SEL: Essential for Success

While social and emotional learning (SEL) has become a politically charged term in these highly polarized times, educators understand the value of having students of all ages learn self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.


While social and emotional learning (SEL) has become a politically charged term in these highly polarized times, educators understand the value of having students of all ages learn self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Today’s students face a complex and uncertain future. They’ve grown up during a global pandemic and with threats including gun violence, the climate crisis, and wars in Europe and the Middle East as a constant presence. “Systemic discrimination has also affected the mental health of so many young people,” says Fred Horler, senior marketing director for Groundwood Books. “Far too many children are dealing with a maelstrom of mental health issues at a time when they are still trying to discover who they are and what their place in the world is.”

Learning social-emotional skills can help students develop resilience and overcome the sense of isolation many feel. But these skills are also critical for success in school and life. Research shows that SEL has a positive impact on students’ well-being and academic performance. As the nonprofit organization CASEL observes, hundreds of independent studies across numerous fields indicate that SEL contributes to a healthier school climate, improved academics, and better lifetime outcomes.

Books are a perfect vehicle for students to learn social-emotional skills in an organic way. By reading how fictional characters and real-life figures alike have persevered through hardships, developed healthy relationships, and grown emotionally, students can learn to solve their own challenges and navigate their own emotions.

Here are some of the latest books from publishers with strong SEL themes.

Lerner Publishing Group

Founded in 1959, Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing Group is one of the largest independently-owned children's book publishers in the United States, with more than 5,000 titles in print.

Lerner offers nonfiction and fiction books for students in grades K–12. In 2020, the company began aligning its books with social-emotional learning standards by identifying which of CASEL’s five core SEL competencies each of its titles supports, if any—making it simple for teachers and librarians to find content that addresses specific SEL skills.

“We’ve had a great response to this practice,” says School and Library Marketing Director Lois Wallantine.

Among its spring 2024 releases, Lerner had 75 books that aligned with at least one core SEL competency. Its fall 2024 releases feature 116 books with SEL-related themes.

Just Another Story: A Graphic Migration Account by Ernesto Saade, April 2024, ISBN 9781728474137, is a graphic novel for teens. Based on the true story of Saade’s cousin Carlos, who emigrated to the U.S. with his mother when he was 19, it’s a story about overcoming one’s fears and persevering through hardship. It also helps build empathy by personalizing the plight of immigrants in the United States.

Cruzita and the Mariacheros by Mexican American author Ashley Granillo, April 2024, ISBN 9798765608500, is a middle grade novel about a teenage girl who feels misunderstood by her family. Cruzita dreams of becoming a pop star, but for now she must help at her family’s bakery, while she’s also mourning the recent death of her beloved uncle. Caught between two worlds, she finds a sense of community in mariachi music, which helps her connect with her family and heritage. “Interpersonal relationships are the heart of the story,” says Amy Fitzgerald, editorial director of Lerner imprint Carolrhoda Books.

Touch the Sky by Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, illustrated by Chris Park, May 2024, ISBN 9781728460451, models self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills for children in grades K–3. A boy named Vern wants nothing more than to swing on the playground, but he struggles with pumping his legs. When he meets a girl named Gretchen, she teaches him how to do this correctly. Finally able to “touch the sky,” Vern then passes his newfound skill on to another child who’s having trouble swinging.

Groundwood Books

Founded in 1978 by Patricia Aldana and based in Toronto, Canada, Groundwood is an independent publisher of children’s books for all ages, including fiction, nonfiction, picture books, and graphic novels.

“Our mission is to share stories that aren’t readily available from other mainstream publishers, including marginalized voices and stories from around the world,” says Senior Marketing Director Fred Horler.

To help support students’ social-emotional development, Groundwood has created a dedicated catalog, called “The Feeling and Healing Collection,” featuring 60 children’s books that can make a positive contribution to youth mental health and well-being. Available in both print and digital formats, the catalog was created with financial support from Ontario Creates.

The books are organized into six categories: Navigating Family Issues; Navigating Death, Loss, Grief; Developing Emotional Awareness; Navigating Specific Emotions; Fostering Inclusion and Acceptance; and Exploring Culture and Identity. To curate the collection, Groundwood enlisted the help of certified cognitive behavioral therapist Tania DaSilva.

“Every book can be used as a step toward understanding social-emotional concepts and challenges through the magic of storytelling,” DaSilva writes in the introduction.


An example of navigating family issues is The Big Bad Wolf in Our House by Valérie Fontaine, illustrated by Nathalie Dion, March 2021, ISBN 9781773065014. In this moving story about domestic violence that ends on a hopeful note, a young girl describes what it’s like when her mom’s new friend comes to stay with them. When Groundwood hosted a book signing event featuring the book’s creators, “I’d never seen a reaction like the one they received,” Horler says. “The outpouring of gratitude toward them for telling this story was something to behold.”

Learning to process death, loss, and grief can be especially challenging for children of all ages. In The Funeral by Matt James, April 2018, ISBN 9781554989089, a child’s first experience with death involves love, laughter, and some big questions about life. This picture book for children ages 4­–7 can be used to prepare children for a funeral or help answer questions they might have about death.

Happy Birthday to Me by Thao Lam, April 2023, ISBN 9781773068725, is a good book for helping children ages 3–6 understand their emotions. As a young girl waits for her birthday party, she experiences a wide range of feelings: nervousness, impatience, overwhelm. “The book gives names to these different emotions, and it’s a fun way for children to learn them,” Horler says.

Not all the books in the catalog are aimed at young children. Game Face by Shari Green, September 2023, ISBN 9781773068688, is a middle-grade story in which 13-year-old Jonah learns to manage anxiety as his hockey team’s goalie. “If you can open up a conversation about anxiety with a 12-year-old boy by sitting down with a book about hockey,” Horler says. “That’s a good thing.”

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, May 2014, ISBN 9781554983476, is a picture book about fostering inclusion and acceptance. Morris is a little boy who loves to wear an orange-colored dress from his classroom’s dress-up center. At first, the other kids tease him. But when Morris builds a spaceship, the other children want to join in. “Their curiosity overcomes their bias,” says Horler, who notes that this is a good book to spark conversations about accepting others’ differences.

Free Spirit Publishing

An imprint of Teacher Created Materials, Free Spirit publishes fiction and nonfiction content supporting social-emotional health and learning for toddlers through young adults. Its list of new releases will expand to nearly 50 titles in 2025, thanks in part to a growing line of picture books that enhance young children’s friendship and self-advocacy skills through story, says Publisher Kyra Ostendorf.

Hello, Beech Tree! by Rasha Hamid, illustrated by Sofia Moore, June 2024, ISBN 9798885540377, is based on a real-life experience the author’s kindergarten class in Brooklyn had. When the students discovered that a beloved beech tree in a nearby park had to be cut down because it was diseased, they came up with a plan to honor the tree. The children led a fundraiser and used the money they earned to plant a new tree in its place.

“It’s a beautiful story about navigating emotions such as love and sadness, as well as learning how to take action,” Ostendorf says.

Sonia and the Super-Duper Disaster by Rachel Funez, illustrated by Kelly Kennedy, July 2024, ISBN 9798885543903, takes a fun and comical approach to teaching children ages 4­–9 how to cope when things go wrong. When Sonia forgets her mother’s birthday, she’s determined to make up for this mistake by making her mom breakfast. But her ADHD gets in the way, and her anxiety multiplies as the breakfast spirals out of control. Relying on strategies such as deep breathing and self-talk (“I’m capable. I’ve got this”), Sonia manages to save the breakfast in the end.

One of the hallmarks of Free Spirit’s books is their back matter expanding on the books’ themes, Ostendorf says, and the material at the end of this book discusses ADHD, anxiety, and the strategies that Sonia uses to cope in more detail.

It Won't Ever Be the Same: A Teen's Guide to Grief and Grieving by Korie Leigh, September 2024, ISBN 9798885543842, is a Free Spirit book for older readers (ages 11 and up). In this nonfiction book, the author—a professional family grief counselor—explores how students can deal with loss and take meaning from the experience.

“When I read this manuscript, I found it very touching,” Ostendorf says. “It meets a moment. That’s an important part of Free Spirit’s mission; we don’t back away from tough topics.”

Sequoia Kids Media

Sequoia Kids Media, an imprint of Phoenix International Publications, develops fun, high-interest content for schools and libraries. Sequoia publishes up to 100 books per year for children ages 3–10 in print, audiobook, e-book, and read-along formats.

Social emotional learning themes are “very important to us,” says Senior Marketing Manager Casey Griffin. Many of the company’s books help children learn what it means to be a good friend or a kind person, she explains.

Nail Polish Is Too for Boys! by Emma-Claire Sunday, illustrated by Caitlin O’Dwyer, April 2024, ISBN 9781503771055, is a story for children ages 4–8 about tolerance and just being oneself. When a boy named Alex goes off to camp, his world feels gray and drab. But when Alex tries painting his nails, he discovers a world of color he’s never experienced before—and the book’s illustrations reflect this new vibrant world. But what will happen when Alex returns home once camp is over?

Do I Have To?” is a series of books that teach children ages 3–7 proper manners and etiquette, such as why it is important to be neat, kind, and polite. The first four books in the series came out last fall, and four more titles are being released this fall.

One of the new titles is Do I Have to Say Excuse Me? by Sequoia Kids Media, illustrated by Gabriele Antonini, August 2024, ISBN 9798765401941. Madison Moo is a young cow who wants to enjoy a trip to the movies, but there are so many interruptions. Young children learn how to navigate social situations along with Madison while respecting others’ feelings. The other new books in the series cover chewing with one’s mouth closed, washing hands, and saying please and thank you.

Understanding Me” is a series of board books that Sequoia released a few years ago to help young children understand their feelings, imaginations, and sensory experiences. Now, these titles—which include both English and Spanish editions—are being released in a library bound edition, as well as e-book, audio, and read-along formats.

In one of the series titles, My Feelings, written and illustrated by Jeffrey Turner, August 2024, ISBN 9798765407387, a prickly porcupine names and describes a variety of emotions, helping children become aware of their own feelings.

Yen Press

Founded in 2008 and based in New York, Yen Press is an American publisher of manga, graphic novels, and light novels for middle-grade to adult readers. The company is co-owned by Kadokawa Corporation and Hachette Book Group.

“Manga does a good job of addressing social-emotional themes in the context of larger stories,” says Sales and Marketing Director Mark de Vera. These stories are often about characters who are learning how to overcome shyness, make friends, and persevere through challenges. “Manga shouldn’t be overlooked as a tool for learning SEL,” de Vera says.

In Honey Lemon Soda, Vol. 1 by Mayu Murata, translated by Amanda Haley, January 2023, ISBN 9781975363314, protagonist Uka Ishimori has one dream in life: to have fun in high school. As a self-avowed introvert who spent all her time in middle school steeling herself against a daily barrage of bullying, she finds that breaking out of her shell is easier said than done.

Luckily, Uka is not alone. With the help of new friend Kai Miura, a classmate whose blonde hair reminds her of the lemon soda he so enjoys, she learns to become more confident. Intended for readers ages 13 and up, this book is an example of “shojo” manga aimed at girls, in particular.

“Social and emotional learning doesn’t stop when we graduate high school. We’re all continually learning and growing emotionally even as adults,” de Vera says.

This point is driven home in I Want to be a Wall, Vol. 1 by Honami Shirono, translated by Emma Schumacker, May 2022, ISBN 9781975338961. Aimed at readers ages 16 and up, it’s an adult manga novel about the relationship that blossoms between an asexual woman and a gay man, whose heart belongs to his oblivious childhood friend. In trying to make each other happy, the pair learn the importance of empathy, compassion, and effective communication.

Rourke Educational Media

A division of Carson Dellosa Education, Rourke Educational Media has been publishing engaging fiction and nonfiction titles to support reading for students in prekindergarten through ninth grade for more than 40 years. Its titles and series are carefully crafted to align with state and national standards, and SEL competencies are embedded within many of these books.

“Including SEL competencies in relevant, high-interest books is a way that we can support literacy skills as we also support readers’ understandings of traits like perseverance and resilience,” says Wendy Vincent, senior manager for Carson Dellosa’s school and library business.

Driven to Succeed,” a new hi-lo series for students in grades 4–9, is a good example. Written by Chris Schwab and illustrated by Joshua Janes, the books highlight famous people in various career fields who have faced—and overcome—adversity.

“We made this series especially to help older readers benefit from the stories of others,” Vincent says. “Stories that highlight the power of mistakes, missteps, and moments of defeat—things we all experience in different ways.” By reading these stories, students will learn that everybody experiences setbacks, and it’s how we deal with these challenges that defines us.

Artists & Entertainers Who Never Gave Up, February 2024, ISBN 9781731657718, describes how professionals such as Frida Kahlo, Beyoncé, and the creator of Pokémon overcame challenges with the help of creativity, tenacity, and perseverance. For instance, every cartoon that Charles Schultz drew for his high school yearbook was rejected. But all Schultz wanted to do was draw, so he stuck with it. As an adult, he took art classes and worked hard to become a better artist—and in 1950, the first “Peanuts” cartoon appeared in seven newspapers.

Scientists & Inventors Who Never Gave Up, February 2024, ISBN 9781731657695, tells the stories of people who overcame challenges to discover or invent something that changed the world. Sir James Dyson tested 5,126 unsuccessful bagless vacuum cleaner models before landing on a model that worked. Gladys West overcame both racism and sexism to become a mathematician; she helped invent the Global Positioning System (GPS).

These 32-page books are available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. They include discussion questions and suggested activities for parents and teachers as well.



Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing