The best picture books for teaching kids empathy

Who am I?

I’m a writer, illustrator, and champion of children’s books, with approximately 90 titles published over the last 25 years. I use this experience to guide parents to quality picture books via my blog, Stories Worth Sharing, which aims to help parents nurture and connect with their kids through stories. I can trace this passion back to my childhood. Snuggled in my father’s arms, we’d explore fantastic places together – like One Hundred Acre Wood, Busy Town, and Zuckerman’s barn. Picture books are foundational in developing young minds. These selected titles put your child in someone else’s shoes and teach them to empathise with others.

I wrote...


By Tim Warnes,

Book cover of Dangerous!

What is my book about?

Mole loves labelling things. All sorts of things, Anything really. Then one day, he finds a strange something on the path. Unable to name it, Mole starts describing it instead. It’s a lumpy-bumpy thing. With snippy-snappy teeth! Eeek! Look out, Mole!

Funny and tender, Dangerous! explores the theme, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. It shows how labels can be helpful – but they can also offend and hurt. Kids will feel for the small, helpless Mole and relate to the misunderstood Lumpy-Bumpy Thing. It gently teaches that we are all different – and if we make an effort, that stranger in our midst might just become our new best friend!

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Boy with Flowers in His Hair

Why did I love this book?

This beautiful book blows me away. It’s an exquisite example of a picture book, where words and pictures work hand in hand to tell the story. Everyone loves David, the boy with the flowers in his hair. He’s the life and soul of the class. Until one day, something happens. Now David – quiet and withdrawn – is losing his flowers, petal by petal…

The Boy With Flowers in His Hair speaks to me on a personal level – I’ve overcome depression and recognise that feeling of losing your joie de vivre. Over the years, I’ve also examined the ideas of what it means to be masculine. On both fronts, this book is affirming. And it reminds me to be thankful for faithful friends.

By Jarvis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Boy with Flowers in His Hair as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A warm and powerful story that brings to life a pure and poignant friendship that children will never forget.

David is the boy with flowers in his hair. He's sweet and gentle, just like his petals. But when David's flowers begin to fall - a single petal at first, then every last blossom - his best friend never leaves his side. And through kindness and creativity, he even finds a way to give David his colour back... Beautifully illustrated, this story is about being there for someone when they're at their most vulnerable.

The Day War Came

By Nicola Davies, Rebecca Cobb (illustrator),

Book cover of The Day War Came

Why did I love this book?

Sadly, this powerful story feels more relevant than ever. Inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis, it confronts the reality of war head-on, putting the reader in the shoes of a little girl whose everyday routine is shattered. Because of the subject matter, this may be unsuitable for very young or sensitive kids – but it proves that picture books can be a potent way of speaking to older kids, too.

The unsophisticated language and naive illustrations provide children easy access to important discussions surrounding conflict and misplaced children. Poignant, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting, this story reminds us of the reality of war and that our children provide hope for a peaceful future.

By Nicola Davies, Rebecca Cobb (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Day War Came as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A powerful and necessary picture book - the journey of a child forced to become a refugee when war destroys everything she has ever known.

Imagine if, on an ordinary day, war came. Imagine it turned your town to rubble. Imagine going on a long and difficult journey - all alone. Imagine finding no welcome at the end of it. Then imagine a child who gives you something small but very, very precious...

When the government refused to allow 3000 child refugees to enter this country in 2016, Nicola Davies was so angry she wrote a poem. It started a…

How to Be a Lion

By Ed Vere,

Book cover of How to Be a Lion

Why did I love this book?

Leonard, the lion, knows he’s expected to be fierce and loud. But he’s just not feeling it. Rather than live up to everyone else expectations, he befriends a duck and pursues his love of poetry.

Vere presents boys with a gentle role model and celebrates those who choose to stick up for themselves and their friends. In this way, Leonard’s as brave as any other lion.

This story will affirm those who feel like outsiders and encourages kids to be themselves – and follow their own interests. I love the warmth of this book – from the quirky writing style (which reminded me of Winnie-the-Pooh) to Vere’s palette of hot reds and oranges that depict the savannah so well.

By Ed Vere,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Be a Lion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Oscar's Book Prize 2019

"This witty, resonant picture book is a manual for anyone's life, young or old." Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week

You don't have to ROAR to be heard...

Meet Leonard - a lion like no other.

Leonard's best friend is Marianne, a duck. But lions chomp ducks, don't they?

What will the pair do when their way of life is threatened?

From the New York Times-bestselling author of Max the Brave comes a powerful story celebrating daydreamers, individuality and the quiet courage to be yourself.

"Positive role models showing boys how to…

Baker Cat

By Posy Simmonds,

Book cover of Baker Cat

Why did I love this book?

Baker Cat is like a feline Cinderella, tasked to do all the hard work at the bakery. His responsibilities are endless. And at the end of the day, he’s still expected to rid the bakery of mice. Simmonds’ characterisation is faultless, with a timeless feel that reminds me of Beatrix Potter’s work.

Baker Cat is a funny and dramatic story told through a mix of speech balloons, comic panels, and traditional narrative sections. I have precious memories of sharing it with my own boys when they were young – we loved those tiny mice and Baker Cat’s delicious-looking pastries! Definitely one to read over and again.

By Posy Simmonds,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Baker Cat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All day long the baker's cat toils in the bakery and all night he is expected to catch the mice that run riot in the storeroom. If he doesn't catch any mice, the beastly baker tells him, he won't get any food. Too exhausted to chase after the cheeky rodents, the baker's cat becomes thin and sad and weepy, until the mice take pity on him and together they concoct a clever plan . . .

"Posy Simmonds delights as ever with a subversive story rich in humour and glorious in its bakery details." Guardian

"Anything by Posy Simmonds is…

What Happened to You?

By James Catchpole, Karen George (illustrator),

Book cover of What Happened to You?

Why did I love this book?

The main character in this picture book is a disabled child – Joe. He may only have one leg, but he still likes to play! Dressed as a pirate, he fends off imaginary sharks with ease. Pirate Joe’s problem is the other kids’ incessant questioning: What happened to you?

The expressive illustrations speak volumes and clearly portray Joe’s feelings. This makes What Happened to You? a powerful picture book – it enables kids to step into someone else’s shoes (or in Joe’s case, shoe) and feel what they feel. It’s a fun and tender story that teaches readers not to stare, reminding us that disabled people are just like anyone else, getting on with their busy day.

By James Catchpole, Karen George (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked What Happened to You? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first ever picture book addressing how a disabled child might want to be spoken to.

What happened to you? Was it a shark? A burglar? A lion? Did it fall off?

Every time Joe goes out the questions are the same . . . what happened to his leg? But is this even a question Joe has to answer?

A ground-breaking, funny story that helps children understand what it might feel like to be seen as different.

'A revolutionary book on disability.' Inclusive Storytime

'Catchpole's beautifully judged, child-friendly words ably evoke the fatigue and wariness of repeatedly being asked…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in empathy, refugees, and lions?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about empathy, refugees, and lions.

Empathy Explore 118 books about empathy
Refugees Explore 107 books about refugees
Lions Explore 23 books about lions

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Chance to Fly, The Girl Who Thought in Pictures, and Can Bears Ski? if you like this list.