Reading for Empathy

Books are springboards into conversations about life. Especially for children. Whether it is about going to a new school or having a sibling, books help children put themselves in the characters’ shoes and evaluate their own feelings.

Therefore it’s no doubt that empathy can be built with stories. Understanding another person’s viewpoint, albeit a fictional character, builds those empathy muscles in children’s minds.

Today is celebrated as National Empathy Day in the UK where we bring books that build empathy into the focus of every reader – young or old.

As a reader first and then a writer, most of my emotional skills were developed through reading. My aspirations for the future came from stories I listened to and read. Books opened up subjects like history, politics to me without becoming an academic class. Today I see that in the children I visit with my books. They recognise themselves often in the characters of my books, even though many of my stories are set in a faraway continent.

So I’ve put together a list of books that you can read on Empathy Day from my portfolio that will help create the space for difficult conversations, understanding a different point of view and even taking action to help someone else.

Each book is different – some characters are human and others are animals. And yet, in each story, we learn something about our own emotions and of others. We also see how each character acted to demonstrate their empathy.

In Sona Sharma - Very Best Big Sister, Sona needs to love her little sister despite her anxiety of not being loved anymore. She takes action to become the Very Best Big Sister she aims to be. 

In Tiger Troubles, the Sloth Bear must accept his mistakes to avoid getting his friends into trouble. Every child I've read this book to, understands why the Sloth Bear must be brave enough to confess despite being terrified. 

In the Prince Veera Series of books, each case that comes before Prince Veera and his friend Suku requires understanding two sides of the problem. It requires not just clever thinking but compassionate evaluation of the people involved, and what's at stake.

In the Manju series of books, you will see Manju understand why shortcuts don't actually lead to satisfactory conclusions. In the first book, she is wishing for someone else and in the second book, she realises that helping someone else's wish come true and understanding the plight of the genie, is far better than focussing on her own problem. Of course, the universe rewards her too. 

Check out the other books in the Read for Empathy list too!

Prince Veera and Suku return…

in the latest addition to the Prince Veera series – A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth.

The questions of right vs wrong, fair vs unfair.

My nephews are big fans of the Prince Veera series of books. These stories are reimagined folktales from India and the stories are trickster tales where the trickster tricks for the sake of fairness and justice.

But when my nephew asked me for a new book in the series, I wasn’t sure there was going to be one. And then he said, “But if you make Veera go to Raja Apoorva’s kingdom, maybe he can fix problems there.”

RAJA APOORVA, ILLUSTRATED BY UMA KRISHNASWAMY

Children who read the books know that Raja Apoorva hasn’t been very fair in his dealings when he visited Prince Veera’s Himtuk and hence my nephew’s need to fix the root-cause. His empathy for the people in Peetalpur, the kingdom of Raja Apoorva that might be suffering from his unfair judgements and quick temper.

That was enough to start me off. I pitched four stories set in Peetalpur instead of Himtuk, where Prince Veera and Suku don’t have a reputation yet. Will they be able to offer suggestions, fix problems and bring truce? Will they be able to earn the trust of Raja Apoorva’s court?

THE FOUR STORIES

In these four stories, we go from a fun-fair filled with tricky situations where they laugh, they joke and Suku even comes close to wrestling to the problems within the royal family and as usual tiffs between neighbours.

PRINCESS KANTI, ILLUSTRATED BY UMA KRISHNASWAMY

Suku goes from “the wrong friend” that Raja Apoorva used to think he was to Honourable Citizen. And we also introduce the feisty Princess Kanti and her adorable daughter Heera who loves Veera. Suku thinks it’s because her name rhymes with Veera’s although Prince Veera would beg to differ.

Through their journey to Peetalpur and their return, each story has inter-linked stories in them because every interaction with Prince Veera and Suku is a test – of their character, their quick-thinking and their integrity.

In this book, I also added a note at the back to explain the context of these stories. Many South Asian parents will recognise the essence of many of the stories I reimagined here. This author’s note gives a glimpse into my inspirations for these stories for younger readers.

Author’s note from the book A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth.

Uma Krishnaswamy returns with me in this book with her beautiful art that gives us a glimpse into the ancient stories and yet retain the playfulness of every child.

This book would not have happened without the support of two people – my nephew Isaac who gave me the idea and Mara Bergman, my editor (and an amazing author) who from the beginning loved Prince Veera and Suku and helped me bring their stories to life on the page. A little bird tells me the new title A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth will also come to the US. So watch this space for updates on that.

Here is a video introducing the book with a lot of thank-yous at the end!

Picture Books in India

Farmer Falgu Series

Farmer Falgu is resourceful, and is always positive. He's a glass half-full kind of guy and is unfazed by what life throws at him. There are four books in the series, illustrated by Kanika Nair.

There are also French, German, Japanese and Thai versions of these titles. Check out the Karadi Tales website.

Find out more about Farmer Falgu here.

Varsha's Varanasi

In the first of The City Series, author Chitra Soundar captures the flavour of Varanasi through Varsha, a young girl out in search of her father. Follow Varsha as she skips past the ghats by the river Ganges, and hurries through the narrow alleys of this timeless city. Page after page, Varanasi unfolds through the striking photo collages by Soumitra Ranade. The breathtaking story and pictures take you to this beautiful, ancient, and eternal Indian city.

Where is Gola's Home?

At one time, yaks had no home of their own. But Gola the yak wants a home. His friend Muri the eagle takes him to the sea, the forest, the desert . The concept and the striking visuals introduce children creatively to different landscapes. Along with it are words that go with each scene and add to vocabulary. This book is available in multiple bi-lingual editions. Illustrated by Priya Kuriyan and published by Tulika Books

Balu's Basket

One day, Balu finds a basket. What does he do with it? Come and find out. Bright images from Uttara Sivadas bring the story to life. Balu’s Basket is available in bi-lingual editions. Illustrated by Uttara Sivadas and published by Tulika Books.

Stories are us!

As we enter into 2021, everything’s a bit up in the air. While we are familiar with terms like lockdown, zoom and quarantine, and our children are adapting to this new world, we are also fatigued by staying in, being alert all the time and sneezing into our elbows.

During these times, stories keep us rooted to our past, our dreams and our imaginations. Regardless of the medium, stories keep our hopes soaring high despite the fierce winds and darkening skies. We see joy in unexpected snow, a bird flying past our windows and discovering a long-lost piece of chocolate behind the spice jars.

Art by Jen Kahtun for Sona Sharma – Very Best Big Sister

Children too can find the glimmer of joy amidst the practical rubbles of everyday lockdown life – the story that makes them smile, the book that makes them think, a joke or a song that they can repeat and a drawing that inspires them to draw.

As an author of children’s books, as a storyteller and as a writer who visits schools talking to children often, I understand the struggles of teachers and parents and the hard work put in by librarians to find ways of placing the books in children’s hands.

While it’s impossible to do free video visits to schools or offer all the stories we write for free to the entire world, authors and illustrators around the world have offered their time, energy and their intellectual property to children and their families to enjoy. We’ve all gotten used to making videos, doing school visits online and running workshops to a screen that broadcasts than to eager young people who raise their hands and shout out their ideas.

As an author, I’d like to keep writing these stories and creating more opportunities to share stories, ideas and inspiration to imagine to all children who need it. While I wouldn’t be able to offer everything for free, there are resources I’ve created that can be reused many more times.

Keeping that in mind, here is a collection of resources that parents, teachers and care-givers can use from my bookshelf to yours. Please do use them for free and share them with friends and family. And if you enjoy the story I tell or the workshop I create, do support authors and illustrators like me, by buying our books next time you’re in the mood to read a new book.