force for kindness in her life.
This book would be perfect for generating discussion in PSHE lessons and mindfulness/wellness sessions.
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan.T.Higgins
I stumbled across this story in a second hand bookshop recently and fell in love! I always feel slightly guilty buying picture books second hand. As an author you want to support others, but being a New York Times best selling author, Mr Higgins is probably not hanging on every sale like us lesser mortals!
It’s the first day of school for Penelope Rex, and she can’t wait to meet her new classmates. However, it’s hard to make human friends when they’re sooo delicious! But when Penelope gets a taste of her own medicine, she finds she may not be at the top of the food chain after all and is forced to re-evaluate her approach to making friends.
This book is so funny and I love the illustrations. Being a T-Rex, Penelope can’t resist eating her potential school friends. Her teacher orders her to,”Spit them out at once!” which Penelope does. I really enjoyed the spread of the regurgitated class covered in dino gunk! After a talk from her father, who delivers the line,“Children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.” Penelope vows NOT to eat her classmates. But the illustrations show Penelope perfectly positioned at the bottom of the playground slide, jaws open wide, with some rather nervous children at the top! I also love the image of her finger painting, her subject being a huge pair of dinosaur jaws with a child disappearing inside. Hilarious!
Understandably, the children don’t exactly warm to Penelope! So, feeling lonely, she tries to befriend the class goldfish, Walter. But when she puts her fingers in the bowl, Walter takes a bite and Penelope realises it’s not nice to be eaten.
This book takes a sideways look at kindness through the eyes of a predator. I am not sure we can claim Penelope ever develops true compassion, but at the end of the book she definitely does her best to demonstrate kindness. This book is great fun and giggles are guaranteed!
Arthur Wants A balloon by Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia. Illustrated by Erika Meza
Arthur’s gloomy dad rushes him through the park every morning, through grey and rainy weather. Arthur wants a balloon from the park’s vendor, but Dad always says no. One rainy morning, the balloons magically appear on their doorstep, and Arthur figures out the perfect way to bring the sunshine out, even if only for a few moments.
This is a book highlighting the effect that parental depression can have on a family. It’s a story about suffering but also a tale of love, hope and compassion. A young reader will grasp onto the concept that even in the worst situations, there can be light. I love Meza’s clever mix of black and white with vibrant colours.
This book was also a Twitter recommendation from @Alex_Hamill and I have to admit I have yet to read it ( although it is on order!). However, after the recommendation and reading a blog post on @cjfriess’s website, storysnug.com it sounded so beautiful I had to include it. As an aside, if you haven’t visited Story Snug, I would highly recommend it. It is a great resource for interviews and children’s book news and chat.
Just reading the reviews and interviews with the author of this story brought a tear to my eye. Tragic events in the author’s own life, being the inspiration for this book. Arthur wants a balloon to give to his Mum in hospital but in the end he gives the balloons to his father, (tearjerker alert!) in an attempt to spread some joy at a difficult time. A beautiful book, released May 7th 2020. I wish it much luck on its journey out into the world and can’t wait to add it to my picture book collection.
Leonardo, The Terrible Monster by Mo Willems
Leonardo is a terrible monster. Terrible at being a monster, that is. He doesn’t have thousands of teeth, he’s small, he’s cute and, despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to frighten anyone. Then one day, he meets a nervous boy called Sam and finds out that being a good friend is a whole lot more rewarding than trying to scare the tuna salad out of people!
Another fabulous story form Mo Willems, with wonderful illustrations and an interesting use of space on the page to drive the message home. Leonardo researches to find the perfect victim to scare. He finds said victim, Sam, a young boy sitting all alone, looking very sad. I like the design; a whole double spread is utilized to introduce Sam, crying down in the corner of one of the pages. The rest of the spread is blank, making Sam look very small and his sadness seem amplified.
Leonardo sees his chance and creeps up behind him and gives Sam his best SCARE! Satisfied that he has done a good job, he tells Sam, “I scared the tuna salad out of you!” But Sam replies, “No you didn’t.” The next spread, in contrast to the sparser spreads, is full to the brim with Sam’s stream of conciousness, informing Leonardo that, actually, he is crying because his brother broke his favourite toy AND he has hurt his foot!
Leonardo then makes a big decision. Instead of being a terrible monster, he decides to become a wonderful friend!
Thanks for joining me on a journey into picture books about compassion. As ever, I could go on, but thought I would just include a few other titles here that you might like to check out. A special mention goes to, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. A book I remember coming across many years ago and finding quite heart breaking. Worth googling if you are interested, as I was unaware there was so much controversy around the book and its author, ( far too much to go into here!)
When Sadness Comes To Call by Eva Eland (A book about being kind to yourself during difficult times.)
Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Millar
Tomorrow I’ll be kind by Jessica Hische
Please comment below if you have any favourites to add to this list.