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Literacy Matters

The Power of Picture Books for Positive Thinking

July 27, 2023

by: Dana Clark

6 mins


Yes, you can teach empathy─and here’s how...

I have lived a thousand lives, and I’ve loved a thousand loves. I’ve walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time. Because I read.” 

                                                                                                                              ─ George R. R. Martin

The greatest gift of childhood is the ability to build a world out of thin air. And the greatest gift to teachers is witnessing this imagination every day. Last spring, I watched first graders at recess hopping across the playground equipment. The ground wasn’t earth but orangey-red lava; one miscalculated leap, and the consequences would be dire. At choice time, a student cried, “Save me!” and I spun around to find a group of kindergartners zooming toy trucks at great speed toward colored blocks, rescuing their classmates from burning buildings. What does this have to do with positive habit-building and learning to be a community?


Imagining as a Life Skill?

Imagination serves our children in play, helping them to test their place among peers, play-act their strength to endure, and experience rescues and happily-ever-afters that life might not have brought them yet. Imagination also has the potential to serve children in doing the “work” of school and understanding peers’ perspectives. If imagination is the key to empathy─and it is─then there is no better way to cultivate empathy than by having children pretend their way through stories. 

These narratives provide endless possibilities for teaching concepts, important ideas, and compassion. Picture books provide a haven for children to think, talk, write, and draw about some of the deepest truths about life. Picture books are also a safe harbor for teachers in the sense that the authors and illustrators have done the thoughtful, delicate work of bringing life’s beautiful and unbearable aspects to the page. 

That said, there are things teachers can do to make the read-aloud and discussions positive and productive. In this blog, I share some key takeaways from my newest co-authored book, Read-Alouds with Heart

Empathy’s First Cousins

As we invite students to imagine what they might do if they were characters in a story, what we are really doing is asking them to think about the behaviors and attributes of empathetic people. 

So, let’s backward-engineer our instruction that will lead to positive habits and wholehearted ways of being. First, think about all the attributes related to empathy you want to develop in students. In fact, together with colleagues, you might even negotiate a list of skills and personal qualities to center your work around as a school. For example,  

  • Problem-solving
  • Figuring out feelings
  • Persistence
  • Understanding other perspectives
  • Cooperation
  • Kindness

This is not a complete list, of course! Nevertheless, it jumpstarts a brainstorm on human qualities and life skills to notice, explore, and discuss as part of a rich literature curriculum.

Step One: Choose Books

To begin, let’s focus on the worlds we want to open for our children through stories. A picture book is a powerful change agent. In their research on empathy and narrative stories, Mar and Oatley teach us that stories offer students opportunities to experience empathy and how “fictional literature brings close attention to distant worlds that would otherwise remain unknown” (Mar & Oatley, p. 181, 2008). Sometimes books offer windows into neighborhoods, cultures, families, and hearts other than our own. Other times, they allow us to see lives that reflect experiences that feel close to home. Therefore, when choosing stories for young learners, we must find books that offer a window to a new world and others that mirror experiences, as educator Rudine Sims Bishop advised decades ago. We must find books that reflect the types of challenges and celebrations that are part of a child’s daily life as well as books that invite them into a new way of seeing and being. After all, “When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities because together they are what make us all human” (Bishop, 1990).

When seeking books for primary classrooms, I often use a mental checklist to ensure that what I’m offering is engaging, authentic and allows my students to pretend themselves into the story. I often use these key characteristics to make my choices:

  • #OwnVoices authors
  • Colorful and engaging artwork
  • Clear images of facial expressions and expressive bodies
  • Characters with identities that match those of children in your classroom
  • Characters with identities that offer a peek into someone else’s world
  • Celebrations that honor different identities
  • Challenges that children can understand
  • Language variety: ways that different identity groups express themselves
  • Authenticity (Avoid books with tokenized or stereotypical characters.)

Source: Read-Alouds with Heart, Clark, Smith-Carrington & Vyas, Scholastic, 2023. Used with permission.

Step Two: Teach Empathetic Reading

Once our shelves are full of beautiful stories, it is time to begin planning our reading. Let’s start by saying that there is no one right way to bring stories to children. Any time students gather to listen to adults lift the story off the pages of a book with their voices, our students win. And yet, when our goal is to use the book as a vehicle for empathic practices, there are some ways we can bring intentionality to the reading. 

First and foremost, know going in that every child is hardwired for empathy. Dr. Helen Riess, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, reminds us that empathy is part of our biology. Mirror neurons allow us to experience the emotions of others to ensure the very survival of our species (2018). We learn by experiencing someone else’s pain so that we can avoid dangerous or painful situations in the future, and we respond by aiding someone in need so that our community might thrive.

Whether it’s to avoid pain ourselves, ensure the good of the community, or simply try to become the best version of ourselves possible, we can all agree that being empathic is a valued trait. So, as we bring empathy practice into our reading classrooms, let’s consider some of the most effective ways to support our students in this practice. We know that empathetic response is most often triggered by attention to the voices and facial expressions of others around us. With this knowledge in mind, let’s consider what might help invite students into the heart of the characters and experience empathy through books.

Set your students up with empathy expectations.

  • Gather students and tell them, “We’re practicing sharing a heart with the characters.”
  • Co-create feelings charts with students through interactive writing and use them to refer to the emotions felt during the reading.

Draw students’ attention to the characters’ facial expressions and bodies. 

  • Point out the images of faces to students.
  • Make your own face reflect the emotion of the character.
  • Invite students to make their faces match.
  • Eyes truly are windows to the soul. Draw your students’ eyes directly to the eyes of the characters in the illustrations. 
  • Invite students to notice the body language and stances of the characters. 
  • Mimic the motions and stances right there in the moment.

Boost your intonation.

  • Give characters distinct voices.
  • Change your voice to match the emotion of the characters during stretches of dialogue.
  • Use your volume to add tension, high energy, fear, or sadness.

Model your own response.

  • Pause at particularly emotional moments and use your body to react─touch your heart, take a big breath, and drop your shoulders.
  • Comment on the feelings of the characters. Use phrasing like, “When they… in my heart I felt…”

Step Three: Circle Up

After reading, we don’t want to leave the learning behind with the closing of the book. Instead, we want students to dive into deep, productive conversations about its ideas. But because such dialogue doesn't always happen, we need tools. One of the best ones to get students to think, contribute, and listen is Circles. Circles are nothing new in the primary grades. Students circle up for greetings, meetings, and shares on a regular basis. Now, let’s consider how we can use the power of a circle, a concept used in Restorative Circles work. It’s simple: Gather students into a circle, pose a question or prompt, and then invite them to contribute their ideas and perspectives to the whole group. 

Our goal in these experiences is perspective-sharing, so instead of back-and-forth, hands-raised lessons or turn-and-talk-type of experience, all students “get called on” and have a turn to contribute. There are a few different formats that you might decide to take. You can try:

Sequential circles

  • Students are offered a question or prompt to consider. 
  • They go around the circle either clockwise or counterclockwise, and each student adds their contribution to the community. 

Non-sequential circles

  • Students are offered a question or prompt to consider. 
  • They add their ideas when they are ready, and there is a quiet space. 
  • Once they are finished sharing, they step back and leave an opening for a new student to join in. 


  • Students are offered a question or prompt to consider. 
  • A small group of students forms an inner circle, and the rest of the class forms a larger circle around them. 
  • Students in the inner circle, like the fish, are the focus. This is where the action is—where students share.
  • Students in the outer circle, like the glass walls of the bowl, remain still. They are listeners and learners. 

Source: Read-Alouds with Heart, Clark, Smith-Carrington & Vyas, Scholastic, 2023. Used with permission.

Circling up invites all of our students to bring their voices into the classroom. This in and of itself─listening to each other’s perspectives─is an empathy-building act. And yet we know that our youngest students may not be able to sit while everyone shares a long-winded response. So, to ensure that our circles stay joyful and engaging, be sure to limit the length of the student’s response. You can let students share anything from a single word to a couple of sentences each, but save the long stories for another time. 

Step Four: Go Beyond the Book

The final step is an invitation to take the thinking you’ve done as a community outside of the book and into real-world practice. The intention is to bridge the world of character with our world. Think about how understanding the experiences of real or imagined people from our books can help us build positive habits and change the way we live every day. 

These invitations can vary in form. Some might be role-playing scenarios that allow students to practice how they might act or react in social situations that are like those experienced by the character in the book. Others can be circle prompts that move away from talking about text and into talking about life. Discuss calls to action that invite students to make positive changes in their own communities. You might even decide to create a few simple class mantras that can help students with the self-talk that leads them in positive social directions. 

Let’s pretend again: imagine that you recently read Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. This book is a favorite of mine because it delves into the need for connection. It invites students to feel Alma’s frustration about her long name and then go on a journey with her as she finds joy in each of the names her family gave her. Over the course of the story, she learns about the beautiful ways her names tie her to her family. A wonderful beyond-the-book experience might be to have a name celebration in your own classroom. Students can write their names on a sentence strip and then decorate the strip with little things that are unique to them and their names. Then, during the celebration, students can share or display the decorated strip in the classroom. There are no right or wrong ways to move beyond the book, but here are a few tips when designing these experiences:

  • Tie the experiences to other literacy learning. For example, make affirmation statements on sentence strips in interactive writing and add them to your classroom walls.
  • Highlight positive ways of interacting rather than talking about don’ts.
  • Think about ways your students can use their learning to create positive change in their communities. For example, they might decide to organize a simple school event or suggest an improvement to the principal.

Resources to Get You Started 

A truth that we often speak is that our job as educators doesn’t end with teaching children how to read. Of course, we want our students to be able to decode, accumulate text, and think about the books they read once they leave our classrooms. But even more than that, we want to support them in understanding more than just books. We want them to understand themselves, each other, and the world that they dwell in. We want them to contribute to the communities that they are a part of today and the communities that they will become a part of tomorrow. 

None of us can do this alone. We need each other to support the lofty goal of teaching literacy and love. So here are just a few of my favorite professional communities that may help guide you on this journey. I know they’ve been constant companions for me:

Of course, I also invite you to lean into the professional book Read-Alouds with Heart, where you’ll find read-aloud titles with reading strategies, circle questions, and lessons inspired by Learning for Justice. This resource can be a place to start as you dream up some of your own lesson work, and it has an active Facebook community too. 

Each book on our library shelves holds a life, an adventure, an experience, and a lesson we can take away from its pages. This is an invitation to use those lives to help students connect with, appreciate, and understand each other. An invitation to teach the whole child.

About the Author

Dana Clark is a literacy staff developer with Gravity Goldberg, LLC. and co-author of Read-Alouds With Heart: Literacy Lessons That Build Community, Comprehension, and Cultural Competency. As a former teacher and literacy coach with two decades of experience, Dana now spends her days supporting teachers from K-12 in implementing literacy practices. As an educator, her greatest joy is working as a thinking partner with teachers as they explore ways to create supportive communities where students engage in purposeful and joyful learning. 



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