Building Blocks of Wellness: Books that Support Social Emotional Learning

The following 16 titles emphasize social emotional core values that are important for healthy childhood development.

When cultivating collections, librarians assess the potential popularity of the titles under consideration. Additionally, they contemplate how fiction books improve reading skills or how nonfiction relates to the curriculum. These needs are important, but there is another aspect of collection development that should be taken into account. Collections should reflect the social emotional growth needs of the community.

Children experience all types of stressors, and books can provide therapeutic support. Social emotional titles focus on the five principles of social emotional learning: social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. Libraries that curate a collection that builds these skills will encourage and supplement children’s academic potential, interpersonal relationships, and mental health.

The following 16 titles emphasize social emotional core values that are important for healthy childhood development. The picture books center on identifying emotions, healthy methods of dealing with negative feelings, and self-acceptance. The beginning readers introduce social skills that young elementary students are developing. These titles highlight sharing, taking turns, making friends, social acceptance, and social support. The middle grade works discuss empathy, stereotypes, self-acceptance, overcoming obstacles, and learning to cope with mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit disorder. Finally, the nonfiction books offer insight into mental health issues, instructions and exercises for the five areas of social emotional learning, and examples of real-world issues with solutions.

Picture Books

BARNES, Derrick. I Am Every Good Thing. illus. by James C. Gordon. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. 2020. ISBN 9780525518778.
PreS-Gr 3 –This celebration of Black childhood provides empowering statements that read like affirmations combined with strong, colorful illustrations. With the refrain of “I am…” on each page, poetic free verse illuminates the positive characteristics of childhood. This is a powerful book about self-love, confidence, and resilience especially for Black boys, but the message can be appreciated by every child.

CORNWALL, Gaia. Jabari Tries. illus. by author. Candlewick. 2020. ISBN 9781536207163.
Gr 2-4 –Jabari, a young Black boy, is making a flying machine, but his take-offs quickly crash. Even though Jabari becomes frustrated, he doesn’t want help. Soon his emotions become too much, and Jabari takes a break. With patient, encouraging words from his father and support from his sister, Jabari tries again. Voila! Flight. The underlying message of perseverance, accepting of advice, and cooperation is perfect for young readers.

LLENAS, Anna. The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2018. ISBN 9780316450010.
PreS-Gr 3 –The Color Monster’s feelings are all mixed up. A young girl helps the monster identify his emotions and sort them out. The vibrant, mixed-media illustrations depict each emotion as a color; a few sentences describe how each emotion makes the monster feel. The result is a peaceful and self-aware monster.

PERCIVAL, Tom. Ruby Finds a Worry. illus. by author. Bloomsbury. 2019. ISBN 9781547602377.
PreS-Gr 1 –Ruby’s worry, represented as a yellow scribble, continues to grow until the worry is all consuming. Ruby, who presents as a Black girl, meets another worried child, who has light skin and dark hair. As the two discuss their worries, the scribbles gradually disappear. Ruby learns that worries can be managed through conversation. This lesson teaches children to process their difficult emotions through communication.

Beginning Readers

MANUSHKIN, Fran. Katie Blows Her Top. illus. by Tammie Lyon. Capstone/Picture Window. 2018. ISBN 9781515822653.
Gr 1-3 –Katie, an Asian American girl, and two classmates work together to make a volcano. No one wants to share or take turns, and the volcano project erupts with anger and frustration. The three classmates follow their teacher’s advice, divide up the work, and have fun finishing the task. The central themes of cooperation and anger management will resonate with young readers.

WATSON, Tom. Trouble at Table 5: The Candy Caper. illus. by Marta Kissi. HarperCollins/Harper. 2020. ISBN 9780062953414.
Gr 1-3 –Molly, a biracial third grader, has obsessive compulsive disorder. When Molly notices a jar of jelly beans on the principal’s desk, she must know the exact amount. While her two best friends, an astute Black girl and an impulsive white boy, distract the principal, Molly switches out the jar and counts the jelly beans. This beginning chapter book features supportive family and friends who normalize and destigmatize Molly’s compulsions.


Middle Grade

GERBER, Alyson. Focused. Scholastic. 2019. ISBN 9781338185973.
Gr 5-8 –Seventh grader Clea is frustrated and can’t understand why she is always making mistakes. Once she is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and advocates for herself, Clea is able to get the help she needs. Gerber has crafted a character who is relatable and insightful. Children will identify with Clea’s struggles and learn from her success.

LEVY, Dana Alison. It Wasn’t Me. Delacorte. 2018. ISBN 9781524766436.
Gr 3–7 –When Theo’s art is vandalized at his middle school, he and five suspects, all white except for one Black boy, participate in a week-long “Justice Circle” to reveal the culprit and build student bonds. These socially stereotypical characters (Nerd, Princess, Jock, Screw Up, and Weirdo) echo the interpersonal relationship dynamics depicted in John Hughes’s seminal film The Breakfast Club. The mystery and character development make this a page turner that encourages readers to look beyond their assumptions and get to know the person inside.

PEARSALL, Shelley. The Seventh Most Important Thing. Knopf. 2015. ISBN 9780553497281.
Gr 5-9 –After throwing a brick at a Black man known as the “Junk Man,” Arthur, a 13-year-old white boy, is sentenced to 120 hours of community service with his victim. While collecting the seventh most important things from people’s trash, Arthur learns that the “Junk Man” is an artist. Grief, empathy, and redemption are explored in this novel that encourages emotional growth and a deeper understanding of others.

THOMPSON, Lisa. The Goldfish Boy. Scholastic. 2017. ISBN 9781338053920.
Gr 4-6 –When his baby brother dies, 12-year-old Matthew blames himself and becomes preoccupied with disinfecting his environment to keep everyone safe. Eventually Matthew stops going outside and observes the world through his window. When the toddler next door goes missing, Matthew must overcome his fears and anxiety to help find the child. A realistic portrayal that provides insight into obsessive compulsive disorder and mental health struggles.

WILLIAMS, Alicia D. Genesis Begins Again. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy. 2019. ISBN 9781481465809.
Gr 5-8 –Genesis, a young Black girl, keeps a list of all the reasons she hates herself. While her hatred is mostly focused on her dark skin, her dysfunctional family and father’s addiction are the catalysts for her poor self-esteem. Luckily, with the help of her friends and music teacher, Genesis slowly but surely begins to accept herself. A fantastic novel about understanding addiction, dysfunctional behavior, and self-acceptance.


BRIAN, Rachel. The Worry (Less) Book: Feel Strong, Find Calm, and Tame Your Anxiety! illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2020. ISBN 9780316495196.
Gr 2-5 –This comic-style book offers a simple explanation about worry and anxiety. The accessible text defines these feelings and then provides a few strategies for overcoming harmful anxiety. The fun black, white, and yellow illustrations are engaging. A good choice for younger readers and those who are experiencing these feelings for the first time.

CHOPRA, Mallika. Just Feel: How To Be Stronger, Happier, Healthier, and More. illus. by Brenna Vaughan. Running Pr. 2019. ISBN 9780762494743.
Gr 4-8 –Chopra guides children in understanding their emotions, relationships, strengths, and self-acceptance. The sections on topics such as art, journaling, and social interactions are followed by exercises that work toward building an emotionally healthy child. Readers can choose which lessons are beneficial without reading the entire text, and the gentle illustrations show children of various racial backgrounds in relaxing, socially supportive, or physically active situations.

JENSEN, Kelly, ed. (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health. Algonquin. 2018. ISBN 9781616207816.
Gr 7 Up –Thirty-three writers, actors, and activists of various ethnicities, including Asian, Latino, Black, and white, share their experiences living with psychological and neurological conditions. Depression, autism, and borderline personality disorder are a few of the issues examined through personal stories, poetry, artwork, and comics. Older kids and teens will be reassured that their struggles are common and that discussing them can be therapeutic.

KREKELBERG, Alyssa. Let’s Get Along: Resolving Conflict. The Child’s World. 2020. ISBN 9781503844582.
PreS-Gr 2 –This title is part of the “Social and Emotional Learning” series, which covers the five aspects of social emotional learning for young readers. Each book features full-page, colorful photos and relatable situations that are resolved through social emotional learning. The text centers on sibling and friendship confrontations that are solved with empathy, sharing, and compromise. Perfect for satisfying library requests about modeling healthy behaviors and emotions in young children.

Katherine Rao is a librarian at Palos Verdes Library District and Los Angeles Public Library in California.

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