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?