Social emotional learning (SEL) has always been a core part of childhood growth and learning, but it is demonstrably more important than ever, as this generation of children is challenged to find new ways to interact and cope in a changing and sometimes frightening world. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed such a challenge, requiring parents, children, and educators alike to redefine the ways they connect with each other and the world, and leading to major changes to the routines and way of life for millions of children.
The growing interest and need for SEL is evident in the 2020 publishing lineup, as educators and caregivers seek practical tools to counteract the relentless information overload that children face. New and newly revisited SEL titles are centered on familiar concepts like empathy, anxiety, and bullying. Others touch upon emotions and issues that are increasingly relevant for many children amid the pandemic, like grief, illness and loss, poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity.
Beloved characters like Cookie Monster and Elmo help to bring these works to life, along with some newer but equally endearing faces that will appeal to children of all ages. From a quirky garden caterpillar who teaches very young children the value of kindness, to a little boy who learns empathy and self-reflection from a homeless man, each of these characters and plots can benefit children in any teaching environment in such complex times.
As libraries reopen and return to being the heart of schools and their communities, these stories and lessons will serve as anchors for young readers who are hungry to understand and cope with their new world through the familiar and comforting format of books.
International nonfiction mainstay and children’s publisher DK brings a discovery-based, “education-by-stealth” approach to children’s SEL titles in 2020. For 40 years, their catalog has focused on presenting even the most complicated nonfiction subject matter to readers in accessible, photography-rich formats. In recent years, they have given increasing prominence to SEL topics for young readers.
“We know there’s a global appetite for material that deals with children’s emotional and physical wellbeing, and that was true even before this pandemic,” says Sarah Larter, publishing director. “It’s become a fundamental part of our publishing.”
For young children struggling with isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns, Alone Together, by Julia Seal, December 2020, ISBN 9780744036688, endeavors to mitigate loneliness. “The sun is up, the birds are out, but everybody’s indoors,” the book shares, in a line that will resonate with most children by now. Seal brings readers ages 3–9 into a world where hope triumphs, helping children understand that being apart physically does not mean being alone.
Brightly illustrated board book series “First Emotions” gives tiny tots ages 0–3, as well as older readers struggling with emotions, the words and images they need to put a name to their big feelings. In I Feel Happy, August 2020, ISBN 9781465498052, for example, children learn why certain things—like toys—make them happy and learn to identify what happiness feels like. I Feel Sad, August, 2020, ISBN 9781465498250, uses an endearing cloud character that rains when it’s sad and gives little ones useful tips to stop their sadness from growing too big. How Do I Feel?, June, 2020, ISBN 9780744021448, introduces the whole spectrum of feelings, serving as a mini-guide to the emotions every child may recognize but not necessarily understand.
For readers ages 7–9, I Am, I Can: 365 Affirmations for Kids, by author and teacher Wynne Kinder, August 2020, ISBN 9781465492449, promotes the power of mindset, suggesting an affirmation for every mood and day of the year. Using real-life examples like the historic Apollo 13 space mission, this title explains how even our biggest fears can be overcome when we work to build our resilience as the astronauts did. Spreads are grouped according to themes, like “Calm” and “Creativity” and include daily affirmations like, “It’s OK if things don’t go to plan.” Expressive photography and activity suggestions, like creating a “Coping Wheel,” accompany each calendar month.
How to Make a Better World, by Keilly Swift, March 2020, ISBN 9781465490872, gives readers ages 7–9 the inspiration to change the world around them through actions big and small. Billed as “practical activism for kids,” this book explores concepts like “self” and “humanity” and encourages children to start making small changes within themselves and their communities. From building a small neighborhood lending library to learning the ins and outs of political discourse, this imaginatively illustrated title aims to empower young activists to “be the change” they want to see in the world.
“There was a surge in interest in SEL before the pandemic hit, but now there’s no choice,” says Amy Cox, associate vice president of marketing at Capstone. “Children in particular have been through a lot and need support both in and out of the classroom.”
Capstone started as a company geared for children struggling to read and for many years were “doing SEL without knowing it,” Cox says. Now the company focuses intentionally on SEL subjects, acknowledging that it is a larger part of the national conversation about education.
Their PebbleGo online database for children is billed as “where K–3 students go to find answers.” The repository features dynamic modules that deal with core areas of SEL like mindfulness and body image, as well as topics like substance abuse. Access to the repository was made free early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In a span of just three months, 3.3 million articles on the site were accessed, in addition to the regular usage by nearly 30% of U.S. schools.
Returning to books, Farah Rocks Fifth Grade, by Palestinian American author Susan Muaddi Darraj, January 2020, ISBN 9781496583390, explores familial loyalty and bullying through the eyes of a young girl whose special-needs brother is teased in school. With Farah set to transition to a different school, she worries about leaving him behind and faces a difficult decision that will put her integrity to the test.
Also on tap is a much-loved early reader title that has been translated into Spanish. Ramón el Gruñón (Crabby Pants), by Julie Gassman, August 2020, ISBN 9781515871958, brings K–3 readers into a world where crabby tabby Ramón struggles to manage his emotions. Ramón, who finds himself angry at even the smallest things, knows he must learn to control his reactions and grow into a more mature cat.
For K–2 readers, Catkwondo, by Lisl Detlefsen, September 2020, ISBN 9781684461004, uses playfully oversized felines to deliver a message about focus and perseverance. Although Kitten wants to use her taekwondo skills right away to break a wooden board, she must learn to be patient and channel her energy into doing it the right way. A Korean glossary and the Taekwondo Oath accompany this title.
Free Spirit Publishing
After working as a classroom teacher, author and publisher Judy Galbraith saw a substantial gap in resources for students with anxiety and other social and emotional problems. That awareness led her to start Free Spirit Publishing 37 years ago. Today, the publisher produces books covering everything from stress management to leadership development and offers titles aimed at children at all stages of development. The topics they cover are more important than ever.
Lulu and the Hunger Monster, by Erik Talkin, author and CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, September 2020, ISBN 9781631985461, helps children understand food insecurity through the story of a young girl whose mother has fallen on hard times. With food scarce, Lulu fears that the hunger monster is lurking, but she is afraid to tell anyone. She eventually learns to accept help and food from a friend. The book, endorsed by Jeff Bridges, actor and national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry, includes tips for helping children and families dealing with hunger.
Young children who are newly learning about the concept of self may understandably struggle to understand the other. Jamie & Bubbie: A Book About People’s Pronouns, by Afsaneh Moradian, October 2020, ISBN 9781631985430, empowers children as young as four to understand gender identity. In this story, young Jamie helps great-grandmother Bubbie understand that looks do not determine a person’s gender. This title is the second in the Jamie series.
Mistakes can be a hard thing for a child to admit, let alone embrace as something positive. Y Is for Yet: A Growth Mindset Alphabet, by author and teacher Shannon Anderson, September 2020, ISBN 9781631985256, covers the A-Z of growth mindset, helping to define words like “ability” and “brain.” This reference book, with its richly-textured illustrations, helps children four and older see that mistakes, both in and out of school, are not final and can even serve as a tool to help their brains develop and grow.
Violet the Snowgirl, by Lisa L. Walsh, October 2020, ISBN 9781631985171, uses the story of a melting snowgirl to explain feelings of loss. Jerzie spends her birthday building a snowgirl, Violet, with her grandmother. When warm weather arrives, Violet begins to melt. Jerzie learns that Violet will disappear but the memory of her will last forever. This book, aimed at readers ages 5–10, includes age-appropriate resources for children dealing with grief.
Fabled Films Press
Fabled Films Press is a publishing company that uses original content and multimedia distribution channels including websites and social media, to tell stories that resonate with children and adults alike. With a strong SEL focus and a recurring cast of identifiable characters, their stories endeavor to build loyal audiences and capture young readers’ hearts and minds.
“The Nocturnals Grow & Read” series by Tracey Hecht, uses less-familiar critters like a sugar glider and a pangolin to teach young readers about kindness, honesty, and love. The series’ eight titles offer a treasure trove of resources and activities for parents and educators. Illustrator Josie Yee brings to life the characters for young imaginations through expressive yet simple illustrations. Each title is also available as an ebook.
The Tasty Treat, October 2019, ISBN 9781944020293, the first book in the Nocturnals series, delivers a simple message of friendship and sharing for Level 1 readers. As characters Dawn, Tobin, and Bismark from the Nocturnal Brigade watch a pomelo fruit drop from a tree, they decide to share and enjoy a “pomelo picnic.” The series progresses with The Slithery Shakedown, April, 2018, ISBN 9781944020163, in which the critters team up to face a bully. Together they learn to use words to make the bullying snake go away; in the process, they scare the snake so badly that he slithers out of his own skin! This title is written for Level 2 readers. Finally, The Chestnut Challenge, April 2019, ISBN 9781944020224, tackles the sometimes-trying topic of honesty for Level 3 readers, through the endearing story of a cheating chinchilla. As the friends realize Chandler the chinchilla is cheating in a game of checkers, they confront him about his choices and help him understand that the only way to win is by practicing.
At the back of each Nocturnals title, readers are encouraged to download free, printable activities, such as coloring pages, animal mask cutouts, and word searches. Hecht has just released a new SEL guide focusing on emotional wellness and featuring three books from the Nocturnals series, each aligned to a different SEL theme and reading level.
Lerner Publishing Group
Lerner is a 60-year-old, Minneapolis-based publisher of pre-K–12 books for libraries and classrooms that understands the relevance of SEL in the current zeitgeist.
“We really need [SEL] more now than ever,” says Lois Wallentine, Lerner’s school and library marketing director. “We need to build an understanding of different viewpoints, cultures, and people, while celebrating what we have in common.” Lerner’s 2020 lineup reflects that need with titles that build cultural understanding, as well as playful titles that teach self-awareness for even very young children.
Thanks to a multi-book partnership between Lerner and Sesame Street launched in 2019, the loveable Elmo makes an appearance in pre-K–2 title Calm Monsters, Kind Monsters, by Karen Latchana Kenney, October 2020, ISBN 9781728413754. Struggling to sleep, Elmo practices mindfulness by saying goodnight to each part of his body and encourages little readers to try this when they’re feeling restless, too.
Readers in grades K–3 can hone their empathy while learning about poverty and immigration in The Most Beautiful Thing, by Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang, October 2020, ISBN 9781541561915. Illustrator Khoa Le uses a full color palette to bring to life the story of a grandmother’s precious relationship with her grandchildren. When granddaughter Kalia announces she wants braces to straighten her teeth, her nearly-toothless grandmother demonstrates that inner beauty is a person’s most attractive quality.
In celebration of feminism, She Represents, by Caitlin Donohue, September 2020, ISBN 9781541579019, gives children in grades 8–12 a resource for learning about the world’s most powerful women. Each spread features a different woman’s accomplishments, as well as her most memorable quotes. The 44 women featured in the book include New Zealand’s trailblazing leader Jacinda Ardern, as well as U.S. politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, to name a few.
Dictionary for a Better World, by poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, February 2020, ISBN 9781541557758, is a wonderfully colorful reference book organized like a dictionary, where each entry presents a word related to creating a better world. In the book, for grades 3–6, each word is illuminated by a poem, an inspiring quote, a related anecdote from the authors, and a try-it activity prompt. In the “Courage” entry, for example, a young boy is shown climbing a mountain, as readers are reminded that hard work pays off even on days when we’d rather stay in bed.
In 2012, Minneapolis-based publisher Jump recognized a gap in the market for nonfiction SEL books aimed at lower reading levels. Each of the four Jump imprints helps children in a specific age group understand topics like perseverance, empathy, loss, and serious illness. Jump titles feature factual presentations of their subject matter, as demonstrated by the books in their Blue Owl imprint, aimed at second to fifth grade readers.
Blue Owl’s “Mindful Mentality” series, which uses true-to-life photography and believable scenarios, promotes the building of positive character traits like tolerance, patience, and perseverance. Listening, by Mari Schuh, August 2020, ISBN 9781645273813, for example, helps children discern between hearing and truly understanding what another person is saying. Empathy, by Amber Bullis, August 2020, ISBN 9781645273776, asks children to reflect upon times they have been left out and then think about times when they made others feel left out. Each title includes tips for caregivers and teachers, encouraging journaling and reflective writing to further the books’ content.
The “Celebrating Our Communities” series encourages second to fifth graders to practice inclusion, empathy, and acceptance. Each title goes deeper than simple platitudes like “don’t exclude people,” and guides children towards an awareness of the value of diversity. Celebrating All Abilities, by Abby Colich, August 2020, ISBN 9781645273592, promotes an understanding of physical limitations and learning disabilities, as well as intellectual and physical strengths, reminding readers that every person is unique. Colich’s Celebrating All Families, August 2020, ISBN 9781645273684, explains that no two families are completely alike. It urges second to fifth grade children to see that every family is beautiful, while also encouraging them to visualize and appreciate their own family.
The “Facing Life’s Challenges” series, written by Stephanie Finne, was developed in response to direct requests from librarians and educators for nonfiction material to help second to fifth graders through their most difficult times. Facing Serious Illness, August 2020, ISBN 9781645274162, offers tactics for dealing with the serious illness of a loved one or friend. This title gives children the right words to understand and express their own sadness and fear and is particularly timely in the COVID-19 era. Other titles in the series include Facing Bullying, August 2020, ISBN 9781645274070, Facing Death, August 2020, ISBN 9781645274100, and Facing Divorce, August 2020, ISBN 9781645274131.
“I’ve always had a heart for the underdog,” says author and parent Betsy Coffeen. She is certain the world would be a better place if children could be helped, from a very young age, to understand the value of empathy and the importance of their words in other people’s lives. That message is deeply ingrained in the simple story told in her first book.
Cate’s Magic Garden, cowritten by Coffeen and Samantha Steiger-Smith, illustrated by Ginger Seehafer, 2017, ISBN 9780997506938, started as an idea for helping children understand empathy and quickly grew into a well-loved children’s book for readers ages 4–8. The story features a trio of loveable bugs that are grumpy about the dried-up garden where they live. Cate the caterpillar helps the other bugs understand that gardens need more than just water to thrive and shows them that love, kindness, and words can make a garden grow. The book includes a “Kindness Challenge” call-to-action that asks children to see how many acts of kindness they can carry out within a week in their own communities.
Since its publication in 2017, Cate’s Magic Garden has been accepted into the Accelerated Reader program used at 60,000 schools nationwide. Coffeen believes the book’s power of positivity is a message that is badly needed in classrooms and hopes to bring Cate’s Magic Garden into even more schools.
Saddleback Educational Publishing
Saddleback has a unique mission: to publish books that appeal to young people who struggle to read. Their hi-lo (high-interest, low-readability) offerings are geared toward middle and high school students with special needs, English language learners, and those who have fallen behind in their literacy. Their titles emphasize contemporary topics that both resonate with teens and are age appropriate.
“We don’t want kids to be embarrassed by what they’re reading,” says Jill Haney, Saddleback’s director of literacy. “For teenagers to be able to say about a book, ‘I can read it,’ and, ‘I want to read it,’ is so critical.”
Saddleback specializes in collections for classrooms and libraries, with titles tied together by unifying themes and typically left open-ended to promote discussion. In the SEL Teen Literacy Library, September 2018, ISBN 9781680217308, readers delve into 12 SEL topics that range from self-awareness to relationship management. Each topic is covered by a paired fiction title and a nonfiction title and illustrated with situational photography.
In Losing Control, we learn about a teen who feels ultra-confident after being recruited to play varsity soccer. He is forced to confront his emotions when his coach doesn’t let him play right away. Upset at being benched, his anger takes over once he is put in the game, which leads to mistakes that result in his team’s loss. On the way home, he has a moment of self-reflection. Readers are left to discuss what he might have done differently.
In the GO! SEL: Social Emotional Stories, April, 2020, ISBN 9781680217971, for grades 4–8, the same topics are covered exclusively through fiction titles. Each book pairing contrasts a middle school student who thrived as a result of using SEL skills, and another student who didn’t use them and faced a less positive outcome.
In Social Awareness: Speak Your Truth, a young girl campaigns for student body president and learns to stay true to herself and her values in the face of a less ethical opponent. In the contrasting title, Social Awareness: No Clue, a boy moves to a new community and makes a series of social blunders. He must learn to recognize social cues in order to fit in.
As the parents of nine children, Familius founders Christopher and Michele Robbins live and breathe SEL. Their California-based publishing house works toward their mission of “helping families be happy.” While they specialize in picture and board books for younger children, they also offer a breadth of SEL titles for children of all ages that explore issues like ADHD and anxiety.
“The Monster Diary” series, co-authored by pediatrician Dr. Raun Melmed, uses different scenarios that children may face to explore concept of mindfulness and to promote awareness of increasingly common issues like childhood anxiety. Marvin’s Monster Diary 3: Trouble with Friends (But I Get By, Big Time), April 2020, ISBN 9781641702348, for example, is set in a summer camp where a lake monster named Joey doesn’t know how to use a quiet voice. Protagonist monster Marvin uses the “ST4” technique, Stop, Take Time To Think!, to help Joey be more mindful.
Harriet’s Monster Diary: Awfully Anxious (But I Squish It, Big Time), May, 2020, ISBN 9781641701273, introduces readers to Harriet, a friendly monster who can’t bring herself to give a class presentation. The authors help children see themselves in Harriet and understand that by stopping and taking time to think, they, too, can overcome their fears.
Dear Moon, by Stephen Wunderli and Maria Luisa DiGravio, October 2020, ISBN 9781641702690, is a richly illustrated picture book for children ages 3–8 that tactfully deals with childhood illness and grief. Friends Max and Ely try to stop the moon from moving with the intent of freezing time, so Ely doesn’t have to go to the hospital for a serious illness. The title ends on a sad note, but it serves as a gentle conversation starter on a challenging subject.
Star Bright Books
Founded in 1994 by former bookstore owner and children’s editor Deborah Shine, Star Bright’s mission has always been to ensure that children of all abilities see and hear themselves reflected in their books. “We publish in 29 languages,” says Editor Skyler Lambert. “We think carefully about each book we publish and the type of child it reaches. That’s just as important as the SEL topic itself.”
The Little Red Crane, a new title with a universal theme that’s written and illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright, August 2020, ISBN 9781595728432, helps children ages 3–7 explore feelings of belonging. Miniature crane Dex journeys overseas for a job and meets bigger cranes along the way. He feels so small and wonders how, at his size, he can fit in and contribute to the work. When he arrives, he realizes that even a small crane can do an important job, as his dexterity and tiny size are utilized to assemble dinosaur skeletons…a job that bigger cranes might have trouble doing.
Jake’s Great Game, by Ken Spillman, illustrated by Chris Nixon, 2015, ISBN 9781595726834, tells the story of a young soccer player who doesn’t think he’s particularly gifted, until his coach gives him a special role as team goalie. With this new position, Jake begins to understand his own ability and gains the confidence to play. This title, illustrated in striking black and white, is geared for readers ages 6–8 and is available in English and Spanish-English.
Delving into their back catalog, Star Bright celebrates longtime children’s author and SEL advocate Miriam Cohen with the re-illustration and re-introduction of several notable books in her “We Love the First Grade” series. Young readers explore the subject of multiculturalism with Layla’s Head Scarf, 2009, ISBN 9781595721785. Layla’s classmates struggle to understand her hijab but come to realize they have more in common than they thought. Updated watercolor illustrations by Ronald Himler deliver a gentle portrayal of first grade life. Also part of Cohen’s series, First Grade Takes a Test, 2006, ISBN 9781595720559, deals with the highs and lows of first grade life, as students begin to feel the pressures of academic performance. This title helps young readers understand tough concepts like individual ability and bullying, while painting a friendly picture of a multicultural classroom.
Orca Book Publishers
Founded in 1984, Canadian publisher Orca has offered up stories about social justice, promoting indigenous, LGBTQ, and other underrepresented voices in publishing. SEL titles are a vital part of their portfolio and are deeply aligned with social justice themes, according to Marketing Director Leslie Bootle. Their 2020 books don’t shy away from tackling tough topics, even for very young readers.
Homelessness is one such topic. The One with the Scraggly Beard, by former journalist Elizabeth Withey, October 2020, ISBN 9781459818552, is a moving story about connection and compassion for children ages 3–5. When a young boy sees a man living under a bridge, he has many questions for his mother. In his quest to understand the man’s life, he ultimately learns that he and the man have more in common than he thinks.
When We Are Kind, by Monique Gray Smith, October 2020, 9781459825222, is a picture book for children ages 2–5 that promotes kindness by asking readers to think about how they feel when others are kind to them. Diné (Navajo) illustrator Nicole Neidhardt adds a rich texture to the story with bold, expressive pictures that will resonate with even the youngest readers.
Heart Sister, by Michael F. Stewart, September 2020, 9781459824874, tackles one of the most heart-wrenching topics for a parent to address. This YA title tells the story of a teenage boy who loses his twin sister in an accident. Each family member deals with grief in unique ways; Emmett undertakes a quest to learn how his twin’s legacy will live on through the recipients of her organ donations. This story paints a vivid picture of what real grief looks like and is appropriate for readers 12 and older.