The history of children’s literature abounds in examples of social and emotional learning. When a culture tells a story, the teaching sticks in the collective memories. Fairy tales and Bible stories (unedited) may be a bit much for younger audiences nowadays, but even their tamer renditions can help children see how decisions create consequences without having to take action themselves. We all know that talking to strangers and tarrying in the woods may result in bad things happening! Stories help us learn about how the we fit in the world and how the world fits in ourselves.
Let’s take a look at our collections. The stories found in non-fiction abounds through memoirs, biographies and scientific texts (on many reading levels) to help build students’ knowledge about managing emotions, making good decisions and how to create nourishing relationships. Fiction has long been recognized as a way to develop empathy, even with populations or creatures that we may never meet in person. When we and our students read a well-written story, we automatically put a piece of ourselves in the shoes of the other. While there are limitations (I’ll never be a wizard no matter how much I wish it!), I can see what it’s like when nobody wants to believe what I’m saying as well as realizing that there are times when we misjudge the actions of those close to us.
While longer texts can be used in SEL, the picture book has long been a librarian’s tool of choice in expanding a child’s social-emotional learning. As librarians, we often choose picture books to read to our students that reflect issues and ideas that are happening in their classroom and the world at large. If the school is emphasizing a specific character trait, we often use those books that reinforce that characteristic. As experts in children’s literature, our curation of books can help weed out those clunkers that contain obvious preaching. Children aren’t fooled by sanctimony and sermons. Stories that may not have an obvious right or wrong answer can be used as discussion openers, allowing for thoughtful classroom learning.
Below are some recent titles and a link to my Pinterest board on SEL books that you might want to check out for your library. Once you start looking at some of your picture books through the lens of social-emotional learning, you may want to create notes or a small database to help you find the right book for the right situation.
Julián is a Mermaid written and illustrated by Jessica Love. (Candlewick, 2018. ISBN: 978-0763690458) Julián is awed by three ‘mermaids’ on their way to the a seaside pageant. His desire to be like them results in using his Abela’s curtains and makeup to become just like them! This book shows us there is more than one way to be a little boy, especially when affirmed by those that are important in their lives.
Me and My Fear written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna. (Flying Eye Books, 2018. ISBN: 978-1911171539) At first, fear is a small fluffy friend that helps keep her safe. However, over time fear grows until it starts controlling what she can and can’t do. It is only once she finds that everyone has fears that she is able to learn to control her own.
The Funeral written and illustrated by Matt James. (Groundwood Books, 2018. ISBN: 978-1554989089) An arty but realistic book on what the funeral experience might be like for young children. Even though she knows she should be sad, Norma can’t help but be delighted to be playing with her cousin or not going to school that day. Questions abound about the service and body, but answers are left very open ended.
Tiger vs. Nightmare written and illustrated by Emily Tetri. (First Second, 2018. ISBN: 978-1626725355) Tiger never had to worry about nightmares because her monster friend used to keep them away. One day a nightmare arrives that scares the monster! It’s only after they problem solve that the two are able to come up with a solution that defeats the nightmare and allows them both to get a good night’s sleep.
If I Had a Horse written and illustrated by Gianna Marino. (Roaring Brook Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1626729087) Through simple language, watercolor, and pencil, Marino uses the relationship between a horse and a young child to show that learning about and understanding others allows one to grow strong and brave.
I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët. (Schwartz & Wade, 2018. ISBN: 978-1524769550) A wordless book that shows that bullying affects even those who witness the act. When a young girl sees the new girl get bullied, she is upset until she finds that she can act on the problem.
Captain Starfish written by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys. (Harry N. Abrams, 2018. ISBN: 978-1419728372) Alfie gets anxious sometimes, even about things he wants to do - like participate in a parade. With strong parental support, Alfie realizes his spirit animal may be more like a clown fish who comes out of hiding now and then.