Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D
The Good News about Empathy and the Common Cold
Reading several children’s books in which the main characters were assaulted by that annual, predictable, and unstoppable villain the Common Cold, it occurred to me that this supposed villain might not really be such a villain after all. Yes, the Common Cold brings days of misery. But despite the hacking and sneezing, it also brings something else—it brings care and concern for others which is born of empathy and its help-mate compassion.
Empathy enables us to understand what others are feeling, especially when they are suffering. Compassion swells our concern and compels us to act to alleviate that suffering. Learning empathy and compassion enables children to forge deep, satisfying, long term relationships. And children’s books with entertaining and engaging stories validate not just the misery of having a cold, but also present important understandings related to perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion.
Mr. Putter and Tabby Catch the Cold
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers, Reprint Edition 2003
Format: Beginning Reader
Interest Level: Primary grades
Cynthia Rylant who won the Newbery Honor Award for two of her novels and the Theodore Geisel award for beginning readers explores the empathy and compassion that result from the predictable and ordinary Common Cold in Mr. Putter and Tabby Catch the Cold and in Henry and Mudge get the Shivers.
At first glance both books are quite simple. They are beginning readers written for first and second graders. They have a large font size, colorful illustrations on each page, and predominantly short sentences comprised of one to two syllable words. However, despite the seeming simplicity of these books, they have a lot to say about how empathy develops and why children are eager to act on the feeling.
In Mr. Putter and Tabby Catch the Cold, Mr. Putter is sneezing and hacking and feeling miserable with a cold. He remembers when he was a boy he almost liked colds. He remembers how his mother spoiled him with warm soup, minty tea, and adventure books during these times. Mr. Putter would really like someone to provide those comforting things even now that he is old. But he refuses the help of his friend and neighbor Mrs. Teaberry when she offers to come over and look after him. He does not want her to catch his cold. This decision is a good example of empathy, compassion, and social awareness/perspective-taking which enables him to consider the impact of his cold on another person.
Mrs. Teaberry, knows how miserable a person can feel with a cold. Empathy, compassion and problem solving enable her to find a solution that keeps her safe from contracting the cold as well as to provide all the comforts Mr. Putter knew as a boy. She sends her dog Zeke to Mr. Putter first with a thermos of soup strapped to his back, then a thermos of peppermint tea and honey sticks, and finally an adventure book.
This beginning reader is an excellent example of how stories foster social emotional learning in the areas of empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking. It also serves as a prompt for students to discuss not only how parents and friends comfort them when they are sick, but also how they might comfort others.
Henry and Mudge Get the Cold Shivers
Publisher: Simon Spotlight, Reprint Edition 1996
Format: Beginning Reader
Interest Level: Primary Grades
Initially, in Henry and Mudge Get the Cold Shivers, Henry has a cold. His parents bring him popsicles, comic books, and crackers. His dog Mudge, who keeps him company while he is sick, gets the crackers. Henry recovers. But one day he awakes to find that Mudge is sick. At the vets office, Henry waits and wonders and worries if his dog will be all right. His feelings are palpable through the illustrator’s depiction of body postures and facial expressions. The text and illustrations bring a small child into a tolerable but big feeling.
How do Children Feel when Family Members or Pets are Sick?
What can they do to Help?
Henry is relieved to know that the problem is only a cold. He fixes a sick bed of an old blanket, his old socks, a baseball mitt, an old pillow and a stuffed moose. He brings his dog ice cubes and other things he knows Mudge will enjoy: a rubber hamburger, a rubber hot dog and crackers. He provides for Mudge just as his parents provided for him and just as Mr. Putter’s mother provided for him as a boy. The illustrator extends the underlying subject of empathy and compassion by creating illustrations that enable children to identify how Henry feels when Mudge is sick. They can then consider how they might feel in this situation as well as how they might support their own sick pet.
Although a story about suffering could be either boring or grim, both of these beginning readers are accompanied by illustrations with vibrant palettes: Henry and Mudge with orange, yellow, green, and splashes of purple; Mr. Putter and Tabby with red, yellow, and blue. The squiggly lines in each illustration create energy. And throughout both books there are small touches of humor.
Learning empathy begins with the way Mr. Putter’s parents and Henry’s parents have taken the time to get to know who their children are, what they like, and what they need when they are suffering. Having been the recipient of empathy and compassion, Mr. Putter knows what he needs when he has a cold when he is older. Henry has taken the time to know what his dog likes. And just as his parents provided what he needed, he provides for Mudge.
A Sick Day for Amos Mcgee
Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead
Publisher: Roaring Book Press, 2010
Format: Picture Book
Interest Level: Primary Grades
Like the books by Cythnia Rylant discussed above, the story recounted in the picture book A Sick Day for Amos McGhee by the husband and wife team Philip and Erin Stead is deceptively simple. Amos, who is an elderly zookeeper wakes each morning, has oatmeal and tea with sugar, then boards the Number Five City Bus at 6:00 am to go to the zoo. When he awakes one morning with a cold and doesn’t go to work, the animals worry and then board the Number Five City Bus to visit him. End of story.
There are no characters nervous about the first day of school, no conflicts between children who don’t want to share their toys, no tantrums, no jealousy of a new baby, no monsters, no superheroes, and no battles. There is so much more. A Sick Day for Amos McGee is about a warm feeling that slowly swells as a result of those small tiny daily interactions between friends that forge deep relationships.
Philip and Erin Stead create prose and illustrations that enable the reader of any age to grasp compassion, empathy, and friendship with the heart. It begins with Philip C. Stead’s spare prose which narrates the story:
Amos had a lot to do at the zoo, but he always made time to visit his good friends/ He would play chess with the elephant (who thought and thought before making a move)/ run races with the tortoise (who never ever lost)/ sit quietly with the penguin (who was shy)/ lend a handkerchief to the rhinoceros (who always had a runny nose)/and, at sunset, read stories to the owl (who was afraid of the dark).
In contrast to the Rylant books there is no dialogue. In fact some pages are wordless. For example, the illustrations completely carry the story line in which the animals leave the zoo and board the Number Five City Bus. There are no energizing squiggling lines in these illustrations just calming solid and vertical lines.
The quiet tone established by the prose which is so central to the warm feelings associated with friendship continues with a muted palette: tan, blue, green, and soft yellow. Because their relationship is at the heart of the story, Amos and the animals are surrounded with white space that places their interactions center stage. Taking time to absorb the nuances of each page, a reader becomes aware that Amos has a different relationship with each animal. Much like the parents of Henry and Mr. Putter, Amos has taken the time to learn who the animals are, what they like, and what they need when they are suffering. He offers his time and attention according to the interests and needs of each animal.
When his friends visit him when he is sick they reciprocate: the penguin sits quietly on his feet to keep the chilly, aching Amos warm; the elephant is patient with the cold-addled brain of Amos as he thinks and thinks for a time before making a move in their game; the rhino hands him a handkerchief, and the owl reads a story for everyone.
Although the tone of the book is warm and quiet, there are many moments of gentle humor. For example, the rabbit seen through the window of the bus reading the newspaper, the penguin wearing red and blue socks, Amos sitting on the edge of his bed holding a teddy bear and wearing bunny slippers, the elephant holding the penguin’s hand as the group walks to the bus stop.
To take the time to absorb the prose and illustrations of this book is to experience care and concern, empathy and compassion, friendship at its best. To take time with all three of these books is to realize that while the common cold has been cast as a villain, it is a villain that offers valuable experiences about perspective-taking, empathy, compassion, and how to be a good friend.