The best children’s books for promoting social emotional learning

Caroline & Katherine Brickley Author Of The Friendly Bookshelf
By Caroline & Katherine Brickley

The Books I Picked & Why

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch

By Eileen Spinelli, Paul Yalowitz

Book cover of Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch

Why this book?

When we were kids, this was one of our all-time favorite books to have read to us each and every evening. While an especially good story to read around Valentine’s Day, we loved hearing it all year round. Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch is a picture book about a lonely, older man who one day receives an extra-large box of chocolate with the note “Somebody loves you!” attached to it. The gift spurs this quiet, isolated man to open his eyes and heart to the world around him and reach out to others through acts of kindness. The new friends he makes are astounded by the kind and joyful person that he had been hiding inside himself all along.

This book uniquely speaks to the amazing things that can happen when we choose to treat others with kindness: not only can we develop meaningful, fulfilling friendships, but we can also make a meaningful impact in the people and communities that surround us that is much bigger than we could have ever imagined.

It also conveys what it means to be a friend: while enjoying happy moments together, being a good friend also means helping one another when things get hard or sad. Undoubtedly, these important themes found in Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch make it one of the best picture books to promote SEL at home or in the classroom and the first book on our list.

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The Dot

By Peter H. Reynolds

Book cover of The Dot

Why this book?

A familiar favorite, The Dot by author-illustrator Paul Reynolds tells the story of a young girl named Vashti who believes she cannot draw. Her art teacher, seeing Vashti struggle, helps her develop confidence in herself by telling her to try drawing just a single dot and to sign her name at the bottom. The next day, Vashti finds that her dot had been hung up above her teacher’s desk, inspiring her to try painting another dot, and then another, and then another. Soon she has created an entire collection of many different dots. And in a moving twist, Vashti’s artwork inspires children who also think they cannot draw to give it a try.

The Dot by Paul Reynolds is one of our favorite books to teach the SEL themes of self-confidence and growth mindset; showcasing all that can happen when we choose to believe in ourselves and persist in the face of challenges. It also teaches children that by choosing to believe in ourselves, interestingly enough, we can inspire others to develop the confidence to do the same.

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The Day the Crayons Quit

By Drew Daywalt, Oliver Jeffers

Book cover of The Day the Crayons Quit

Why this book?

Another popular children’s picture book, The Day the Crayons Quit, is most definitely our silliest SEL pick. But just because this picture book is on the funnier side doesn’t mean it doesn’t have important messages to share. The book notoriously consists of letters from a child’s crayons, each letter detailing why the crayon needed to take the day off.

Why do we think this is a great choice to promote social-emotional learning? The first reason is that it allows children to think from the perspective of each crayon and why they felt the need to take a break from their daily coloring activities; a creative way for children to practice empathy. The second reason is that the story is undoubtedly a celebration of diversity. As children flip the pages of the storybook, they will delight in the different crayons they encounter and what makes them each unique.

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The Hundred Dresses

By Eleanor Estes, Louis Slobodkin

Book cover of The Hundred Dresses

Why this book?

While The Hundred Dresses is not exactly a picture book being 80 pages long, we cannot think of a better story for children that captures the importance of inclusion and empathy (and that can be enjoyed by children and adults of all ages!). It’s also a great way to get younger readers engaging in longer texts. A Newbery Honor Book, The Hundred Dresses is about Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl who is excluded and bullied by her classmates for wearing only one shabby, sky blue dress. While the book is about Wanda, it is written from the perspective of Maddie: one of Wanda’s classmates who is unable to stand up to one of Wanda’s most active bullies – her best friend, Peggy.

As the story goes on, readers watch as Maddie begins to understand that her words, or lack of them, affect Wanda: a quiet young girl who in the face of unkindness, chooses to gift her bullies with beautiful, colorful illustrations of dresses. In doing so, The Hundred Dresses allows young readers to recognize how important it is to practice empathy when interacting with others, as well as that we are responsible for creating inclusive spaces where people feel safe and that they belong. While it requires courage to be an upstander, The Hundred Dresses shows children that we all have the power to act with kindness, making it a great book to promote SEL themes and encourage its reader to make the world beyond the story’s final page a little better, too.

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Miss Rumphius

By Barbara Cooney

Book cover of Miss Rumphius

Why this book?

We will end our list with one of our mother’s favorite books, Miss Rumphius: A book that has inspired her so much that every spring she will spread lupine seeds around the house saying “I am just like Miss Rumphius!”

The story begins when Miss Rumphius was just a child. Called Alice back then, Alice shares with her grandfather that just like him, she will travel to faraway places and one day live by the sea. But her grandfather tells her that she is missing something: "You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather tells her.

Ms. Rumphius grows up and sets out to do all she wished to do. She travels all around the world, experiencing many different jobs and meeting many new people. And when she grows older she finds a nice home by the sea to live in. But there is one thing she has still not yet done: "You must do something to make the world more beautiful," she remembers her grandfather telling her.

Ms. Rumphius, feeling ill now, is not sure what she can do. But when spring comes she goes outside and finds that the lupines she had planted two springs ago had spread their seeds and were growing in new places. Inspired, she takes a journey around her town throwing lupine seeds all around even though others call her “The Crazy Old Lady.” The next year, beautiful, colorful lupines are everywhere. And every year, more grow all because of just one person.

We think this is the perfect book to end our list with as it reminds us that just one person is capable of very big things, whether it be being kind to others like Mr. Hatch, standing up for others like Maddie, or making the world a little more beautiful for everyone like Miss Rumphius. At the heart of SEL is the idea that we are all capable of acting in positive ways that meaningfully impact the people and places around us even if, like Miss Rumphius’s story teaches us, we may “not know yet what that can be.”

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