Teaching Empathy through Books about the Importance of One's Name

Teaching Empathy Though Books About The Importance of One’s Name

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 books that reflect the importance of names do you like? Thanks for your recommendations!

Teaching Empathy through Books about the Importance of One’s Name

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 have contributed their name to hers. Sophia is her grandmother who taught a love of books. Esperanza arm chair 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]

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 signifying 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]

Chrysanthemum 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 foreword and end notes. [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 to 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 Asma Mobin-Uddin, illustrated by Barbara Kiwak

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 Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock

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 Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska

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 Leanne Shirtliffe, illustrated by Tina Kügler

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 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 Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin

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!

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]

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

When you use your name as a code name to solve a cloak and daggar 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 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]

 To examine any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

Teaching Empathy through Books about the Importance of One's Name

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Want to read My Name is Yoon, My Name is Sangoel and My Name is Bilal — all very important and different stories.
    Patricia Tilton recently posted…Oddity by Sarah CannonMy Profile

  2. What a wonderful posting with so many insightful and thoughtful ideas about names, choices and ethnic backgrounds. The comprehensive book list covers a wide range of readers. Empathy, such an important trait that needs to be taught continuously.
    Thank you!
    Sue Ready recently posted…Weekend Round-UpMy Profile

  3. I agree, Mia, it’s really a self-contained way to teach empathy, so needed these days more than ever! Thanks for the book recommendations!

  4. Names are important! I had a high school teacher who refused to call me my name, because he said Mary and Anne were two different names. It felt like bullying. A lot of other people just don’t listen closely – I get called “Mary Jane”, Mary Ellen”, “Mary Beth”, and “Mary Grace”, to name a few…
    maryanne recently posted…Building Shapes and More Bear Themed LearningMy Profile

  5. I really liked Cloud and Wallfish – such a great book! I grew up with Yoko, so I’m glad to see she made the list too. I’ll definitely look into the others! 😀
    Erik Weibel recently posted…Review! The Amulet: Journey to Sirok by E.G. KardosMy Profile

  6. Happy MCBD!!! This is one of my favorite lists !!!!

  7. What a fantastic list! My name is Yoon is one of my favourites. Thanks for sharing. #ReadYourWorld

  8. Great list and such an important issue! Names are important.

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