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It Happened Over There: Empathy Through Children’s Books

Reading Rockets helps parents and educators address the aftermath of the tsunami disaster with children through reading and books.

How can parents and educators talk with kids about the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia?

In the wake of September 11, education web sites scrambled to come up with resources on how to calm fears, provide solace, and help children cope. This time, the response has been more muted.

The reason for the difference is probably distance. The tsunami disaster happened “over there,” too far in miles (half-way across the world), in time (during winter break) and in space (no personal impact) from the experience of most U.S. students.

Even so, the Reading Rockets staff wanted to do something to help parents and educators address the disaster, but what? We’re not a news or international agency or counseling group, we’re an organization about reading and books. And that’s when we got our a-ha.

One of the best resources for discussing the tsunami disaster with kids may in fact be children’s books.

Using picture books to make a connection

Children’s picture books are not “baby books” that teach the ABCs, but rather richly illustrated and often poetically written stories and tales that kids as old as nine years old enjoy. Found in the JP section of the public library, the books often introduce readers to people, places, and times they might not otherwise experience. The books show differences in setting – dress, language, and landscape – but the stories and emotions are recognizably the same no matter what time zone you live in.

This past week, I read two picture books about Thailand to a group of third grade boys. We had already talked about how Thailand suffered great damage and loss of life from the tsunami. The books we read together, though, have nothing to do with natural disasters; they are simple children’s tales. The one called Peek!, features Asian looking characters, a dog that says “Hru-hruu” instead of “arf arf,” and a lush landscape far different from our own. The game the child and father play in the book is Jut-Ay (peek-a-boo) and the love they show is universal.

Did the boys learn how a tsunami is formed or how many people died? No. But through the picture books they seemed to see and recognize children whose lives are outwardly different but inwardly the same to their own. This is where empathy begins.

Guidance from parents and teachers

It’s important, of course, not to scare children when discussing the tsunami. Parents and teachers should take care to assure children of how rare an event it was and how safe they are. Many web sites for children, such as Time for Kids, do a good job of screening out inappropriate images and news while providing an understanding of what happened.

These web sites make it easy to talk to children about the facts of it all – how tsunamis and earthquakes happen, for example, or where Southeast Asia is located. But from these bits of information, empathy and action do not flow. That’s where well-chosen children’s books come in.

Children’s books are both a timely and timeless resource because of the way they encourage kids to make a connection to the people and places portrayed. They build upon the news and facts by providing a context for understanding who was affected and what was lost. With the guidance of a parent or teacher, picture books can be used to develop understanding and empathy and perhaps the will to help.

Kids who care can have an impact. A child who ties a ribbon around a tree may motivate someone else to act. Children can write letters thanking and encouraging rescue workers. Older kids can talk about what makes an effective donation – should we ship used clothes or send money? – as well as how to fundraise or choose a trustworthy and effective charity.

In the end, neither children nor adults can control natural disasters. What we can do, though, is encourage feelings of compassion and a helpful response.

Some suggested children’s books

Peek! A Thai Hide-And-Seek

Peek! A Thai Hide-And-Seek
by Minfong Ho
Baby knows that Jut-Ay means morning has come, and it’s time to play. But where is Baby hiding? Eechy-eechy-egg! crows the red-tailed rooster. Is Baby near? Hru-hruu! Hru-hruu! whines the puppy dog. Is Baby crouching there? Hornbill and snake, elephant and tiger – who can finally lead Papa to Baby’s hiding place?

The Girl Who Wore Too Much: A Folktale from Thailand

The Girl Who Wore Too Much: A Folktale from Thailand
by Margaret Read MacDonald
Like most young girls, Aree likes fine clothing and jewelry. But she is just a wee bit spoiled and has more dresses and accessories than she needs. So when word comes of a dance, Aree can’t make up her mind.: “Now I can show off my fine clothes! But which color shall I wear?” She decides to wear them all, until she learns that excess can be a burden, and that impressing her friends is not the same as keeping them.

Hush!: A Thai Lullaby

Hush!: A Thai Lullaby (A Caldecott Honor Book)
by Minfong Ho
A lullaby which asks animals such as a lizard, monkey, and water-buffalo to be quiet and not disturb the sleeping baby. Mother’s tender plea for quiet (“Can’t you see that Baby’s sleeping?”) creates a melodious refrain, and by book’s end the mother and all the animals are sleeping. Baby, of course, is wide awake.

The Gift of the Crocodile: A Cinderella Story

The Gift of the Crocodile: A Cinderella Story
by Judy Sierra
The Gift of the Crocodile, a tale from the Spice Islands in Indonesia, offers a colorful and dramatic twist on the universally adored Cinderella story.

The First Rains

The First Rains
by Peter Bonnici
A young Indian boy waits impatiently for the first rains of the monsoon season as his family and the villagers prepare for it.


by Uma Krishnaswami
Through the observations of one young girl, the scents and sounds, the dazzling colors, and the breathless anticipation of a parched cityscape are vividly evoked during the final days before the welcome arrival of a monsoon in Northern India.

The Bird Who Was an Elephant

The Bird Who Was an Elephant
by Aleph Kamal
This cheerful picture book presents a day in the life of a bird who was an elephant long ago and has just returned to its small Hindu village in India.

Aani and the Tree Huggers

Aani and the Tree Huggers
by Jeannine Atkins
Based on true events in northern India, this is the story of a little girl’s bravery. Distinctive color illustrations, inspired by Indian miniature painting, accompany the moving story.

Lily's Garden of India

Lily’s Garden of India
by Jeremy Smith
Lily’s mother has travelled all over he world, and has planted a magical garden for her daughter, full of exotic and beautiful flowers. In her first adventure, Lily visits the Indian garden where the plants and flowers take turns to tell stories of their homeland.

Tea Leaves

Tea Leaves
by Frederick Lipp
Shanti lives in the mountains of Sri Lanka with her mother, Amma, who works hard every day picking tea leaves. Before walking to school one day, Shanti asks her mother for her wishes. “I wish you good luck, and may you be surprised by what you learn,” says Amma.

Recommended web sites

Sites with advice for parents and teachers:

Sites with news for kids:

Sites about tsunamis:

Sites about kids and taking action:

Publication Date:

Written by Pam McKeta for Reading Rockets, 2005. Thank you to Maria Salvadore for the book recommendations and Jess Snyder and Cheryl Collins for site research.

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