A Little Courage: Share these SEL books with kids when scary things happen

We live in a world where everything from a microscopic virus to a gun the size of a baseball bat has tried to kill our children. Books—and acknowledging a child's fear—can help.

It was once true that the most frightening things most children faced were the self-inflicted terrors of the ghouls and goblins that popped up around Halloween, or the helplessness that came from being an innocent bystander to the doings of adults—moves to a new city or country, or having to get a vaccine. For some unfortunate children, there were drastic changes in their environment brought by a frightening weather phenomenon or even worse, the horrifying onset of war.

Now we live in a world where everything from a microscopic virus to a gun the size of a baseball bat has tried to kill them. Immigrants once brought their children to this country as a place where they would be safe; late-night talk show hosts now routinely joke about relocating their own families across the border.

Although these titles tackle different topics, it all comes down to how these characters deal with their feelings of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, and even, at times, learn to overcome their difficulties.

The good news is that educators with the right resources can help.

“We believe that if a student feels that the adult in the classroom really cares about them and believes that they will be successful, that student will be able to stay in class and work through conflicts,” says Kevin Truitt, chief of student, family, and community support for the San Francisco Unified School District, which has implemented SEL curricula for all grade levels, as quoted in “How Social-Emotional Learning Transforms Students and Schools” in SLJ in April 2019.

“Students will be able to regulate their own emotions and behavior better if they’re in a caring environment,” he shares.

CREWS, Nina. I’m Not Small. illus. by author. Greenwillow. 2022. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780063058262.
K-Gr 1–After being told that he’s a big boy and can go in his backyard himself, our protagonist still feels small among the trees. However, he convinces himself that not only is he not small, he can be brave outside all by himself. The patterns, textures, and clear facial expressions of the characters help bring this story to life.

LIU, Dane. Friends Are Friends, Forever. illus. by Lynn Scurfield. Holt. 2022. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781250778185.
K-Gr 2–A lot can change in just a year. In Dandan spends one last Lunar New Year with her best friend before moving to another country. Based on the author’s own experiences, we see how our protagonist, apprehensive of her new environment, does eventually get the hang of life in her new home with a new friend.

PENFOLD, Alexandra. All Are Welcome. iIlus. by Suzanne Kaufman. Knopf. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525579649.
K-Gr 2–“In our classroom safe and sound. Fears are lost and hope is found.” Although not focusing on any one character, there is a full classroom of students and the emphasis is on the message repeated throughout the book: All are welcome here! With comforting rhymes and a classroom of children of different backgrounds and abilities, readers who may be having issues fitting into a new class or school may find themselves in this book.

ROBERTSON, David A. When We Were Alone. illus. by Julie Flett. HighWater. 2016. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781553796732.
Gr 1-3–While spending time with her kókom (grandmother in Cree), a young girl asks why she dresses colorfully, has long hair, and speaks another language. Her grandmother responds by recalling her past of being sent to a school far away, being forced into wearing monotonous clothing, and being separated from her family—being stripped of her identity. Readers will see that despite her difficult childhood, through resilience, Kókom is not afraid to express herself and her culture.

SANNA, Francesca. Me and My Fear. illus. by author. Flying Eye. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781911171539.
PreS-Gr 2–In this beautiful picture book filled with Sanna’s signature illustration style, our protagonist, a young girl, shares a secret with the readers: she has a friend called Fear. Fear has been with her through many experiences and changes, but after moving to a new country, Fear is growing and doesn’t want to do anything anymore. The young girl eventually makes a new friend who shares his own secret with her—he also has a friend named Fear. The visual depiction of Fear personified is sure to be relatable to all readers, but more so to those who have gone through a recent change in life.

SNICKET, Lemony. The Dark. illus. by Jon Klassen. Little, Brown. 2013. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780316187480.
K-Gr 2–Known for his tragic “Series of Unfortunate Events,” Snicket gives this picture book illustrated by Klassen that slightly eerie feel. This book follows the adventure of two characters: Laszlo, who is afraid of the dark, and the dark, who happens to live in Laszlo’s house, but only comes out at night. One evening after bedtime, the dark visits Laszlo’s room, and as it envelopes the space, it invites Laszlo down to the basement. As he navigates through the creaky, black house, Laszlo discovers what the dark wanted him to find—a light bulb! Laszlo learns that the dark isn’t so scary, and it never bothers him again. Klassen sticks to a simple color scheme in this book, which really makes the harsh, blunt darkness on the pages throughout the book stand out.

TARNOWSKA, Wafa’. Nour’s Secret Library. illus. by Vali Mintzi. Barefoot. 2022. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781646862917.
Gr 1-3 –Readers follow Nour and her cousin Amir living in the city of Damascus. Slowly things are changing in their city, from the power going out to food being scarce. On his trips to get bread, Amir begins to bring home the books that he finds on the street. Eventually, Nour and Amir build a library with these found books in an abandoned basement, and get a variety of people to borrow books. Their secret library becomes a safe haven for those stuck in a war-stricken city. The back matter features some history and a glossary, and shares the inspiration for this story—the real secret library.


[Read: Give Books to Kids Who are Worrying Over the First Day of School]


WOODSON, Jacqueline. The Day You Begin. illus. by Rafael López. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780399246531.
Gr 1-3–Woodson’s prose along with whimsical illustrations by López produce a fantastic book. Many specific experiences by marginalized students are reflected within these pages—feeling out of place because of their skin, their clothes, or even the traditional food packed as their school lunch for the day. Many children are shown in this state of disquiet, but as they find out, it just takes one student to open up. Even if they don’t quite fit in with the other students, they will make room for all.

YOLEN, Jane & Heidi E.Y. Stemple. I Am the Storm. illus. by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell. Penguin Workshop/Rise X. 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780593222751.
Gr 1-3–Take a look at how each family deals with four natural disasters that occur within the pages of this book: a tornado, a blizzard, a wildfire, and a hurricane. The book features beautiful, colorful, and detailed full-page illustrations that instantly immerse readers in the story. An amazing read to remind young and old that though these incidents are scary, there are calm ways to deal with them, and that they always pass.

ZAUAMER, Jan. Maxine’s Critters Get the Vaccine Jitters. illus. by Corlette Douglas. The Experiment. 2022. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781615198382
K–Gr 1–Maxine announces to her critters that today’s the day they all need to get their shots! As her pals begin to get nervous, Maxine explains why vaccines are necessary. All goes well at the vet and afterwards, Maxine goes to get her own vaccine. Fun rhymes and colorful illustrations bring a positive and encouraging tone to this story.

Shazia Naderi is a public librarian from Long Island, NY.

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