Is there a better way to nurture empathy and compassion than through books? That’s the question we address in this episode with special guest, Courtney Westlake.

Courtney’s daughter, Brenna, was born with a skin condition that makes her appear “different” to many people.

On today’s show, Courtney shares not just her family’s experience, but also how we can teach our kids kindness and understanding when it comes to differences.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • how to help kids grow in empathy
  • how books help us walk in another person’s shoes
  • our favorite books for teaching about differences and disabilities

We’ve got a list of RAR-recommended books that feature differently-abled characters below, and you can also find Courtney’s excellent book recommendations in her guide, Celebrating Our Stories.

More free resources and booklists

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Listener Guide

Use the time stamps below to skip to any part of the podcast:

1:20Good questions to ask our kids about books
4:26Creative narration ideas
6:45Meet Courtney Westlake
9:12‘Stories – the way we make sense of life’
11:28Practicing empathy
12:26‘A Different Kind of Beautiful’
15:09 ‘Celebrating Our Stories’
17:47Books that feature differently abled kids
21:37Middle-grade and chapter books
24:16Picture book biographies
26:33Differences, quirks and uniqueness
30:28Courtney’s pick
32:57Let the kids speak

Links from this episode:

Quotes to remember:

“Recent research shows that kids who read a lot of stories (or who are read to a lot as children) end up growing up and being more kind, empathetic adults. And in fact adults who continue to read fiction tend to be more kind, empathetic humans than those who don’t.” – Sarah Mackenzie

“There is no normal, there’s no perfect. There is no ‘ideal.’ My daughter is certainly not the different ones simply because her appearance is noticeably unusual. What an incredible world it might be if we could show our children how to recognize that others are truly people first despite any differences.” – Courtney Westlake

“Stories, the way we make sense of life …” – Katherine Paterson

Books mentioned in this episode:

Episode 139
Wonder

Wonder

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids

The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids

FROM SARAH:

I wrote this book as a love note, of sorts, to the Read-Aloud Revival community. You'll find practical tips, inspiring stories, and booklists for every age. The audio book won was nominated for an Audie Award!

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

USA Today Bestseller |  The stories we read--and the conversations we have about them--help shape family traditions, create lifelong memories, and become part of our legacy. Reading aloud not only has the power to change a family--it has the power to change the world. 

More info →
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille

Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

The compelling picture book biography of Louis Braille. My own 7 year-old asked me to read this one again and again. Discover the story of a boy who loses his sight and finds a gift for the world.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, no one expected her to talk, let alone become one of the most powerful voices in modern science. Yet, the determined visual thinker did just that. A true story your kids and teens will be inspired by.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
A Different Beautiful: Discovering and Celebrating Beauty in Places You Never Expected

A Different Beautiful: Discovering and Celebrating Beauty in Places You Never Expected

**Description from Amazon: When Courtney Westlake’s family was given the shocking news that their daughter, Brenna, was born in 2011 with a severe, life-threatening skin disorder, they began to discover a new and different beautiful in their lives–one that values extraordinary differences and appreciates the wonderful sam...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Let’s Talk about It: Extraordinary Friends (Mr. Rogers)

Let’s Talk about It: Extraordinary Friends (Mr. Rogers)

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: In his characteristically wise and gentle way, the host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood challenges the stereotypes that often plague children with special needs and celebrates six children who are extraordinary friends.

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Different is Awesome

Different is Awesome

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: A little boy brings his older brother, born with one hand, for show-and-tell. The students ask him all sorts of questions about how he does things with one hand and realize that he can do anything they can do, he just does it differently. Along the way, they notice that we're all different in one...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Happy in Our Skin

Happy in Our Skin

**Description from Amazon: “A cheeky meditation on the everyday miraculousness of skin. . . . It’s freewheeling fun.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)Is there anything more splendid than a baby’s skin? Cocoa-brown, cinnamon, peaches and cream. As children grow, their clever skin does, too, enjoying hugs and ti...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Don’t Call Me Special: A First Look at Disability (A First Look At…Series)

Don’t Call Me Special: A First Look at Disability (A First Look At…Series)

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: This delightful picture book explores questions and concerns about physical disabilities in a simple and reassuring way. Younger children can find out about individual disabilities, special equipment that is available to help the disabled, and how people of all ages can deal with disabilities and li...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability

Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Not So Different offers a humorous, relatable, and refreshingly honest glimpse into Shane Burcaw’s life. Shane tackles many of the mundane and quirky questions that he’s often asked about living with a disability, and shows readers that he’s just as approachable, friendly, and funny as anyone ...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
The Snow Rabbit

The Snow Rabbit

**Description from Amazon: Two sisters look longingly through their window at the snowy sky. One goes out and sculpts a little rabbit, but when she brings it back inside to her wheelchair-bound sister, it begins to melt. So they take it outside and into the forest where enchanted things begin to happen. A follow up to her hau...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
We’re All Wonders

We’re All Wonders

**Description from Amazon: The unforgettable bestseller Wonder, now a major motion picture, has inspired a nationwide movement to Choose Kind. Now parents and educators can introduce the importance of choosing kind to younger readers with this gorgeous picture book, featuring Auggie and Daisy on an original adventure, writt...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Fish in a Tree

Fish in a Tree

**Description from Amazon: "Fans of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder will appreciate this feel-good story of friendship and unconventional smarts.” —Kirkus ReviewsAlly has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disrup...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Soar

Soar

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Newbery Honor winner Joan Bauer hits a home run with her newest protagonist, who always sees the positive side of any situation.     Jeremiah is not one to let anything keep him down. Starting with his adoption by computer genius Walt, Jeremiah has looked on his life as a series of lucky breaks...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Wish

Wish

**Description from Amazon: A New York Times bestseller!A touching story about a girl and her dog, perfect for young animal lovers.Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end ...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: My name is Marisol McDonald, and I don’t match. At least, that’s what everyone tells me.Marisol McDonald has flaming red hair and nut-brown skin. Polka dots and stripes are her favorite combination. She prefers peanut butter and jelly burritos in her lunch box. And don’t even think of asking h...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Not Your Typical Dragon

Not Your Typical Dragon

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Everybody knows your typical dragon breathes fire.But when Crispin tries to breathe fire on his seventh birthday, fire doesn't come out—only whipped cream! Each time Crispin tries to breathe fire, he ends up withBand-Aidsmarshmallowsteddy bears?Crispin wonders if he’ll ever find his inner fire. ...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Leave it to Molly to transform all her 'faults' into marvelous talents.. . . [Catrow's] pictures fill the pages with wild perspectives, goofy-looking kids, and hilarious details. . . . Leaves readers with the feeling that anything can be accomplished if you are the best person you can be and make th...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, the nationally bestselling and celebrated creator of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Owen, and Kitten's First Full Moon, Chrysanthemum is a funny and honest school story about teasing, self-esteem, and acceptance to share all year round. Chrysanthemum thinks he...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Books)

Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Books)

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Every day all over the world, children are laughing and crying, playing and learning, eating and sleeping. They may not look the same. They may not speak the same language. Their lives may be quite different. But inside, they are all alike. Stirring words and bold paintings weave their way around ou...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Zero

Zero

**Description from Amazon: Zero is a big round number. When she looks at herself, she just sees a hole right in her center. Every day she watches the other numbers line up to count: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 . . . !" "Those numbers have value. That's why they count," she thinks. But how could a number worth nothing become somethin...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
One

One

**Description from Amazon: Blue is a quiet color. Red’s a hothead who likes to pick on Blue. Yellow, Orange, Green, and Purple don’t like what they see, but what can they do? When no one speaks up, things get out of hand — until One comes along and shows all the colors how to stand up, stand together, and count. As budd...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Melissa Parkington’s Beautiful, Beautiful Hair

Melissa Parkington’s Beautiful, Beautiful Hair

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Melissa wants to accomplish something speical, but what could it be? "Spectacular!" "Gorgeous!" "Fabulous!" Those are some of the words people use to describe Melissa Parkington's hair, which is long, thick, and so shiny that it seems to sparkle. But Melissa would like to be known for more than her ...

More info →
Buy from Amazon

RAR favorites featuring differently abled characters:

Get the printable list:

BOOKS FEATURING DIFFERENTLY ABLED CHARACTERS

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Episode 139-RAR recommendations
The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

A classic about an orphan who struggles to adjust to her new life until she discovers a secret garden. Excellent for all ages. Look for the one with illustrations by Tasha Tudor!

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Wonder

Wonder

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
Thank You, Mr. Falker

Thank You, Mr. Falker

Patricia Polacco is now one of America's most loved children's book creators, but once upon a time, she was a little girl named Trisha. Trisha could paint and draw beautifully, but when she looked at words on a page, all she could see was jumble. It took a very special teacher to recognize what was happening. The classic (and true!) story of a dyslexic girl and the teacher who would not let her fail. Your kids can meet author/illustrator Patricia Polacco at her Author Access video replay in RAR Premium.

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Raising a Hero

Raising a Hero

Author:
Series: Episodes, 120
Tag: Episode 120

From the beloved #1 New York Times best-selling children's author of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and If You Give... series. Max is a lovable and determined puppy with a lot to learn on his adventure of becoming someone's life-changing friend and helper. Max's puppy raiser, Sam, takes him everywher...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille

Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

The compelling picture book biography of Louis Braille. My own 7 year-old asked me to read this one again and again. Discover the story of a boy who loses his sight and finds a gift for the world.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, no one expected her to talk, let alone become one of the most powerful voices in modern science. Yet, the determined visual thinker did just that. A true story your kids and teens will be inspired by.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

FROM THE PUBLISHER:

Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah's inspiring true story—which was turned into a film, Emmanuel's Gift, narrated by Oprah Winfrey—is nothing short of remarkable. Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, he was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams.

More info →
Buy from Bookshop
Buy from Amazon
The Snow Rabbit

The Snow Rabbit

**Description from Amazon: Two sisters look longingly through their window at the snowy sky. One goes out and sculpts a little rabbit, but when she brings it back inside to her wheelchair-bound sister, it begins to melt. So they take it outside and into the forest where enchanted things begin to happen. A follow up to her hau...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
We’re All Wonders

We’re All Wonders

**Description from Amazon: The unforgettable bestseller Wonder, now a major motion picture, has inspired a nationwide movement to Choose Kind. Now parents and educators can introduce the importance of choosing kind to younger readers with this gorgeous picture book, featuring Auggie and Daisy on an original adventure, writt...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, the nationally bestselling and celebrated creator of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Owen, and Kitten's First Full Moon, Chrysanthemum is a funny and honest school story about teasing, self-esteem, and acceptance to share all year round. Chrysanthemum thinks he...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Books)

Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Books)

Author:
Series: Episodes, Episode 139

**Description from Amazon: Every day all over the world, children are laughing and crying, playing and learning, eating and sleeping. They may not look the same. They may not speak the same language. Their lives may be quite different. But inside, they are all alike. Stirring words and bold paintings weave their way around ou...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Only You Can Be You: What Makes You Different Makes You Great

Only You Can Be You: What Makes You Different Makes You Great

**Description from Amazon: Some kids like to dance and laugh out loud, and some sit quietly and make up stories in their heads—but we're all different, and that's okay because the maker of everything made us this way!In their first picture book, bestselling author Sally Clarkson and her son Nathan encourage children on the ...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
The Black Book of Colors

The Black Book of Colors

**Description from Amazon: Living with the use of one's eyes can make imagining blindness difficult, but this innovative title invites readers to imagine living without sight through remarkable illustrations done with raised lines and descriptions of colors based on imagery. Braille letters accompany the illustrations and a f...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Be Good to Eddie Lee

Be Good to Eddie Lee

**Description from Amazon: Christy's mother always tells her to be good to Eddie Lee, a neighborhood child with Down's Syndrome. But Christy wants to run and play -- and not worry about Eddie Lee tagging along. One hot summer day, though, Eddie Lee takes Christy to a secret place in the woods and teaches her that beautiful th...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Beautiful

Beautiful

**Description from Amazon: Every girl is unique, talented, and lovable. . . .Every girl is BEAUTIFUL.Much more than how one looks on the outside, true beauty is found in conquering challenges, showing kindness, and spreading contagious laughter. Beautiful girls are empowered and smart and strong!BEAUTIFUL breaks barriers by s...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Dad and Me in the Morning

Dad and Me in the Morning

**Description from Amazon: Early one morning, a young boy wakes to the light of his alarm clock. He puts on his hearing aids and clothes, then goes to wake his father. Together they brave the cold as they walk down the dirt road that leads to the beach. Lakin’s understated story reminds readers that sometimes the best way t...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
The Art of Miss Chew

The Art of Miss Chew

Trisha wants to be an artist, so she's thrilled when she gets into Miss Chew's special art class at the high school. But when a substitute teacher tells Trisha she should be spending her time more studiously, Trisha has to stand up for the artist inside her. Based on a true story. Your kids can meet author/illustrator Patricia Polacco at her Author Access video replay in RAR Premium.

More info →
Buy from Amazon
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red

We’ll Paint the Octopus Red

**Description from Amazon: As six-year-old Emma anticipates the birth of her new baby brother or sister, she vividly imagines all of the things they can do together. Emma feels ready to be a big sister! Then when the baby is born, her dad tells her that it's a boy and he has something called Down syndrome. Finally she asks, "...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
When Charley Met Emma

When Charley Met Emma

**Description from Amazon: When Charley goes to the playground and sees Emma, a girl with limb differences who gets around in a wheelchair, he doesn't know how to react at first. But after he and Emma start talking, he learns that different isn't bad, sad, or strange--different is just different, and different is great! This ...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
McKenna (American Girl)

McKenna (American Girl)

**Description from Amazon: Ten-year-old McKenna has always been a good student-and great at gymnastics. So when her grades suddenly begin to fall, her teacher suggests a little extra help from a tutor. McKenna is horrified until she meets her tutor, Josie, a super-confident girl who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Josie e...

More info →
Buy from Amazon
Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship

Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship

**Description from Amazon: A 2019 Schneider Family Book Award WinnerBased on a real-life partnership, the heartening story of the love and teamwork between a girl and her service dog will illuminate and inspire.Rescue thought he’d grow up to be a Seeing Eye dog — it’s the family business, after all. When he gets the new...

More info →
Buy from Amazon

You’ll also enjoy:

Get the printable list:

BOOKS FEATURING DIFFERENTLY ABLED CHARACTERS

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