Picture Books + Social and Emotional Learning

by Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books 

I don’t remember quite when it happened, but at some point last fall, I realized I was hearing the letters “SEL” a lot. And I had some sense that SEL referred to something called “social and emotional learning,” but I couldn’t articulate exactly what that was.

A colleague suggested that I check out the CASEL website, which is a rich resource of information for anyone who wants to learn more about SEL. CASEL, by the way, stands for Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

What is social and emotional learning?

CASEL concisely defines social and emotional learning as, “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

When I read this definition, it was as if a light bulb turned on over my head. “Oh!” I realized. “As a parent, this is the kind of stuff I want my own kids to be able to do.” And then I started thinking about how our picture books incorporate SEL themes in various ways.

CASEL has a framework of five core competencies within SEL. I’ve selected a picture book that I think is particularly well suited to exploring each of these themes with the young people in your life.


Niko Draws a Feeling

Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Simone Shin

Niko loves to draw his world: the ring-a-ling of the ice cream truck, the warmth of sun on his face. But no one appreciates his art. Until one day, Niko meets Iris . . .

This imaginative and tender story explores the creative process, abstract art, friendship, and the universal desire to feel understood.



Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen by Beth Mills

First grader Ella McKeen is the undisputed kickball queen until a new girl named Riya shows up—and shows her up at recess. How does Ella handle losing? By throwing herself on the grass and screaming while the rest of the class watches her fall apart. Yikes!

Find out how Ella recovers from her fit and returns to the kickball field in this pitch-perfect look at recess, friendship, and being a good sport.

Social awareness

Don't Call Me Grandma

Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

Great-grandmother Nell eats fish for breakfast, she doesn’t hug or kiss, and she does NOT want to be called grandma. Her great-granddaughter isn’t sure what to think about her. As she slowly learns more about Nell’s life and experiences, the girl finds ways to connect with her prickly great-grandmother.

Relationship skills


A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Seo Kim

As the seasons change, so too does a young Hmong girl’s world. Paj Ntaub moves into a new home with her family and encounters both birth and death. As this curious girl explores life inside her house and beyond, she collects bits of the natural world. But who are her treasures for?

After an elderly neighbor’s wife dies, Paj Ntaub finds an unexpected way to offer comfort and hope.

Responsible decision-making


Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

How can Irene and Charles work together on their fifth grade poetry project? They don’t know each other . . . and they’re not sure they want to. Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional setup to delve into different experiences of race in a relatable way, exploring such topics as hair, hobbies, and family dinners. Accompanied by artwork from acclaimed illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, this remarkable collaboration invites readers of all ages to join the dialogue by putting their own words to their experiences.

Looking for more?

We’ve put together a brand-new digital catalog of books that have links to SEL themes. You can download it from our website here.

SEL catalog

The catalog cover art, by the way, is by the illustrator Mehrdokht Amini, and it’s just one of the many incredible illustrations she created for the newly released Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z by Irene Latham and Charles Waters.

More posts by Carol.

4 thoughts on “Picture Books + Social and Emotional Learning

  1. Marianne D Wallace

    I especially liked this post. Children identify with characters in books – we all do, I suppose. So when characters act and there are consequences, we learn by example. Kindness begets kindness, hurtful behavior begets pain and sadness… As authors (and publishers), our reach can be broad and the stories we create are powerful and amazing opportunities to put these examples in the hands of children. Thanks for introducing me to SEL.

  2. Jellybean

    My daughter attended a school from 4th to 9th grade that put SEL at the core of everything it did. The kids had no grades, but they knew where they stood and what they needed to develop within the CASEL framework. She now attends a school that is just starting to integrate SEL into the high school curriculum. The atmosphere is very different in all the wrong ways, but the school is making headway. The librarians, of course, have been SEL leaders all along. Thanks for the great books, and many thanks for highlighting this topic.

    1. carolhinz

      Wow, how fascinating! Thank you for sharing your daughter’s experiences, and I wish her well in her new school!

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