SEL: The Books Kids Need Most Now

Educators know the pandemic created delays, deficiencies, and crises for children not only in mental health, but in social skills, relationships, and routines. Children’s book publishers have also recognized the greater importance and growing need for social and emotional learning–centered titles this year.



Over the course of the last year, the evidence of a building mental health crisis among young people has steadily mounted. The Journal of the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Children’s Hospital Association, and Centers for Disease Control, among others, have all sounded the alarm about the rising prevalence of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents.

Educators know the pandemic created delays, deficiencies, and crises for children not only in mental health, but in social skills, relationships, and the development that comes with being surrounded by peers and adhering to academic routines and expectations. “With students not being in school buildings the last few years, [SEL] has grown even more important,” says Richard Hasenyager Jr., PhD, vice president of Curriculum Solutions for Rosen Publishing. “We’re really seeing an increased need to bridge some of those gaps that were formed during Covid.”

Fortunately, children’s book publishers have also recognized the greater importance and growing need for social and emotional learning–centered titles this year. For instance, a new middle grade title from Shadow Mountain Publishing, Trusting True North, speaks directly to many kids’ experiences of feeling as if they were on their own during the pandemic. “I wasn’t sure if people would be interested in a pandemic story or just be looking to move away from it,” says sales and marketing director Ilise Levine. “But there’s a strong desire to give kids books to start to unpack everything they’ve gone through. I think this book is a great way to start that conversation that’s been buried.”

Here, five publishers share some of their best new and upcoming SEL titles that explore everything from empathy and inclusivity to leadership and learning about reaching out for help.

Lerner Publishing Group

A leader in children’s publishing for more than 60 years, Lerner has nearly 700 pre–K-12 titles that meet the CASEL standards for social and emotional learning. Since 2020, they’ve broken those SEL titles out into their own catalog and website, searchable by the five CASEL strands and interest level.

In We Belong, illustrations by Carlos Velez Aguilera, ISBN 9781541599130, March 2022, author and poet Laura Purdie Salas challenges four- to eight-year-olds’ tendency toward binary thinking by helping them see gray areas. “Opposites is a part of the curriculum they are taught,” says Carol Hinz, editorial director of the Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books imprints. “I asked Laura if she could explore a way to talk about opposites while also pushing against the idea of binaries and trying to get young kids to complicate their thinking a little bit.”

In rhyming verse—great for a read-aloud—Purdie Salas starts with easier concepts about the attributes people possess like “quiet” and “loud” and progresses to more challenging ones like skin color and gender identity. “It really ties in with social awareness, both recognizing strengths in others and demonstrating empathy and compassion,” Hinz says.

Be A Bridge by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Nabila Adani, ISBN 9781728423388, August 2022, is about building connections with others. It highlights relationship skills, showing leadership in groups, offering help when needed, and standing up to bullies. Each spread describes a specific bridge-building action, like “be the first to say hello when someone new walks into the room.” “It breaks the idea of being kind and inclusive into very simple steps and makes it really accessible,” Hinz says. “This book is just perfect for kicking off the school year when you’re talking about rules and expectations.”

Lerner has been working with Sesame Street as a licensed partner since 2018. Together, they’ve published more than 50 titles. “A lot of their [Sesame Street’s] books are well suited for social and emotional learning,” says marketing director Lois Wallentine. “We have some wonderful resources that we’ve developed together.”

The new, six-title pre–K-2 series “Sesame Street® Celebrating You and Me” explores and celebrates our similarities and differences—in the way we eat, dress, play, and more. These titles take an empathy-driven approach to diversity and inclusivity. One of the titles, Many Ways to Be a Family, ISBN 9781728456171, August 2022, shows a variety of families, including some with same-sex parents, adopted or foster children, separate living arrangements, etc. “Our editors work with the Sesame Street educational people to get the language, the voices of the characters, and everything [else] just right,” Wallentine says. “It’s a very collaborative partnership.”

Albert Whitman & Company

Independent Chicagoland-based publisher Albert Whitman & Company aims simply to “make good books that kids want to read.” And they’ve been at it for over a century. “Albert Whitman has been creating [SEL] stories for children for over two decades and will continue to help children learn more about themselves and the world around them,” says marketing specialist Brandon Marshall.

The fifth and sixth titles in theGreat Big Feelings” picture book series by Hallee Adelman, illustrated by Karen Wall, Way Past Lonely, ISBN 9780807586723, and Way Past Afraid, ISBN 9780807586754, came out in April 2022. “The books in the series, for ages 4–8, focus on a specific emotion while the main character feels and processes it,” Marshall says. “They see how…[the emotion] is reflected in others and how they can give themselves to others.” These stories also demonstrate how kids often struggle to process their feelings, building their awareness of what that may look like, he says.

In Way Past Afraid, Van and Abbi are on their way to their grandparents’ for a sleepover when a thunderstorm blows in and frightens Van. Abbi is less bothered by the storm until the power goes out. Seeing his sister also afraid, Van feels pressure to be the big brother and lighten the mood. He gets creative and improvises a “thunder dance.” It works. Abbi cheers up, Van relaxes, and even the grandparents join in, turning the whole night around. Adelman offers activities and lesson plans to supplement the books on

The eight-book “The Way I Feel” picture book series features warm and fuzzy animals exploring their emotions. When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Maude Spelman, illustrated by Nancy Cote, ISBN 9780807588970, January 2000, follows a bunny as she learns to identify and manage her anger. She learns what kind of situations can trigger anger, how to recognize it, and how she can blow off steam without saying something mean, yelling, or hitting. She can ride her bike or spend time alone, for example.

Shadow Mountain Publishing

About half of Utah-based Shadow Mountain’s children’s list each season falls into the SEL category, which they term “empathy-building.” “Empathy-building is something that we are keenly invested in,” says sales and marketing director Ilise Levine. “And I think we have a unique take on it as a clean-content publisher.” State master lists seems to agree. Shadow Mountain’s middle grade title Stella by McCall Hoyle, ISBN 9781629729015, March 2021, for instance, has landed on seven of them.

Trusting True North by Gina Linko, ISBN 9781629729916, April 2022, is a middle-grade pandemic story. When her mother gets stuck in Canada and her father, a nurse, gets busy treating people with “the virus,” protagonist True thinks she just must handle her problems herself. “I think that’s a very normal response for a middle grader,” Levine says. “And one a lot of kids will relate to. That’s what this story is all about.” True makes some bad choices and suffers the consequences before the adults in her life reaffirm that they are always there for her.

Two of the publisher’s newest empathy-building stories are young reader editions of popular adult novels—The Rent Collector, ISBN 9781629729855, April 2022, and The Orphan Keeper, ISBN 9781639930548, October 2022. Both 288-page, middle grade books are written by Camron Wright and are based on true stories set in Southeast Asia. The Rent Collector is about a woman struggling to eke out a subsistence in a garbage dump in Cambodia, when she learns that the universally hated rent collector can read and she begs to be taught. As the women read together, the protagonist’s world opens up beyond the dump, and she learns about the rent collector’s traumatic past at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. “This book lets us walk in someone else’s shoes,” Levine says. “It also demonstrates the power of literacy to connect people.”

In The Orphan Keeper, a young boy is kidnapped off the streets of India, sold to an orphanage, and adopted by an American couple. Because he doesn't speak English, he can’t communicate what’s happened to him. The story is about his search for his birth mother and what it means to him to return to India. “It’s about identity, belonging, and a mother’s undying love for her children—whether adopted or biological,” Levine says. “It’s one of my favorite books on our list. It’s the book that I often say is our best foot forward.” The young reader edition also includes “A Dear Young Reader” letter from the man on whose story the book is based.

Wisdom Tales Press

Wisdom Tales is the offspring of World Wisdom, a publishing company that focuses on Native American titles, Eastern religion, and comparative religion. “A lot of those interests transferred over to Wisdom Tales,” says president and editor in chief Joseph Fitzgerald. “Not that our titles are religious per se, but they celebrate cultures from around the world.”

The imprint publishes three or four titles a year, mostly picture books for ages four to eight. As a small press, Wisdom Tales must be selective and focus their efforts. “Each title relates to some salient aspect of the history of a different culture, bringing it to life,” Fitzgerald says. “By immersing oneself into a different time and place, seeing a story play out, one can learn something about that time and place and about something universal in the human condition.”

An Inuit folktale, Little Bear retold by Dawn Casey, illustrated by Amanda Hall, ISBN 9781937786922, January 2021, begins with a foreword by Kelly Berthelsen, an Inuit writer, poet, translator, and politician who advocates for Greenlandic culture and Indigenous rights. It’s the story of a lonely older woman who adopts an orphaned polar bear cub. She decides to raise him, a decision wrought with challenges. “It’s the story of a human being and the natural world,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s about letting go and how in letting go, the woman ultimately receives something more.”

The Clever Wife, told by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Ayesha Gamiet, ISBN 9781937786939, April 2022, is based on a traditional Kyrgyz folktale. “It’s a humorous story with a feminist twist,” Fitzgerald explains. A spirited young woman draws the attention of the ruling khan. Because she’s cleverer than he is, she becomes his adviser. “She ends up turning the tables on him,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s about female empowerment and never underestimating the power and intelligence of a woman.”

Rosen Publishing

“We actually got our start in children’s publishing in the guidance area,” says Richard Hasenyager Jr., PhD, vice president of Curriculum Solutions for Rosen. “So SEL is nothing new to us.” That was over 70 years ago. Today, the company puts out 1,200 new titles a year, spanning from pre-K to 12+, both fiction and nonfiction across a wide array of topics, while staying true to their SEL roots.

The picture book The (Ferocious) Chocolate Wolf by Lizzie Finlay, ISBN 9781499488623, July 2021, will appeal to a pre–K-3 audience, grade 1-2–level readers. “Everyone gets excited when they see a new chocolate shop is opening, until they see it’s a wolf who is opening it,” Hasenyager says. “Because if you know the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf has a bad reputation as a storybook character.” This title touches on empathy, working with others, perceptions, social awareness, and relationship skills. “It’s a story about diversity as well,” he says. “You can’t lump everyone into the same category. You need to look at an individual based on their individual strengths.”

A former teacher, school librarian, and education administrator, Hasenyager points out that this story lends itself to making connections to other texts, to character mapping, to comparing wolf characters from other stories, and to sparking interesting conversations with young readers.

Rosen’s six 80-page titles in the “Be an Effective Communicator” series by Dwayne Hicks are written at a seventh-grade reading level but are equally suitable for middle and high school libraries. “The series outlines better ways to communicate with others verbally and nonverbally,” says Hasenyager, classifying the series in the social awareness and relationship skills CASEL competencies. For example, in Learning to Lead, ISBN 9781499470178, December 2021, readers learn how to use communication skills they’ve developed for leadership. “We combine different parts of SEL together to take it to the next step,” Hasenyager says. “Each book looks at what it takes to be an effective communicator through a different lens.”

A staple in secondary school libraries for over a decade, Rosen’s Teen Health and Wellness Database, created by an in-house editorial team, ISBN 9781404290563, features proprietary original content spanning SEL categories and beyond. A search filter allows students and educators to search the database by SEL competencies and skills. “We always say no topic is taboo,” Hasenyager declares. “It’s very expansive.” Students can also submit their own questions to a psychologist for the published Q&A or take a mental break in the Calm Room with meditative audio and video of a rainy day or a live puppy cam, among many relaxing options.



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