Fiction Develops Empathy in Children

Reading Literary Fiction & Picture Books Assists in Empathy Development in Children (& Adults!)

“Young children have limited life experience of emotions, whereas picture books offer vicarious emotional experience that children can partake of with empathy and mind-reading in real life.  Vast empirical research confirms that even very young children understand and respond to emotional dimension in picture books (Arizpe & Styles 2003, Evans 2009, Sipe and Pantaleo 2008).”  –  Maria Nikolajeva, Picture Books and Emotional Literacy

“even very young children understand and respond to emotional dimension in picture books”

“Higher cognitive emotions such as love, guilt, shame, pride, envy, and jealousy are culturally dependent…The concept of social emotions emphasizes that they involve more than one individual. Although many picture books feature one single character, most of them involve at least two, which immediately brings in social emotions…Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie anthropomorphize animals to introduce a wide range of emotions exhibited by the characters” (Nikolajeva, 2013).

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own.  

In studies, people who read literary fiction showed the most improvement on their empathy tests.  

“the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness”

In 2010, a meta-analysis by Konrath found empathy among college students declined between the 1970s and the 2000s, as measured by standard tests for the trait. During this time period, the average level of empathic concern or sympathy for the misfortunes of others declined by 48 percent. Perspective-taking, the ability to imagine others’ points of view, also declined by 34 percent.  

Some possible reasons for decline are;

  • Hyper-focus on personal achievement and high self-esteem.
  • Rise of social media and the erosion of meaningful, in-person connections.

Much has been said about how reading helps build vocabulary, surpass learning challenges, and improve literacy in kids. But research also suggests a very different skill is key to their long-term happiness and success: empathy.

Why teach kids empathy?

Michele Borba wrote in her book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, “the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity.” Borba also argues that “it is an effective anecdote to bullying, aggression, prejudice, and racism.”

Being able to understand other perspectives is an essential gateway to empathy and one powerful way to develop this important skill is through reading. According to Maria Nikolajeva, Professor of Education at Cambridge University, “reading fiction provides excellent training for young people in developing and practicing empathy and theory of mind, that is understanding of how other people feel and think”.  

A study by Carnegie Mellon University goes even further, showing that when people read fiction they use the same regions of their brains as when perceiving action and movement in the real world.  

In a Dutch study, when students read a nonfiction article about an event and then a story about someone who experienced the event, their empathy levels rose sharply.

Reading literary fiction and picture books can help combat the decline in empathy among our children, setting them up for more successful, happier futures in life and relationships. 

To start exploring books for building empathy, check out these two recommendations from our MentorSuccess™ team! 

We’re All Wonders by R. J. Palacio                    Those Shoes by Marybeth Boelts


“I like to read with my mentor & play games. I have to listen and follow instructions. Sometimes my mentor even wins!”

Age 7