Building Empathy Through 10 Books

I want to be a better person.

I think deep down, we all want to be better people, but sometimes finding tangible ways to get there can feel overwhelming. We want to forgive other people and accept responsibility when we muck something up. We want to be polite and respectful and live with integrity. We want to do more for our communities. We want to be better listeners. We want to make sure our plastic water bottles get into the recycling bin instead of the garbage can.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s a lot to ask of ourselves all at once. Being a better person is always possible, but it’s not always easy. That’s why most of us have a hard time making the progress we’d like to make.

Look, I’m not perfect. I tell my wife that all the time despite her constant protestations to the contrary. But I do think I found my way to being a better person over the course of the last year. I enriched my soul and built empathy for other people in the world simply by choosing the right books to read.

I made a simple goal for myself in 2019: to read as many books as possible with characters who aren’t like me. Each of these YA books gave me a better perspective on all types of people I didn’t know as well beforehand. I’ve been waiting to write this list all year, and as 2019 draws to a close, I hope you’ll add some of these fantastic books to your holiday wish lists. Any of them could make you a better person, one story at a time.

(Click the images to purchase the books!)

#1 “They Called Us Enemy,” by George Takei

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You know George Takei as Sulu from Star Trek, but what you probably don’t know is that as a child, Takei’s family was rounded up and placed in a Japanese internment camp after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans lived a nightmare during and after World War II, as Takei shows in this graphic novel. It is heartbreaking, but it also shows the strength and resolve of Takei’s family as they navigate unfathomable circumstances.

#2 “Internment,” by Samira Ahmed

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Set “15 minutes into the future,” this book is about what would happen if the Muslim ban turned into Muslim internment camps. This book pairs well with the Takei graphic novel for obvious reasons, though as a traditional YA novel, Ahmed shows how frighteningly realistic it is for something like Takei’s experience to happen again. It’s told through the eyes of a teenage girl who resists the camps, and resist she does. It’s a great book, but the fact that it’s so easy to imagine it happening for real adds an extra layer of intrigue.

#3 “Dumplin,” by Julie Murphy

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I’m a little behind on reading “Dumplin’,” which got a Netflix adaptation co-starring Jennifer Aniston this year, but I’m glad I finally got the chance to read it. It centers on a plus-size teenage girl who participates in her beauty queen mother’s pageant as a protest to what the event stands for. It really gave me a view into how this plus-size young woman views herself, and while it’s rife with body positivity, there also are some really vulnerable moments of insecurity. At one point, the main character is stressing out about wearing a bathing suit when she ultimately decides, “As far as I’m concerned, a swimsuit body is a body with a swimsuit on it.” And I love that. How could you not love that?

#4 “Barely Missing Everything,” by Matt Mendez

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Mendez’s debut novel shook me the same way that “The Hate U Give” shook me, but for very different reasons. This novel explores how the dreams of a couple of Latinx teens from El Paso face major roadblocks, in part because of strained relationships with the police. It’s a heartbreaking book to read, but I also can’t remember any book I read this year where I rooted for the characters to succeed more.

#5 “Tyler Johnson was Here,” by Jay Coles

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Coles’s debut also deals with strained police relationships, this time from the perspective of a black teenager named Marvin whose twin Tyler goes missing after a party. His quest to find out (and ultimately avenge) what happened to his brother is only part of what fuels the novel. He also has big dreams for the future made all the more uncertain by what’s happening in his community in the aftermath of his brother’s disappearance.

#6 “Patron Saints of Nothing,” by Randy Ribay

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I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but “Patron Saints of Nothing” was easily my favorite. It’s written beautifully, and as I read it kept marveling at the story and characters and history. The book follows Jay, a Filipino-American who spends his spring break in the Philippines after finding out his teenage cousin was killed. I’m ashamed to say I knew very little about the history of that country before reading, but I learned so much through the book and connected with Jay in ways I didn’t expect. It was fascinating, gripping, inspirational, and educational, all which probably explains why Ribay recently won the National Book Award for the novel.

#7 “The Sun is Also a Star,” by Nicola Yoon

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I’m not usually one for romances, so I probably didn’t “swoon” the way I was supposed to while reading this Yoon’s popular love story. Still, the dual perspective voices were so engaging and likeable that I got sucked into the narrative right away. On the day she is to be deported, Natasha, a Jamaican immigrant, meets Daniel, a Korean-American with loads of parental pressure to live a certain kind of life, and the two immediately hit it off. It’s about two people falling in love over the course of a single day, but it also gives great cultural perspectives into Natasha’s and Daniel’s lives.

#8 “New Kid,” by Jerry Craft

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Technically geared more for middle school kiddos, Craft’s graphic novel about Jordan, a new kid at one of the best private schools in the state, teaches valuable lessons to readers of any age. Jordan attends very wealthy school, but it isn’t especially diverse, as Jordan figures out very quickly when he doesn’t see a lot of other students on campus who look like him. The book is funny and honest while also navigating some really interesting questions about race and privilege, and I got goosebumps toward the end of the book. It’s so beautifully done and might be the most empathy-centric book on this list.

#9 “With the Fire on High,” by Elizabeth Acevedo

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While I loved Acevedo’s “Poet X,” the 2018 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, her follow-up was great for all the same reasons. While “Poet X” is fantastic, it’s a prose novel. “With the Fire on High” is a more traditionally-written book that follows Emoni, a high school senior whose passion it is to cook. The story takes her to a study abroad program in Spain while she navigates being a single teenage mother, falling in love, and figuring out the best course for her future, which isn’t as easy as just doing the thing she loves.

#10 “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life,” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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This book is a work of art. Sal and his two best friends, Samantha and Fito, take turns dealing with inexplicable loss over the course of their senior years, but they have each other (and Sal’s amazing adoptive father) to help them work through grief, love, and friendship. It’s impossible not to feel like you know these people. There’s so much to digest here—all of it worthwhile—and the book itself holds onto some huge secrets that don’t pay off until the very end.

I’d recommend any and all of these to just about anyone, not only because they’re damn fine books all on their own, but because when read together, they give readers a more holistic view of the people they live, work, and play around every day. If you can get to know and love these fictional characters, you can get to know and love anybody. Build empathy by reading books, and you’ll be a better person.

There is no better advertisement for reading these books.

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