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.
It’s important to note that SEL must be culturally-affirming (more on that in this article by Cierra Kaler-Jones: “When SEL is used as another form of policing“) and attuned to every child as well as to justice and equity. I really like the following quote from activist and educator Dena Simmons, founder of LiberatED SEL from this article in ACSD Education Update titled, “Why We Can’t Afford Whitewashed Social-Emotional Learning””
“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.”
—Julie Flett in the author’s note.
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!
I really like Lisa Katzenburger’s IT WILL BE OK (2021), a book that shows you can help a friend just by being there for them and not trying to solve their problem. Also, THE COLOR COLLECTOR (2021) by Nicholas Solis, about reaching out and listening to form friendships. And an older title that I absolutely love (and it comes with a great teacher’s guide about SEL), TREVOR by Jim Averbeck, about a canary who “befriends” a lemon.