Step into 2021 with empathy: Launching the new Empathy Day reading collections

The global pandemic has done much to highlight the need for kindness, supporting others in need, listening carefully and paying more attention to what we see and hear.  While we can’t always fix things, by developing our own empathy we can make a difference in other people’s lives, no matter how great or small.

The Read for Empathy book collections for 2021 launched on 26 January. There are two collections; primary for 4-11 year olds and secondary for 12-16 year olds. Some illuminate the experience of people from a range of cultures or life circumstances. Others help children explore emotions so they can understand how other people feel. Several reflect stories of our time, such as the refugee experience, or coping with anxiety. All are engaging and thought-provoking.

Empathy Collection 2021 Primary School Titles

I was one of the judges working with a wonderful team of librarians, teachers and educators to help select books that we think will help teach empathy, improve awareness and support children and young people to commit to being better human beings.

I spent the summer and autumn reading through a long list of secondary school books, to help arrive at the final shortlist. At times the books were quite challenging and painful to read.  It gave me a better understanding of the difficult periods in young people lives. It highlighted that contrary to that popular cliché, school days are not the best days of your life for all.  To live is to experience real life, and saviours and Samaritans are not always there to protect us.  So the books help us walk in other’s shoes and by doing that, we are able to empathise.

Empathy Collection 2021 Secondary School Titles

A strong theme that ran through many of the books this year was the destructive force of social media or ‘cyber’ bullying.  Bullying has always been a problem in schools but the rise of bullying online ramps up the horrifying effects on victims.  Society’s obsession with the perfect body through online content also serves to increase the loneliness of those who don’t fit in.  Domestic violence has also been recurring theme in many of the titles this years, and this felt apt given the rise in reports of domestic abuse throughout the lockdowns. But, despite these dark themes, all the titles have been chosen for their ability to empower and support readers to realise empathy for themselves and others and so build resilience and hope.

The primary collection includes some beautifully illustrated picture books to share with young children.  It’s never too early to teach empathy.  In the birth of a new and more hopeful year of 2021, let our new year’s resolution be one of empathy, for both ourselves and in our commitment to teach it and lead by example.

From the 2021 #ReadForEmpathy Secondary collection Sarah recommends:


Chinglish, by Sue Cheung
Teenager Jo Kwan lives in a flat above a Chinese takeaway. She dreams big but life is difficult as she struggles with depression, a violent father and bullying classmates. This beautifully written book is an emotional read, offering authentic insight into the life of a vulnerable girl. Borrow now.


Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann
Amber fears her dad and worries about her mum. We share the anger and the secret dreams of a girl living in an oppressive and violent household. Amber’s resilience and determination to lead a better life offer ultimate hope in this powerful verse novel. Borrow now.


And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by
Danielle Jawando

Nathan is 15, and his brother Al has just committed suicide. Agonisingly, he and friend Megan try to find out why. Written with such empathy that we too experience the fury, guilt and grief of those left behind. Ultimately a celebration of life. Borrow now.

Download the 2021 #ReadForEmpathy Guides here empathylab.uk/2021-read-for-empathy-collections

Sarah Smith is the Libraries Development Manager for Brent Libraries and a judge for the Read for Empathy book collections with the charity Empathy Lab UK.

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