Perspective Building and Empathy: Using Young Adult Books to Make Sense of the Current Events in the Headlines

young adult books

Summer is the perfect time to let your kids explore different books than what they are assigned in school. These book recommendations by Kristen Henry might also give you the opportunity to have deeper discussions with your teenage children about some of the hot topics in the news today while building empathy and maybe even learning a new perspective yourself.

“I cried like I was crying for my own family,” she said before we started our class discussion about the novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Another young man told me he had to physically push the book away from him after he finished it. I could relate. I sobbed at the end of this book. That emotional connection is one of the reasons I decided to teach the novel that takes place in World War II Germany and is narrated by none other than Death. None of my students grew up in a bombed-out German town or had hidden a Jewish man in their basement, but they could still identify or at least empathize with the characters in the novel. This is the power of narrative.

Building Perspective and Empathy Through Literature

Literature—whether fiction or literacy nonfiction—has that kind of power. It’s probably why I enjoyed teaching English so much and love to be in classes where I can witness young people making these kinds of connections. It’s also why I was so intrigued when I heard Angus Fletcher interviewed by Brené Brown on her podcast Unlocking Us on Spotify. Fletcher wrote the book Wonderworks, which dives into the inventions created by literature. Those inventions include what he calls the “empathy generator,” “the humanity connector,” and the “revolution rediscovery.” Essentially, he argues that authors have created plot structures, etc., that allow readers to empathize with those we may not agree with, identify with people we may be nothing like, and relearn something from a different perspective. These are just three of 25 inventions he talks about in the book.

Wonderworks Angus Fletcher literary inventions

To give you a more specific example, he explains how the invention of the soliloquy (where the audience learns the inner thoughts of a character in a play) and the novel (where we can again learn the inner motivations of the characters) helps us identify with characters, like Hamlet or Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, without actually having to be a Danish prince or the daughter of a southern lawyer. In essence, literary creations give us greater insight and understanding. And summer may be the perfect time to gain insight with your kids.

This season offers you and your children an opportunity to explore literature other than what is assigned in class. The books you or your child choose to read this summer could potentially help them understand some of the issues they might see on the news. Rather than a quick and often sensational headline, novels have the power to take you deeper into an issue, to see a perspective other than your own, and show you a broader context you might not have thought about. Novels can make what might look like flat black-and-white topics more like numerous shades of gray.

Young Adult Books that Make Sense of Current Events in the Headlines

There is an immense amount of young adult literature to choose from, here some places you might want to start.

Pancho Rabbit, Enrique's Journey book covers

Young Adult Books About Immigration

Enrique’s Journey (both adult and YA versions) by Sonia Nazario

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario shares the true story of an Honduran family and their immigration story. The book includes multiple perspectives but focuses on the journey, both physical and emotional, of a 17-year-old Honduran boy who makes the dangerous journey to the United States to reunite with his mother. Multiple perspectives are shared in the well-researched and reported tale. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring. I personally had to grab the tissues. Note: I read the adult version, and it doesn’t hide the danger and violence that comes with Enrique’s journey from Central America. You may want to opt for the YA version for less mature or younger teens.

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh

If you’d like to introduce the idea of immigration to younger children, you can try this beautifully illustrated picture book. Here, the young immigrant is a rabbit searching for his father. He meets a coyote (which of course is also a term for a smuggler) who takes advantage of him before he is rescued by his father.

Pancho Rabbit text

Young Adult Books About International Crises and Refugees  

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

The international refugee crisis has been in the news for years. In this book, based on a true story, you learn about the Sudanese civil war and its impact on the lives of families in South Sudan and how a whole generation of Lost Boys survived an armed conflict, some eventually gaining refugee status to the United States. If you want your children to understand the immense struggles in other parts of the world, including the lack of availability of water, this relatively quick read may be a good choice.

Nya’s Long Walk by Linda Sue Park

If you would like to introduce this topic to younger children, this picture book by the same author deals with the struggle to get water and stay alive in South Sudan.

Angie Thomas, Ibram X. Kendi book covers

Young Adult Books About Police Violence and Racial Inequity

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This award-winning novel is told from the perspective of a Black teenage girl who witnesses her friend shot and killed by police. The novel delves into the complicated issues and emotions around police violence, protests, riots, the justice system, and race relations. It is heart-felt and raw. And you can truly identify with Starr, the young woman who tales her story.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds (for adults, teens, or children)

This isn’t a novel, but it’s a great book to dive into the history of racism—though it makes it very clear it’s not a history book, either. This remix by Jason Reynolds (Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature) of Dr. Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is written in young-adult-friendly language (which may initially be off-putting to you) but makes it approachable to kids. I would file this one under rediscovery and relearning. I thought I knew a few things. I know many more after reading this.

For even younger readers, Sonja Cherry-Paul has adapted a children’s version, Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You. On-the-go parents can listen to Brené Brown’s conversation with Ibram X. Kendi at “Brené with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist.”

Resources to Find More Young Adult Book Ideas

These suggestions don’t even scratch the surface of what is out there. You can find additional listings and guidance at:

Additional Listening and Reading

Read More on San Antonio Charter Moms

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Kristen Henry talk with Inga Cotton about young adult books on Charter Moms Chats on Thursday, June 10, 2021 at 4:00 PM Central on Facebook and YouTube.

Kristen Henry is an independent education consultant at KH Literacy Education. Based on her experience as a literacy educational leader, she guides teachers to use research-based practices, be more confident in the classroom, and change students’ lives. Her most recent book, The Intentional Classroom, is a resource to help teachers become more deliberate in their approach to everything from lesson planning to classroom management. Her first book, Guiding Questions, helps instructional coaches, administrators, and teachers learn to have more productive conversations about improving their teaching practice.

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