I’m excited to share this list of 20 recent picture books that in some way touch on a child’s relationships—with themselves: their identities, feelings, behaviors—as well as their relationships with others. That’s the essence of social-emotional learning or social-emotional development, how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the wider community.
Books can be one tool to validate kids and help them navigate all of these relationships, emotions, and experiences as they make sense of themselves and their world.
“Social-emotional learning (SEL) skills can help us build communities that foster courageous conversations across difference so that our students can confront injustice, hate, and inequity. SEL refers to the life skills that support people in experiencing, managing, and expressing emotions, making sound decisions, and fostering interpersonal relationships. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines five core SEL competencies, including self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. These competencies seamlessly lend themselves to preventing violence and to building a more peaceful world.”
Here are 20 wonderful picture books with kids’ lives, feelings, bonds, and well-beings in mind!
I Am! Affirmations for Resilience by Bela Barbosa and Edel Rodriguez (2020) is a board book the author describes as “a tool kit for children.” It feels essential to me: for those who have or work with children, for all all of us. It teaches mindfulness, emotion regulation, resilience, and positive self-worth. It’s an incredible resource for how to respond when feeling difficult feelings or out of control. The text and illustration combo is vibrant, hopeful, beaming, and totally affirming.
We All Play kimêwânaw by Julie Flett (2021) is exquisitely illustrated (as all of Julie Flett’s work is), connective, gentle, playful. A refreshing, calm breath that connects kids to themselves, each other, and the natural world, all through play.
“…Whether we are running and hopping through the grass or rolling along the street or pondering creatures in the creek, we are all connected, living in relationship and in care of one another, in kinship. In Cree, this is called wâhkôhtowin.”
Thao: A Picture Book by Thao Lam (2020). This picture book is not only inventive, original, and risk-taking in form, but it is all about identity. It’s the story of the author-illustrator, Thao. Her name. Growing up with her name. The way other people mispronounced it. It will no doubt get kids thinking about their own names—and other people’s. And about identity, their own and others’.
Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Ananda, illustrated by Gabi H. Ali (2021). A joyful story of Laxmi and her mooch, which she describes as “these little hairs above my lip” and is the Hindi word for mustache. She learns to love it, along with all the hair on her body, after a talk with her mother connects her to the purpose of hair on our skin as well as all the people, in her family or famous ones like Frida Kahlo, who have a mooch or something like it. A beautiful celebration of bodies!
A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart written by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Noa Denmon (2020). The narrator of this beautiful, vital book is exploring “a space deep down inside me/where all my feelings hide” and bringing them to light—to themselves and the reader. His stirring, reverberating story starts with joy and then describes what else he experiences after a police shooting in his community: sorrow, anger, pride, love.
The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth by Bruce Handy & Hyewon Yum (2021) explores befores and afters, ups and downs, feelings that accompany or contrast or precede happiness of all sorts. It’s clever, inventive, and affirming; it will soothe and surprise with lovely text and expressive illustrations.
Anita and the Dragons by Hannah Carmona and Anna Cunha (2021). “Today is the day I will meet the dragons—large winged beasts who will carry me away.” The narrator of this immersive, expressive story uses the metaphor of dragons for airplanes, like the one that will take her from the Dominican Republic to a new home. She empowers and envisions herself as a brave princesa as she copes with saying goodbye (and hello)—while still letting herself confront all the scary questions that arise inside her.
Bindu’s Bindis by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Parvati Pillai (2021). This picture book is not only about Bindu’s many-shaped and colored bindis with which she expresses herself, but at its heart it’s about her Nani who sends them to her and then visits from India. Her grandmother is joyful, self-expressive, and someone who holds her head high, even when confronted in the story with scary, hateful, unjust actions, an incredible model and encouragement to Bindu in every way.
The Little Things words by Christian Trimmer, art by Kaylani Juanita (2021). The story of a little girl with three pigtails, the sea stars she finds on the shore, and the power of one small act of kindness that so often inspires another and another and another. This shows how own seemingly insignificant effort to help always makes a difference, if even just to one sea star, but so often reverberates much further in the community. Plus, Kaylani Juanita‘s gorgeous pastel artwork is a feast.
It’s OK to Make Mistakes illustrated by Anneliesdraws (2021). A simple, super-cute book that affirms imperfection, trying again, and taking things step by step. Yes to such a buoying message!
The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Roberrt & Valerio Vidali (2020) is about sadness and being a friend. It shows us that when someone is enveloped in the shadows of life, not fixing or lifting but simply being with them can be exactly what they need most.
Listen by Gabi Snyder, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin (2021) has a color palette that’s perfect for inviting us in to listen. This contemplative book feels true; it helps readers tune into the world and to others and to themselves.
I Want Ice Cream by Elisabetta Pica, art by Silvia Borando (2021). This book really speaks to kids (and us all) and to hearing no when you really really really want something. Totally playful yet visceral, it journeys through all the emotions that arise and grow and have to be felt through simple words, pictures, and colors when adjusting to going without.
The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken (2021) uses a tree as a metaphor for a child’s interior self that, like a tree, reaches, connects to the world around, and contains multitudes. And Corinna Luyken‘s art is total whoa.
How To Apologize by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka (2021). A lighthearted primer on saying sorry with tips and examples and the goal of, like any apology, restoring connection.
A Last Goodbye by Elin Kelsey, artwork by Soyeon Kim (2020) is special and tender and about death via the way animals say goodbye and grieve. It’s beautiful and deep and full of love and comfort.
The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer, illustrated by Cindy Derby (2020) is another picture book about loss, this one specific to a character whose mother has died. It is sad. It is beautiful. It is a conversation between the boy and a gorilla who visits him in the garden after the funeral, and stays until the boy is ready to have another conversation with someone else, someone right there in his home as well.
Tears by Sibylle Delacroix (2019). Details the experience of crying—that everyone does it—in a normalizing exploration of all kinds of tears.
Let’s Play: A Book About Making Friends by Amanda McCardie, illustrated by Colleen Larmour (2021). Another primer, this one what it’s like to be new, to be worried, to make friends and tackle a variety of the feelings and interactions kids have in school. The author’s note describes it as a book that “explores and celebrates some of the good things about friendship.” It serves as a tender model for navigating the ups and downs of learning to be in community with others.
Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, Sean Qualls, and Selina Alko (2017). I’ll close with this one, which has been a favorite of mine since it published a few years ago. (I’ve featured Sean Qualls’s picture book life on This Picture Book Life.) It’s a reflective refrain that gently investigates who we are and who others are. A contemplation of identity, of self and others, with stunning collaborate art by duo Sean Qualls and Selina Alko.
If you know any other vital titles that touch on social-emotional growth, please share in the comments!
This picture book is one of my favorites of this year (of any year). It shows the different ways people move. It shows community. It shows accessibility—and inaccessibility. It shows the way, together, we solve problems and “build something better” for disabled people, something better for all.
An absolutely vital book that is practical, informative, action-oriented, and full of JOY.
This picture book is an incredible resource of research and inspiration, “a rich history and the often over-looked stories, revered moments, and courageous people who continue to teach us the importance of coming together to march.”
It features 25 marches for all kinds of rights over the last century and a quarter, a number of which involved children as key to march or movement. Some may be familiar, some completely new. Some are from the early 1900s, some from just last year. The book balances showing how powerful protest is and what marches have accomplished toward change for the better—a great deal—with what remains ahead: many more marches to go, much more change to make.
“It [The Longest Walk] is a shining example that marches don’t end after the last step, and we must continue to stand together to protect vulnerable communities.”
Kids are sure to want to get moving and marching and taking action after experiencing this picture book pair. Alone or, even better, together! To that end, I’m including some ideas below that might help them get them started.
Please share other action ideas in the comments if you’d like to provide further resources!
*Join StopGap.CA and help build a portable wooden community ramp in your community so wheelchair-users can get where they want and need to go.
*Pay attention to surroundings and experiences. What might not be accessible to others, to all, in them? How can you advocate for a change that would remove a barrier to make your school or neighborhood or favorite place more accessible? As We Move Together’s back matter says, “Making things accessible can also mean removing financial barriers, using unscented products, learning new ways of communicating, and making sure friends feel welcome and included.” What are tangible ways to do this in the spaces and places you frequent?
*Pick one of the marches in Together We March. Ask a parent or educator about the ways in which what people were marching for then is still present today. Brainstorm ways to bring about change now.
*Visit The Conscious Kid, which I featured a few years ago here, and is a shining leader in the anti-racism field “dedicated to equity and promoting healthy racial identity development in youth.”
*Is there something unfair that has affected you or someone you care about? If you’re comfortable, you could create a piece of art about that experience, a drawing or poem or something else in order to share what it was/is like with others.
*Hold a gathering to hear from community members in your school or neighborhood about what needs to change where you go to school or live. Join with others because activism is best when shared and no one person is “in charge” of solving a problem.
*Visit The Tiny Activist, which has so many education and literature resources to support activists of any age.
*Make a sign about something you care about and hang it in your window.
*Coordinate with others to organize a new or join an existing march or protest addressing a cause that’s meaningful to you.
*Find a way to assist an organization that’s already doing good in your community. Invite a friend so you can volunteer together!
I’ve thought so much about connection during Covid as we all have. Despite distance, many of my relationships have gotten closer and more connected. On the other hand, a couple have receded. But overall, I’ve found sustaining ways to connect with people, with myself, and with my creativity during this long season. To that end, while most of us are still unable to connect in the ways we used to out of compassion and care for each other, I’ve rounded up 15 picture books that all touch on connection in some way, whether obvious or not. Connection of all kinds. Because really what we’ve learned is how very connected we are.
I hope some of these will encourage fresh ways to frame connection with kids in your life and to feel more connected to self, others, understanding, and the world through story.
Vy’s Special Gift by Ha-Giang Trinh and Evi Shelvia (2020). This mustard and periwinkle picture book features a girl waiting for a rice ration in Vietnam during COVID and the imaginative acts of kindness she shows to others, a model of connection and creativity in the most stretching, leanest times.
Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker & April Harrison (2020). Nana goes to school with Zura for Grandparents’ Day in this exquisitely illustrated picture book. In class, she shares a quilt from her home country of Ghana to explain the traditional facial markings she has, inviting everyone to engage with the meaningful symbols that grace it.
The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam (2020). Inspired by the creator’s own parents’ experience fleeing Vietnam when Thao Lam was a child, this tells parallel stories: two journeys, two boats, and opens and closes with a coming together of both.
Neighbors by Kasya Denisevich (2020), at its heart is about empathy, a kind of connection we can engage in from anywhere as well as through reading and also, like the narrator, through imagination and curiosity.
Hot Pot Night by Vincent Chen (2020). In this one, neighbors actually gather, everyone contributing something for the hot pot they’ll share together!
All Because you Matter written by Tami Charles, illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Bryan Collier (2020). This stunner is an ode to a child. A Black child. Connected to their ancestors. Connected to the love of their parents. Connected to how they ARE matter, the stuff of the universe. That they matter, tremendously so.
‘Ohana Means Family by Ilima Loomis, illustrated by Kenard Pak (2020). A stunning, uplifting book that follows the journey of poi being made from farming to a community lū’au.
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, art by Hatem Aly (2019). A little sister bubbles with excitement and pride on the first day of school, which is also her older sister’s first day of hijab. The special bond of siblings and traditions and family buoys when faced with hurtful reactions.
My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña (2019) is a portrait of a late afternoon spent by the main character riding through her hometown of Corona, CA on the back of her Papi’s motorcycle. “No matter how far I go from this place or how much it changes, this city will always be with me.”
What If… written by Samantha Berger, illustrated by Mike Curato (2018) embodies the spirit of invention. The text and art work together to take us on a vivid, surprising journey of imagination and persistence, the two most important components of any creative process.
At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (2019). A story with weaving at its center that embodies connection. A family is linked to a female pilot serving far away, a tribute to the high proportion of Native American and Alaska Native Nation women who are service members.
In a Jar by Deborah Marcero (2020) is a book for anyone yearning to hang onto moments, to savor and cherish them, and for anyone who loves someone who is separated by the distance of miles but connected by memories—even new ones still traded and shared. (Find a craft post for In a Jarhere.)
Delivery by Aaron Meshon (2017) is a mostly wordless story full of fun and surprise as a box of love (and cookies) travels around the world in unexpected ways to its destination.
Hello, Rain! by Kyo Maclear + Chris Turnham (2021). Filled with classic and muted but jubilant illustrations and musical text, a kid and their dog go exploring in the rain to experience its sounds and sensations and observe how the world and creatures respond.
R. Gregory Christie has illustrated so many books for children that I can’t possibly include every one in depth in this feature, so you’ll find snapshots of many of them from his website below. I mean, wow, right? So many beautiful books, so much African American history, so much variation and yet key elements that connect the pieces and paintings in his body of work.
Christie’s art is sensational—more specifically, it’s striking in terms of emotion and impact. The expressive faces he paints, the signature stretched-out figures, the engaging perspectives and compositions, the vivid background colors. All of it comes together in paintings that if I had to pick one word to describe, I would use dynamic. They move, they emote, they dance, they gesture, they transport and convey.
He’s an NAACP Image Award winner, a Caldecott winner, has garnered the Coretta Scott King honor six times, designed the USPS Kwanzaa stamp in 2013, delivers lectures, and teaches art workshops to kids—among other notable accomplishments and meaningful pursuits.
You’ll find his work not only in picture books but in many publications and venues. He got his start creating art for jazz records after attending New York’s School of Visual Arts. His first picture book, an anthology, The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children edited by Davida Adedjouma, was published by Lee & Low in 1996.
And you can find his prints and stationery at his other website, Gas-Art Gifts (“GAS” stands for “Gregarious Art Statements”).
Freedom in Congo Square written by Carole Boston Weatherford (2016). This extraordinary book portrays enslaved Africans in New Orleans as days of toil count down to one afternoon off, Sunday, which is spent in Congo Square for music, dance, and sharing news, a place that embodied freedom. “Congo Square was freedom’s heart.”
Only Passing Through written by Anne Rockwell (2002) is an in-depth picture book biography of Sojourner Truth with the most dramatic figurative paintings throughout that emphasize emotion and perspective in inventive, surprising, powerful ways.
Lift As You Climb written by Patricia Hruby Powell (2020). This picture book profiles the extraordinary Ella Baker who worked for voting rights, always listening to people, always lifting her voice for justice, always lifting as she climbed. In this picture book, R. Gregory Christie uses some of his technicolor backgrounds, captivating compositions, and portraits that pop off the page.
The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali written by Tonya Bolden (2007). A definitive and striking biography of Muhammad Ali that captures his determination and values and boasts the most captivating cover!
I’ve been keeping an eye out for very recent picture books I think would make great gifts this year for those who are able to give this winter holiday season. These will simultaneously soothe and affirm and lift the spirits of anyone who reads them.
Please find below 16 picture books for gifting and lifting spirits!
I Am: Affirmations For Resilience by Bela Barbosa and Edel Rodriguez (2020), a bold, hopeful, beaming “tool kit for children” that teaches mindfulness, emotional regulation, resilience, and positive self-worth.
Rain Before Rainbows by Smriti Halls and David Litchfield (2020) is a gorgeous, hopeful poem: “Dark days may shake us and worries creep in, with dragons to duel and battles to win…But…there are footsteps to follow and words that are wise. There’s a map that will guide us when troubles arise.”
All Because You Matter, written by Tami Charles, illustrated by Bryan Collier (2020) is a stunning ode to a child. A Black child. A reminder that they ARE matter, the stuff of the universe. That THEY matter. They matter. “They say that matter is all the things that make up the universe: energy, stars, space…If that’s the case, then you, dear child, matter.”
Layla’s Happiness written by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin Webb (2019) IS happiness, pure joy. Layla’s depiction of all the things she loves is lyrical, inventive, surprising, spunky, and sweet.
Every Child a Song by Nicola Davies and Marc Martin (2020) explores the metaphor of how each child is a unique song, each deserving of nourishment, belonging, and celebration. It was created for the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a list of 54 things every child in the world is entitled to.
Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le (2020) is a call to be the welcoming, inviting country we should be. It’s a story within a story, one modern-day, one a Persian legend, told with absolutely stunning artwork.
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James (2020) is created by a dream team and is a manifesto that celebrates Black boys. It wraps its arms around them with buoying, bouncing, beautiful language and vibrant pantings, affirming their preciousness and possibility and pride.
I Will Dance written by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (2020) celebrates wishes and wishes coming true. A wheelchair user makes a wish to dance with other dancers on her birthday “between, around, while the other dancers glide past me, tumble over me, until we are all mixed together, one beautiful laughing heap.” And her wish comes true when she joins a dance troupe for EVERYONE.
We Are Water Protectors written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade (2020) is a gorgeous, vital picture book that draws on Native history and culture, ancient and recent, to show how tribal nations are standing up to protect water and the earth. “We stand with our songs and our drums. We are still here. We are stewards of the Earth. Our spirits have not been broken. We are water protectors.”
Neighbors by Kasya Denisevich (2020) is, at its heart, about how imagination leads to empathy when a girl who’s just moved to a new apartment imagines her neighbors and wonders at the ways in which we’re all connected.
You Matter by Christian Robinson (2020) is a super inventive book that tells the reader they are—everyone is—precious: young, old, first, last, stuff too small to see.
Black is a Rainbow Color written by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2020) sings the song of the color black and where it’s found in nature and then goes on to sing the song of Black history and people, Black artists, Black culture. “Black is a color. Black is a culture…Black is a rainbow, too.” I featured this book in a post on Ekua Holmes’s picture book life right here.
Our Favorite Day of the Year written by A.E. Ali, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell (2020) is warm, connective, and charming as it honors the beautiful quilt of traditions celebrated by children in one classroom.
Every Color of the Light: A Book About the Sky written by Hiroshi Osada, illustrated by Ryōji Arai (2020) is a poem and series of paintings about a rainstorm, simple yet sophisticated and one of the most soothing bedtime books ever.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah by Erica S. Perl, illustrated by Shahar Kober (2020) is a sweet story about two resourceful siblings who’ve just moved and can’t find their Hanukkah box to celebrate! But their lovely neighbors supply substitutions for everything they need and even though they’re not exactly what they were looking for, eventually it feels just like Hanukkah, with new friends in the building to boot!
Intersection Allies by Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, and Carolyn Choi, illustrations by Ashley Seil Smith, forward by Kimberlé Crenshaw (2019) is a joyful call for inclusion, joining together, making rom for all.
And for those who are able to give gifts this winter season, I hope we’ll all think of indies first to show support for the work they always do and to help with the challenges they face now. Here are some of my favorite independent bookstores in LA and elsewhere (of course there are more and likely a wonderful one near you!).