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!

The books I picked & why

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The Boy with Flowers in His Hair

By Jarvis,

Book cover of The Boy with Flowers in His Hair

Why 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 Now David – quiet and withdrawn – is losing his flowers, petal by petal…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.

The Day War Came

By Nicola Davies, Rebecca Cobb (illustrator),

Book cover of The Day War Came

Why 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.

How to Be a Lion

By Ed Vere,

Book cover of How to Be a Lion

Why 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.

Baker Cat

By Posy Simmonds,

Book cover of Baker Cat

Why 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.

What Happened to You?

By James Catchpole, Karen George (illustrator),

Book cover of What Happened to You?

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in empathy, refugees, and lions?

5,215 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 72 books about empathy
Refugees Explore 85 books about refugees
Lions Explore 12 books about lions

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like I Like You, Be the Difference: 40+ ideas for kids to create positive change using empathy, kindness, equality and environmental awareness, and Lubna and Pebble if you like this list.