No one would argue the benefits of reading, but one often-underestimated bonus is the empathy you develop from reading other people’s stories. Whether the characters are real or fictional, they can often teach us what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

At the end of last school year, I began reading R. J. Palacio’s “Wonder” to my 5th-grade homeroom and found it to be a WONDERful resource for teaching kindness and sensitivity…. So much so, that I chose it for the summer reading assignment for this year’s incoming 5th graders. The protagonist – also a 5th grader, Auggie Pullman – has serious facial abnormalities. He describes his appearance as, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Chronicling Auggie’s first year at a small private school (much like the Academy), the book kept my students on the edge of their seats and inspired dialogue about what it truly means to judge a person by who they are on the inside and not by appearances. I can’t wait to delve into this conversation again this fall when our new group of 5th graders arrives in Middle School.

Similarly, “El Deafo” by CeCe Bell, shares the author’s personal journey through a hearing-impaired childhood, her quest for friendship and self-acceptance, and the ups and downs of wearing a “Phonic Ear” that allows her to hear everything her teacher does and says. This delightful and amusing graphic novel also helps readers understand the most helpful ways of communicating with hearing-impaired individuals.

 “Rain, Reign,” by Ann Martin, is about Rose Howard, a 5th grade girl diagnosed with high-functioning autism. She is bright and talkative, but obsessed with homonyms and prime numbers. She also experiences severe stress reactions to loud noises. This excellent story, told in Rose’s unforgettable voice, offers insight into the world of autism.

We are fortunate to have a proliferation of authors writing about individuals with exceptionalities and differences. These are just three of my favorites: excellent stories, told with sensitivity and humor. If you’re looking to start a dialogue with the young people in your life, check out one of these three great titles, or explore similar stories from your favorite book retailer or library. Or stop by classroom and ask for a recommendation.