Encourage empathy among kids by reading these children’s books about names! Inspirational stories to share the meaning and importance of names.
Each of my three children have a middle name that reflects part of their Korean/Japanese/Chinese ethnicity. My daughters have Japanese names — Keiko and Miyako; my son middle name, Gyung-Won, is the name of his Korean grandfather.
Korean tradition does NOT use names of relatives, but it was our way to remembering my husband’s father who passed away when he was very young. Our son, more than his sisters, does not like his ethnic middle name. Perhaps one day he will appreciate the significance of it.
What’s in a name? For some children, it’s a link to their past, a reason to be bullied, a special meaning that boosts their self-esteem. In an immigration journey, a name is something that might be changed because it is hard to pronounce and remember.
This book list shows the name sides of the importance of one’s name. I hope it helps teach kids empathy.
How about you? What children’s books about names do you like? Thanks for your recommendations!
Teaching empathy through children’s books about names
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Alma has a very long name: Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela. She thinks it’s too long and doesn’t fit her so her father gives her the history of her ancestors, each who has contributed their name to hers. Sophia is her grandmother who taught a love of books.
Esperanza armchair traveled when her son became a sailor. José is her grandfather, an artist who painted portraits. Pura is her great-aunt who connects her to the spirits of her ancestors. Candela, another grandmother, was an activist.
Alma decides that her name is just right, with a story of her own to contribute. The story of a name conveys an entire family history making it special and unique. This picture book is also a fun way to learn about Latino culture. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
When no one can say a little girl’s name, she doesn’t want to return to school. Her mother shows her that her name is a beautiful song from the heart, strong like fire, and created by dreamers. Empowered by this knowledge, she is ready to teach her classmates. This is a must-have book for all classroom libraries and an anthem for those of us with names that are always incorrectly pronounced. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Adopt a new “American” name or keep one’s ethnic name?
As a new immigrant, one of the first decisions to be made is what name to use in the new country. Should a new name signify an attempt to assimilate be used, or should one’s ethnic, “difficult to pronounce and remember” name be retained? Fit in or stay true to yourself?
Unhei has this decision and solicits the help of her new classmates with a name suggestion jar. It’s only when one of her classmates comes to her neighborhood and learns the true meaning of her name that the significance of her Korean name comes out.
Use this picture book for an immigration unit to help children realize the importance of “foreign” sounding names. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
by Kevin Henkes
When your unusual name makes you a target for bullies.
It’s not just the foreign-sounding names that can be the source of bullying by classmates. Chrysanthemum thinks her name is absolutely perfect until she gets bullied by girls at school for her unusual name.
The teasing starts to affect her self-confidence but the tables are turned when the class gets a new teacher who helps her recognize the beauty of her name with a secret of her own. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
How Nivi Got Her Names by Laura Deal, illustrated by Charlene Chua
Learn about the Inuit Kinship Naming Practices: many Inuit are born with a multitude of names, as opposed to the more common Western way of naming with a first name, middle name and last name.
Nivi’s full name is Niviaq Kauki Baabi Irmela Jamsie. Each of her names was chosen carefully to reflect the many connections she has from influences past and present. For example, because she’s adopted from another family through Inuit custom adoption, her second name reflects her birth mother, Kauki.
Baabi, a special family friend, appeared in her mother’s dream, and his name, through her, keeps his spirit alive. Inuit kinship and naming customs, tuqlurausiit, are further explained in the forward and endnotes. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
My Name is María Isabel by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by K. Dyble Thompson
No two names are really alike.
María Isabel Salazar Lopez is nervous to start a new school. Like the Inuit naming tradition of a multitude of names, Latin Americans also give their children multiple names in honor of relatives.
“Maria” is for grandmother; “Isabel” for her grandmother named Chabela; Salazar is for her father;” and Lopez is for her mother and grandfather Manuel. In her new class, she learns that she is the third María, so her teacher decides to call her “Mary Lopez” instead.
It’s a difficult adjustment to answer to a new name, as well as a new school. In time for the school winter pageant, Maria figures out a way to communicate with her teacher that her greatest wish is to be called by her real name. [early chapter book, ages 7 and up]
My Name is Bilal by
Connecting to the legacy of your name gives one boy an inner strength to stand up to bullies.
It isn’t easy being different at school. Bilal and his sister Ayesha are born in America and they have switched schools to a new school where there are not a lot of Muslim kids. Ayesha is bullied on her first day of school by two boys who make fun of her headscarf.
Bilal is frozen, unable to come to his sister’s aid. This teacher is a family friend, and he gives Bilal a book about another Bilal was born in the time of Prophet Muhammed. This Bilal was also tormented by bullies who tried to get him to denounce his god but he would not.
This new-found knowledge gives Bilal strength to stand up for his sister the next day when the bullies harass her at her locker. Bilal finds a way to connect with the bullies on the basketball court, and it’s there he also meets an older boy who’s also Muslim.
Now Bilal can call them both to prayer, just like the Bilal of olden times. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
My Name is Sangoel by
When your name is your legacy to your proud past.
Sangoel’s father has died in the war in Sudan, and now he and mother and sister are leaving the refugee camp to move to the United States. The wise man at camp tells Sangoel to be proud of his Dinka name, handed down to him from his father and grandfather.
Lonely and homesick in this new country, Sangoel feels that he has lost his name because no one says it correctly. After he joins a soccer team, he gets an idea of how to teach everyone his name. The importance of one’s name is not merely for his identity but represents all that he has left behind.
This is a gentle story of the refugee experience. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
* Sherman Alexie has been accused of sexual harassment so I can’t recommend his books anymore.
When you are named after your father but want a name of your very own.
Thunder Boy Smith Jr. is his real name. He’s named after his father, who is awesome, but Thunder Boy Jr. thinks that his name is not a normal name. Nicknames like “Little Thunder” are even worse than his given name. His dad seems to read his mind, and he is given a new name of his own.
And it goes with his father’s name even more perfectly than a junior version. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
My Name is Yoon by
Transitioning to your name in a new language symbolizes the difficult adjustment to a new country.
An English translation of Yoon’s name is not really the same to her as her name in Korean. The adjustment to learning a new language in a new country at a new school is a tough one for Yoon. She misses Korea and the life she had there.
As she learns her first words of English, she slowly adjusts, signified by finally printing her English version of her name on her paper for her teacher. Her name still means “Shining Wisdom” in either language.
Use this book for an immigration unit or for teaching empathy to kids who are learning English as a second language. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Change Your Name Store by
Sometimes trying out new names makes you appreciate your own.
Wilma Lee Wu seeks out the magical Change Your Name Store because she thinks her name is too boring. This store transports you to where the name originates. In rhyming text, this picture book shows the value of one’s name. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Yoko Writes Her Name by Rosemary Wells
Writing your name in another language sparks bullying for being different.
Yoko does things differently: she writes her name in Japanese, she brings in a Japanese book that reads left to write, and she writes her numbers in a strange way. Two girl bullies think that Yoko isn’t going to graduate from Kindergarten because she can’t write her name.
When Yoko is upset and hides under a table, a kind classmate, Angelo, befriends Yoko and tells her she knows a secret language that he wants to learn.
The tables are turned on graduation day when the girl bullies panic that they can’t write their names in Japanese and won’t graduate, but Yoko shows them in time for the graduation march. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by
Not everyone can go to school to learn to write their name.
Ahmed is a young boy with a big job who delivers gas via donkey cart to residents in Cairo. He works to support his family and isn’t able to go to school, yet he is thirsty for an education. Despite his full time job, his big secret is that he has learned to write his name, opening the door for an education. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
My Name is Elizabeth! by Annika Dunklee and Matthew Forsythe
When nicknames are not appreciated.
Elizabeth loves her 9 letter name but not the nicknames that are associated with it. Why won’t people call her by her real name? She is not Lizzy, Liz, Beth or Betsy! She’s Elizabeth Alfreda Roxanne Carmelita Bluebell Jones. You can call her Elizabeth for short. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth, illustrated by Jessica Blank
I don’t love everything about this book though I do like the message. The illustrations feel too “low-end animation” to me. There are a few beautiful spreads like the page where her mother tells her that her name means Divine and the page with her Anjali bike plate.
Most of the pages, though, I don’t like the layout of text and graphics. It’s not well married together. I also don’t love the font. The story starts off with a birthday wish and feels predictable but I really could relate to the part of the story where Anjali tries to find her name at a booth.
The bullying that Anjali received about her name also moved the story forward, and I liked the strong ending. The story would have benefited from tighter editing. The page where Angeli receives a gift from her friends is squished onto one page with too much text.
The point of this page then gets repeated for three more pages. It would have been better to make this work across two page spreads instead. Still, girls who can’t find their names on personalized items will relate to this book. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
My Name is Konisola by Alisa Siegel
Should you change your name to blend in?
Review from Children’s Books Heal:
“Konisola is a brave, strong and resilient 9-year-old girl. When her sick mother is hospitalized, she moves again, this time to live with a kind nurse, Darlene Priestman, and her family. She feels like a stranger living with a white family. Everything is unfamiliar. She is afraid of the family cat — in Nigeria cats aren’t pets. Shopping malls and grocery stores overwhelm her. They aren’t like the open-air markets at home. When Darlene takes Konisola to visit her mother at the hospital for the first time, she gags at the smells. Seeing her mother so thin and ill is upsetting…
This is a story about a community wrapping their arms around a girl and her mother. There are many more characters who step in and help: a counselor who works with Konisola and helps her design a special shawl for her mother; a retired children’s lawyer who advises on immigration matters; doctors and nurses from the hospital who go above and beyond to help; and the local Nigerian community.” [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet
When you use your name as a code name to solve a cloak and dagger Communist mystery.
An American boy, Noah, with an Astonishing Stutter moves to East Berlin with his parents during the cold war. During these turbulent times, he makes a friend, a girl his age, living downstairs with her grandmother. Things are not what they seem, as is always the case in Communist Germany.
As Noah peels away the truth from the subterfuge, he unlocks pieces to puzzles of mysteries that involve everyone he loves. This is a historically accurate page-turner about true friendships can change the impossible. For kids who like spy books and/or realistic fiction, this is a must-read! [chapter book, ages 11 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.