The Newest Trend in Children’s Lit: ‘Empathy Books’

The Newest Trend in Children’s Lit: ‘Empathy Books’

NO TALKING Patrick Radden Keefe got the idea for “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” — which enters the nonfiction list this week at No. 7 — from a New York Times obituary back in 2013. “It was one of those obituaries that just cracks open a whole world that you had very little inkling of beforehand,” he explained on a recent episode of the Book Review podcast. “A woman named Dolours Price had died, and she had been an I.R.A. soldier. She had been the first woman to join the I.R.A. as a front-line soldier — leading bombing raids, targeting people for execution. She was a very dramatic, impetuous figure.” Keefe says he “was so intrigued by some of the details in the obituary that I wanted to see where they went.” Where they went, it turns out, is straight to the notorious 1972 kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, a widowed Belfast mother of 10.

In “Say Nothing,” as Keefe investigates the crime, a history of Northern Ireland — and the Troubles — unfurls in the background. As he says, “I’m drafting on an incredibly brave effort by her children, starting in the 1990s, to come out and break the code of silence in Ireland, and say: ‘We need to know what happened to our mother. We’ve been waiting decades for answers, for a body.’ And I think it took great courage for them to do that.”

If “Say Nothing” is, ultimately, about keeping silent, then Peter H. Reynolds’s “Say Something!” — which enters the picture book list at No. 7 — is about the opposite, about exhorting kids to be heard, whether through their words or their actions: “If you see someone lonely, say something … by just being there for them.” Maria Russo, the children’s books editor at The Times, says that titles like this are part of a new trend that she calls “empathy books.”

“They’re not stories so much as poetic explorations of compassion and justice,” she explains. “With the adults shouting and slinking off to their corners so much, there’s a new urgency to showing kids how to, basically, chill out, do the right thing, be nice.”

Finding one’s voice is a big theme over on the young adult list, too, especially in the books of Angie Thomas. Her debut, “The Hate U Give,” which has been on the list for two years, remains at No. 1; it’s so successful in hardcover that it hasn’t been published in paperback yet. Her second novel, “On the Come Up,” is at No. 3.

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