Top Texts for April

Miranda McKearney of EmpathyLab selects texts that enable children and young people to develop the skills that build empathy.

The Rabbit Listened

By Cori Doerrfeld 

Taylor spends ages building a wonderful tower of wooden bricks, only to have it knocked down by a flock of marauding birds. Lots of creatures try to console him, offering all sorts of suggestions that feel both irritating and irrelevant. The bear suggests shouting about it angrily and the elephant suggests remembering exactly how the tower was made. Only the rabbit helps – creeping close, giving Taylor a hug, listening to a rant without interrupting, sticking close until Taylor feels able to imagine moving forwards.

At EmpathyLab we’re always on the look-out for superb quality, non-didactic books which help develop some very specific empathy skills. Listening well is a key aspect of empathy, so we were thrilled to discover The Rabbit Listened, a picture book written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld, from Scallywag, a small press.

The book is beautifully written and illustrated, with clever use of layouts leaving plenty of white, reflective space. The sparse text and expressively illustrated rabbit combine to illuminate the healing effect of really being listened to and understood. The rabbit is brilliant at being still and quiet, and concentrating 100% on what Taylor is experiencing. Unlike the other animals, she refrains from offering advice, solutions and opinions .

We feature The Rabbit Listened heavily in EmpathyLab’s special listening focus for Empathy Day on 9 June. The Schools Toolkit for the Day has a section with a fun Listening Switch exercise, an audit to help children assess and break down their listening skills and an Empathy Listening voucher. Schools can get the Toolkit by emailing or

Two Sides

By Polly Ho-Yen, illustrated by Binny Talib

 Perspective-taking is an important ingredient in empathy. But it can be hard for children to realise and accept that other people experience the world differently, and that this different take is equally as real, and valid.

Two Sides tells the story of two small girls, Lula and Lena, firm best friends until a massive falling out. Their experience and perspectives are cleverly juxtaposed using different type faces for each first-person voice, and through Binny Talib’s illustrations. We hear their anguish and their anger and see how the misunderstanding has arisen.

Research shows that the discussion arising from a book can have a powerful influence on cognitive empathy, and Two Sides is a rich resource for exploring how different people are. Skilfully used, it can play a helpful role in explaining perspective-taking to younger children.

It’s also just a great read (I’m a massive Polly Ho-Yen fan), with great production values – a pleasing, chunky feel to it, with lovely paper and cleverly designed double page spreads. 

Everything All at Once

By Steven Camden

Exploring empathy through books comes naturally in a primary school setting, but is harder in a secondary school, where each teacher is with a pupil for much less time, and where literature is a smaller part of the curriculum. So the choice of books is critical, and Steven Camden’s debut poetry collection for teenagers, Everything all at Once, is an absolute must.

The poems cover a week in the life of a secondary school, where everything happens all at once – “it’s a war zone; it’s a haven”.They make a perfect springing-off point for an honest exploration of the tumultuous feelings young people may experience, including the hunger for quiet which makes detention a pleasure, and the science block toilets a place of refuge.

Camden is a spoken word artist, a rapper, and the vibrantly drawn conversations have a springy rhythm to them, like It’s Complicated, one of several poems about the confusion of early attraction, and the swirl of urgent rumours.: “Shauna said that/ Leia said that/ Jordan said it’s over”

I’m especially fond of First Day, a poem we use in EmpathyLab work on the transition to secondary school. It ends: “I feel like a mouse/ stepping into the jungle/ Tell my mum that I love her / I’m going inside.”

The book won the 2019 Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award (CLiPPA), and there are some great videos here.

Don’t miss this one. It’s superb for empathy-focused work with young people. 


About this month's reviewer

Miranda McKearney is the founder of EmpathyLab, which harnesses the power of stories to build empathy skills and understanding. She previously founded The Reading Agency, and in 2014 thought she was retiring to go trekking. But she was fascinated by the neuroscience research showing that reading can build real-life empathy, and with four fellow EmpathyLab founders has been exploring the practical implications.EmpathyLab has now developed three main programmes: an annual Read For Empathy collection; a national Empathy Day in early June; Empathy Explorers, a whole-school, year-round empathy schools programme. More details at; @EmpathyLabUK @MirandaMcK Miranda has a background in marketing and developing literature-based programmes, the best known being the Summer Reading Challenge in libraries. Before founding The Reading Agency, she had many happy years promoting the Carnegie Medal and helped found the shadowing scheme. She is a ferocious reader and walker, and a trustee of the Jane Austen House.