5 Quick Reads: Empathy Training

5 Quick Reads: Empathy Training

The Good Doctors are both firm believers in the adage that the best leaders are readers, and we take it to heart! Both of us can frequently be found with Kindles in hand, both for relaxation and enrichment. I (Dr. Donnelly) have recently been on a historical fiction kick and have delighted in learning about people I’ve never heard of, but who were instrumental in shaping the world somehow.

This is also how I stumbled on some excellent middle grade/YA reads this past week – graphic and prose novels both – that helped me understand both populations and historical events in new ways. As one of the keys to resilient leadership is to be empathetic and emotionally intelligent, I wanted to offer a few quick recommendations to our readers! (Special thanks to Kari O’Brien Baumann, a middle school librarian in Greensboro, NC, for her guidance in choosing titles.)


El Deafo by Cece Bell


A fabulous graphic novel about a girl who becomes deaf after a bought with meningitis and how she navigates elementary school with the help of a handy device to enhance her hearing. The book explores senses of belonging, barriers to friendships that always happen in childhood, how to use your difference as your super power, and the magic of the Phonic Ear. It’s autobiographical, and the author’s note at the end is a great gift to understand the depth of the story. Additionally, if you have no interaction with the deaf community, I’d encourage you to check out the documentary “Through Deaf Eyes”, which premiered on PBS in 2007 and I saw on Netflix a few years after that. I learned so much about the layers of this community, of which I had no exposure to prior. El Deafo is a fabulous quick introduction, but I hope it entices you to more of a deep dive.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Told in free-form prose poetry, Brown Girl Dreaming deserves every award it was nominated for. I am not a particular fan of this style of writing, so this was more of a disciplined read for me than it will be for others, but the payoff is fantastic.

Here’s the summary from IndieBound, which puts it far better than I could: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become. I got this (and all of these reads, actually) from my local library, so I can’t encourage you enough to head to yours and check out this book.


American Born Chinese by Gene Lene Yang


Another graphic novel, this time about a first generation American born to Chinese parents and how he navigates definitions of self and experiences in his elementary school. The art is gorgeous, which helps move this tale along. It’s three different stories that all dovetail at the end – a fable about a monkey king, the story of the titular character, and the tale of an American boy who hates it when his Chinese cousin comes to visit. How they all play together is fascinating and satisfying – reminding us that myths contain truths that facts cannot.


Undefeated Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin


Did you know that Native Americans helped perfect the forward pass in football? Me neither! Did you know that Pop Warner was a person and not just the equivalent of Little League for football? Me either! Did you know that Olympian Jim Thorpe was, himself, a Native American? Me either! Good news for all of us, Steve Sheinkin wrote a fabulous book to educate us on all of this and more. Telling many stories through the lens of the football team of the Carlisle Industrial School (read: where Native American children were sent to become Englishized), Sheinkin puts the balance perfectly at narration and education. Highly recommended for any fan of sports or history – this is a story that should be as known as the storied legacy of Lombardi.


Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka


I nabbed an advance review copy of this through a colleague, so know it’s not out until October 9. However, I say you pre-order it now. The story of a boy raised by his grandparents after his parents are off the scene. His mother is a heroin addict – in and out of more rehabs than anyone can keep track of – and his father is a mystery. This graphic novel explores being raised by people who love you, but having the blood of people who may not, and how scourge of addiction is never a solitary disease. I feel pretty strongly that as much as we’re talking about addiction in this country at the moment, it’s not enough. If you are one of the rare folks who have no relationship with this disease first hand, Hey, Kiddo is a good stop on your empathy education.


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