Blogger Tess Prendergast

Reading Picture Books through a Social and Emotional Learning Lens

Most children’s library workers have already heard of the concept called social and emotional learning (SEL). In many ways, its exact definition is self-evident: SEL is learning that seeks to address the social and emotional developmental needs of children.[1]

Among many other benefits to children’s overall literacy growth, I believe that children’s picture books present rich opportunities for practitioners to extend understanding of specific SEL concepts. Although no single picture book can fully demonstrate all the complexities of SEL, here I have selected some of my favourite, recently published picture books and linked them to the 5 dimensions of SEL which are: Self-awareness; Self-management; Responsible decision-making; Relationship skills; and Social Awareness. 

The bolded definitions of each SEL domain below were taken from What is the CASEL Framework?

Self-awareness: The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts.

Beneath written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld

A child name Finn is having “a bad day” but agrees to a walk with Grandpa anyway. On their walk, Grandpa explains how things are more than they appear on the surface. Finn’s curiosity about nature is sparked by what they see around them and then empathy grows as they encounter people on their walk. Grandpa explains that “beneath appearances are experiences”. Finn slowly begins to understand their own as well as Grandpa’s feelings. This beautiful and contemplative picture-book will spark many conversations about self-awareness and understanding emotions, especially ones that lurk beneath the surface. 

Self-management: The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. 

Abdul’s Story written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Tiffany Rose

Abdul is a passionate storyteller – but struggles to get them out on paper. He tries to write them but ends up erasing them over and over again. Abdul also notices that there aren’t any kids who look like him in the books at school. He begins to think his stories don’t matter enough to be written down anyway. Abdul’s outlook changes when he meets Mr. Muhammad, a visiting author whose stories reflect their shared culture and who also shows him that his own writing starts out messy too. Inspired by this wonderful mentor, Abdul perseveres until he gets his own story written down.

Responsible decision-making: The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. 

We Are Water Protectors written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade

Drawing on the wisdom of her kôhkom (grandmother), and the strength of her community, the Indigenous child narrator joins in the fight to protect the Earth’s “first medicine”, water. Captivating illustrations blend metaphor with reality as the child reflects on the importance of standing strong against the environmental hazards wrought by the oil industry. From a powerfully authentic Indigenous perspective, the narrator tells a personal as well as a collective story about the responsibility of each member of the human family to join in the fight to care for and protect Earth’s water.  

Relationship skills: The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups

Luli and the Language of Tea written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Hyewon Yum

While their immigrant parents attend English classes, a group of children gather in the playroom next door. Unable to communicate verbally with her multilingual classmates yet, a Chinese child named Luli brings a thermos of tea to school and calls out “Chá!” The rest of the children take notice and respond by calling out the word for “tea” in their own heritage languages. Soon they are gathered around a table, sharing Luli’s tea (and some cookies!). Many words for tea are similar across the globe, further cementing this book’s unifying message. 

Social awareness: The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. 

Where is Bina Bear? written and illustrated by Mike Curato

Tiny is having a party! However, she keeps finding her friend Bina hiding, somewhat unsuccessfully, instead of joining the gathering. Tiny takes time away from the rest of the party to find why Bina is trying so hard not to be seen and then responds with empathetic kindness. This story offers ways to open up conversations with young children about shyness, acceptance, and what it means to be a supportive friend. 

Once you start looking for these features, it is really easy to recognize aspects of SEL in picture books. I encourage you to continue to learn more about SEL, and to think about ways that you can promote picture books with various SEL themes in your communities. What are some of your favourite picture books with SEL themes? Let me know in the comments!

References and Resources:

Durlak, J. A. (2015). Handbook of social and emotional learning: research and practice. The Guilford Press.

Fundamentals of SEL

Meeting the Social and Emotional Needs of Children

What is the CASEL Framework?


[1] The term “social and emotional learning” was first coined in 1994 by a group of educators who created the SEL framework in order “to promote social, emotional and academic competence of young people and to coordinate school-family-community programming to address those educational goals.” Following this, educators founded the organization known as the CASEL which stands for  Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. CASEL’s mission is to promote evidence-based SEL for children from preschool through high school (Durlak, 2015, p.5).

Tess Prendergast worked as a children’s librarian for 23 years. She has a PhD in early literacy education and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She currently facilitates the ALSC Preschool Discussion group and has served on both the Geisel (2023) and Caldecott (2016) committees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *