3 Children’s Books That Build Empathy

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord (1984)

Builds empathy for: immigrants, people who do not speak the dominant language, people from different cultures

Shirley Temple Wong’s elementary school experience in New York City in 1947 captured me from the first page. She and her mother join her father in NYC, building a new life from scratch as Chinese immigrants. She becomes obsessed with baseball, identifying herself with Jackie Robinson. I vividly recall her experience babysitting a pair of Irish twins named Seamus and Sean as she tries to listen to the Dodgers game on the radio. As a kid, I didn’t grasp all of the ethnic, cultural, and racial subtexts. But I now realize this novel built my worldview about immigrants: they’re people with stories, and I want to hear them.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Builds empathy for: Black people, economically oppressed people, bullied people, victims of violence and their families

Set in Mississippi in 1933, Cassie Logan’s story is powerful. She and her family fight to keep their land, which is not only property to them, but is also their independence, future, and home. Roll of Thunder examines economics in rural towns where minorities have limited economic options. The novel deals with people being burned alive and lynched, which gave me an early experience of phenomenological grief. Cassie’s story must be read, digested, and remembered for the continued reformation of American society. As I read news reports about community and national tragedies, my heart returns to this book as I celebrate how far we’ve come and face how far we have to go.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare (1958)

Builds empathy for: people of different religious traditions and cultures, non-conformists, the elderly, abused children, people of different education levels

In 1687, Kit Tyler travels from her colorful, native Barbados to a dreary Puritan settlement in Connecticut when her guardian dies. Kit befriends Hannah, an elderly woman who is cast out of the Puritan community because she is a Quaker. Kit has difficulty understanding the nature of her new community, the lifestyle of her adoptive family, and the strange politics of the Americas. Though Blackbird Pond stretches Puritan culture to an extreme, it does not over-exaggerate the (witch) trials of women like Kit in the seventeenth-century Americas. This book is rare in its ability to build empathy for people on the “wrong side” of the story. Speare gives everyone a heart. I learned that oppressed people aren’t the only ones who need my empathy. All people are God’s people, and all need to be heard and understood.


Which books built empathy in you?


Over the Bent World Brooding

Olympia, Washington
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moana, Church History, and Me

(C) Disney

Moana resonates with me. Though I’m from the suburbs, while Moana is from historical Polynesia, we have something in common: a love for family history.

Though Moana could consider the coconut and its uses, list the names of her parents and grandparents, and give a detailed explanation of her role as the chieftain’s daughter, that’s not the family story she tells. In the song “We Know the Way,” Moana discovers that her family tapestry is richer than she realized. After she learns the ancient secret, she runs out of the caves, shouting, “We were voyagers! We were voyagers! We were VOYAGERS!”

When I study church history, I feel the same excitement. Church history isn’t about dry old men quibbling over trivialities. It’s our family history of believers who lived, struggled, and changed as we do. My church experience is limited to my brief years and vantage point. As I breathe the words of history, I enter a larger story. Church—the body of Christ—no longer concerns my liturgical comfort, theological ease, and social satisfaction. Church is an everlasting mystery of unity with the Godhead, and it is my privilege be part of it.

History gives perspective. The latest scandals, disappointments, and cruelties are less overwhelming when I stand with the historical body of Christ. I don’t study church history for convenience, but for challenge. The patterns I see in the lives of historical Christians push me closer to the Trinity, testing my ability to contextualize faith and live the redemptive power of the Gospel.

In the film, Moana’s gifting leads her away from her immediate family for a time. She reclaims her family’s past while providing for later generations. History saves their future.

Through a series of long events, American Christianity developed less historical focus than other streams of the Church. Though evangelicalism has commissioned dozens of thousands of missionaries, made Scripture easily accessible to billions, and seen a huge growth in the family of God, we are losing our family history. By ignoring the past, we ignore our brothers and sisters who faithfully spoke the word of God to spiritual generations that led to our conversions.

Moana offers a powerful warning to those who forget history: we lose perspective, drown in fear, and are unable to face contemporary problems. History doesn’t have all the answers. Yet, history can give us perspective and courage in facing our troubles.

In “We Know the Way,” the ancestors sing, “We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.” We can’t separate ourselves from our historygood or badany more than we can remove our DNA. Let’s learn from the past, ground ourselves in the present, and prepare for the future.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Hebrews 12:1-2 NASB

Interested in digging into accessible church history? Start with online articles, a book on historical devotional practices, and an overview of significant historical events.

How Love Appears

Photo by Mason James Photography

Before I met and fell in love with my now-fiancé, I wondered, “How will I know when I’m in love?”

Maybe it’d be the electricity from the touch of his hand, the fast beats of my heart, dreaming in the color of his eyes.

After I met him, I forgot about that question. As the months became a year, the reveries became a ring. It happened slowly, naturally, without astonishment. I looked back on the previous year and realized I’d fallen in love without noticing.

When did it happen? I can’t quite say. How do I know? I don’t, really.

I no longer feel the shock of holding his hand. I know the contours of his fingers. My heartbeat slows around him, because with him, I am peaceful. I see his eye color in greenish blues and golden sunsets, but my dreams are about us.

Our love happened without fanfare. It grew in the soil of our hearts, was watered with our tears, and blossomed under the sunshine of our laughter.

As L. M. Montgomery writes in Anne of Avonlea, “Perhaps [love] revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music.” As I read the pages of my life, I didn’t notice that they were slowly becoming music, until I looked up from the pages and heard it enveloping me.

When Jesus walked on earth, he didn’t frequently proclaim his status as the Messiah. He let people perceive it on their own. “This is how God’s love has appeared among us,” John writes. “God sent his only son into the world, so that we should live through him.” (1 John 4:9 NTE) Love was sent in the form of Jesus. He stands before us, hands outstretched, voice calling, eyes beckoning. Yet, it is our place to recognize that this love is God’s.

Love is my quietest companion and my loudest defender. It’s as present as my body and distant as the sky. It changes my desires, awareness, and demeanor. Love is appearing, and in its appearing, I am being transformed.

Love is peaceful participation with another person. Peaceful, because wholeness and holiness abound. Participation, because love withers without reciprocal interaction. Love comes back stronger after storms. And love is more than two people fancying each other. It’s fostered by communion. The love I have for my fiancé is possible because of the love I have from God. I am loved by my fiancé because of the generosity of our well-loving God, who mirrors the magnificence of his story in our tiny story.

Love appears long before we observe it. Incidental to us, intrinsic to us, love appears.

“God is love; those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. ” (1 John 4:16 NTE)

Sun Mountain Sitting Big: A Sonnet to Pikes Peak


You rise above the cityscape without

Knowing how tall you are. You kiss the sun

At noon, then clothe yourself in a foaming cloud—

Cloistering mystery like a veiled nun.

Your peachy rocks are like a monk’s brown hood.

Above the evergreen your granite grows,

Freezing and falling, forming a rood.

You are a priest who prays to God and slows

Man’s hectic business with your incense-burning,

A perfumed offering rising to his throne.

Your fire and flood and seasonal sacred purging

Are well recorded, but not fully known.

Liturgy climbs this ancient peak of the sun

To worship the Sculptor, Holy Spirit, and Son.


(c) 2016 Melody Cantwell

Blind Faith?

Pullens Lane

During my bike ride home from the city centre in the late afternoon, the sun was setting through the autumn-scented trees. But this day was different. It was nearly five o’clock, and my route through the forest had become entirely dark. My bicycle’s lights flashed dimly, just bright enough to let other travelers know I was there. But the faint flicker was not enough to light my way.

I was too close to home to turn back and find another way back, but I could not see my way forward. So I kept biking in a calm panic.

As I approached a speed bump I pressed the brakes and rode over the interruption slowly. Wait a minute. I knew that speed bump was there. I knew it was coming and I could tell where the road curved as I approached it. I knew, most of all, the way home. By feeling the road under my tires, I knew where I was and where I was going. Finally, I emerged from the sightless street to a street glowing garish orange-black under streetlights. I grinned as I coasted down the hill and braked at the gate. I’d made it home, after a blind ride.

Søren Kierkegaard can be credited with the idea of the “leap of faith.” Often, this term is synonymous with “blind faith,” which is proceeding based on non-rational optimism.[1] And that’s what my bike ride felt like at first. I was leaping into the darkness on the chance that a car wouldn’t run me over and that I would make it home safely. I had a rape whistle in my pocket; I’d be fine, I thought.

But as I proceeded riding, I learned two things: I knew where I was going, and I knew how to get there. But I couldn’t see my way there. My faith wasn’t founded on an irrational belief that I’d eventually get home after a long, obedient bike ride in the same direction. I had to turn and twist my way through the back roads based on my mental map.

This is faith: knowing where to go and how to get there.

Yet, getting there isn’t easy at all. Sometimes, the only thing to do is stop traveling and understand the road. Everything is dark, but there are ways to find the path without sight. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[2] The things are there. Not seeing them is not denying their existence, but forces interaction without sight.

[1] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume I: A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1982),16

[2] Hebrews 11:1 NASB

Shepherds’ Song

Field Near Puzzlewood

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.

“Christmas II,” George Herbert