Sundress Reads: What Is Empathy: A Bullying Storybook for Kids

What Is Empathy? A Bullying Storybook for Kids is a children’s picture book about social and verbal bullying, which many children encounter every school year.

Author Amanda Morin states a clear intention for her book before introducing a highly relatable tale told, alternatively, from the perspectives of Sofia and Ava. She aims to “help prevent kids from bullying by teaching them to approach the world with a more empathetic lens[,]” and “show your child the power of understanding another’s person’s point of view.”  

In Morin’s preface to caregivers and parents, she provides discussion points adults can utilize when reading What is Empathy? with a child. She also briefly distinguishes tattling from talking to a trusted adult, comments on an adult’s ability to stop bullying, and remarks that you can more effectively convey feelings using the phrase “I feel” rather than the more accusatory “you made me feel.”

In a separate preface to readers, Morin encourages readers to be curious about each other’s feelings and to ask questions kindly to gain a better understanding of another’s perspective. She describes being empathetic as acting like an investigator seeking to understand others.

Primed by these prefatory letters, I expected a story about bullying, told from the different perspectives of two girls, resolved through a powerful tool: empathy. In that regard, the book met my expectations. What is Empathy? provides a springboard for a robust discussion about overcoming bullying with empathy, and Sofia unquestionably learns the power of being empathetic.

That said, I found myself wishing that Morin had incorporated more of the points she made in her introductory letters into the story.

What is Empathy? is the story of Sofia and Ava, who are neighbors and best friends before Sofia’s family moves. Family circumstances prevent them from seeing each other over summer break, but Sofia is confident they will pick up where they left off when school resumes. When Sofia boards the bus on the first day, she finds Ava seated with Madison, a girl who moved into Ava’s neighborhood after Sofia moved away. From the three girls’ first encounter, it’s clear that Madison doesn’t want to befriend Sofia and will disrupt Sofia’s and Ava’s friendship.

Madison is a bully that kids will recognize. Morin uses Ava’s character to illustrate another type of bully – someone who silently acquiesces to bullying behavior, fostering an environment in which bullying thrives.

Telling Sofia’s perspective, Morin conveys how Sofia feels when Madison prevents Sofia from sitting with her and Ava on the school bus and at lunch, excludes Sofia from recess play, and embarrasses her in front of her classmates. Throughout, Ava remains silent, confounding Sofia and causing her to wonder why Ava – the friend she trusted with her most private family secret – no longer likes her.

When Morin switches to Ava’s perspective, the reader learns about Ava’s struggle with feeling insecure about the status of her relationship with Sofia, anger with Sofia for moving, and shameful about how she treats Sofia.

Ultimately, both girls turn to their mothers, who teach the girls about empathy and identify emotions that might be motivating Madison’s and Ava’s conduct.

Morin is successful in showing the girls’ perspectives in a way that makes readers feel empathetic for both girls. But I wanted more guidance from the adult characters and for the kids to communicate more about their feelings. Morin’s prefatory letters prepared me to expect inquisitive characters that not only wonder, but ask, about others’ feelings. When Sofia and Ava were guessing whether certain feelings were motivating theirs and Madison’s behavior, I wondered: If Morin is trying to encourage readers to ask questions, why not use the characters to demonstrate that desired behavior?

I also questioned Morin’s decision to make Sofia the most empathetic character in the book. My spidey-sense warned: tread carefully here. Certainly, empathy can help a child better understand a bully and diffuse the impact of bullying. And, I worried that a young reader might think that the onus is on the bullied to question what is motivating the person mistreating her and to tolerate hurtful behavior. As Morin notes in her Letter to Readers, bullying is never okay, and being kind to someone does not mean you should let them bully you.

A quick review of Morin’s introductory letters reminded me that Morin intends an adult to read and discuss this book with a child. A thoughtful adult can easily address the issues Morin raises in her preface — but omits from the story — by asking listeners how the characters could have handled the situation differently and what questions they could have asked one another. Perhaps most importantly, an adult can restate that talking with a trusted adult is always a good idea.

If you are looking for a relatable story about bullying that will engage a younger audience, What is Empathy? belongs on your reading list.

What is Empathy? A Bullying Storybook for Kids can be found here.

Natalie Metropulos is working concurrently on a middle-grade fiction chapter book and a nonfiction picture book series about wildlife photography. She holds a B.A. in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a J.D. from Duquesne University and is pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Metropulos has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine.