How to Teach Empathy to Kids: Dragon Night by J. R. Krause
Real empathy needs nurturing. Despite what your kids might think, kindness is much more than the absence of meanness, and empathy is much more than saying sorry if you hurt someone’s feelings. Those are certainly good stepping stones on the path to being a kind human being and a good friend, but I sincerely hope my children always try to take their consideration of others to the next level. I hope their compassion always leads them to take the extra step to help those around them, and to reach out when someone needs a friend.
Disclosure: This is the second part of our series How to Teach Empathy to Kids - a collaboration with Penguin Young Readers. A copy of the book Dragon Night was provided to us to allow us to create this series of articles. All thoughts and recommendations are our own.
Friendship is very powerful stuff. Just having one good friend can make all of the difference in someone’s life. Since being a teacher I’ve become incredibly sensitive to the importance of companionship in a kid’s life. And feeling left out and lonely is a concept that always hurts me to hear and see. Last year I was very inspired by Trudy Ludwig’s picture book The Invisible Boy, and I now constantly ask my son if he thinks there are any invisible kids in his class.
Dragon Night by J. R. Krause is a beautiful, new picture book about friendship - and about taking care of each other. And there are many reasons I’m very excited to add it to our collection of books. It checks the boxes of many of my personal favorite themes: fantasy, fear, friendship, kindness, empathy, creativity, and imagination. Every once in a while it feels like a book was made just for us, and this is definitely one of those times.
On top of that avalanche of themes that I love, Krause is an award-winning animator who has worked on both The Simpsons and Futurama. It’s definitely a huge boost to the aura of this picture book to be able to say that - I always love tying some of my favorite things together. But the beautiful art in this book is truly unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s very distinctive in its use of color and very dreamlike.
Dragon Night begins in a dark bedroom with a young boy who is scared of the dark. I’m not going to lie, I’m partial to stories that tackle fear, and I can’t imagine a better beginning to a picture book than this image of a creepy, dark bedroom. This two-page spread immediately cracks the top 10 best creepy bedroom illustrations of all time. The boy is clearly a big fan of dragons, but all of the silhouettes of the dragons scattered around his room are quite spooky with the lights off.
And if a creepy, dark bedroom isn’t enough to sell you on a picture book alone - perhaps real dragons coming out of books will do the trick. On the very next page a dragon magically escapes from the boy’s favorite book. I must say, J. R. Krause is mysteriously in tune with all of the different things that fired up my imagination when I was little.
Dragons are definitely one of those things. Of course I’m a big fan of The Hobbit, and one of my favorite books as a child was There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon by Jack Kent. I’ve also always loved the idea and the theme of getting zapped into and out of books. For me it’s a great reminder of how important books and the imagination really are for kids.
If you’re a regular reader, you know I like things a tiny bit scary, and you know how much I love fantasy themes. So here I am reading this amazing picture book with a boy who is scared of the dark, and then magic dragons are popping out of books. How can it get any better than that? Well imagine my surprise when I realize this book is about friendship and empathy too. It’s the Dad Suggests trifecta: Scary/Fantasy/Empathy.
Empathy is needed in this story because both of the main characters are scared. The dragon is afraid of the knight in the book he came from, and the little boy is afraid of the night. The constant wordplay of knight vs night in this book is a huge bonus in our house. For quite a while the boy and the dragon don’t even realize they are talking about two entirely different things. Coming from a dad with a 6-year-old who is a big fan of puns, riddles, and wordplay - this silly misunderstanding is a lot of fun.
The misunderstanding is also a really clever device for teaching empathy. After all, understanding each other’s feelings is what empathy is all about. It’s a pretty important prerequisite. And after they finally understand each other, the boy and the dragon both go out of their way to help each other. The dragon soothes the boy’s fear of the dark - and the boy gives the knight-fearing dragon an incredibly beautiful and creative gift.
In the end, the boy in Dragon Night truly takes that next step in empathy - the extra step I always hope my children decide to take. He goes out of his way to truly help his friend. I can’t stress enough how much I love the boy’s solution to the dragon’s problem. It’s a fantastic tribute to the imagination - and to the amazing creativity of a child.
Do you have any dragon fans in your house? What’s your favorite fantasy book to read with your kids? How do you teach empathy in your house? Let us know in the comments!