Publishers Support SEL in the Face of Opposition

Should teachers and librarians back away from SEL to avoid the political heat? Parents broadly support schools teaching SEL-related skills, or “life skills,” to use the more politically neutral term. And publishers continue to see the ever-increasing value of SEL themes and to prioritize them in their publishing programs.


Social emotional learning has been under siege in recent years. Political conservatives have conflated the decades-old core curriculum component with the much-politicized concept of critical race theory. Since 2021, disputes over SEL have played out in at least half of the states; in Florida, schools are phasing out social and emotional learning classes, after the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis warned schools that SEL curriculum violates state law.

All of this comes during a time when experts have been sounding the alarm about a ballooning mental health crisis among youths. This February, the CDC reported that nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, a near 60 percent increase over the last decade. Rates of attempted youth suicide have also increased over this same period.

Should teachers and librarians back away from SEL to avoid the political heat when students’ need for these skills has arguably never been greater? According to a 2021 survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, parents across the political spectrum don’t want them to. Parents broadly support schools teaching SEL-related skills, or “life skills,” to use the more politically neutral term. And publishers continue to see the ever-increasing value of SEL themes and to prioritize them in their publishing programs.

“We need social emotional learning,” says Victoria Stapleton, executive director of school and library marketing for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “It’s about understanding ourselves and establishing a relationship with the world around us, learning to understand our emotions, to properly identify our emotions, to properly communicate about who we are, what we think, and what we feel, so others understand us.”

Read on for 13 new titles that touch on every aspect of SEL, including each CASEL core competency: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Lerner Publishing Group

Lerner has made searching for SEL titles a breeze for librarians and educators by cataloging all its titles aligning with SEL in one place. The 800+ books are easily browsable by CASEL core competencies at With 60 recent additions to the spring 2023 list and 70 new titles coming in June for fall, Lerner has no shortage of titles that address all aspects of SEL.

Stars of the Night by Caren Stelson, illustrations by Selina Alko, February 2023, ISBN 9781541598683, recounts the story of British stockbroker Nicholas Winton’s heroic rescue of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia (to England) on the eve of World War II. The 40-page nonfiction picture book for grades 2 to 5 is narrated from the first-person plural point of view of the children.

Carol Hinz, associate publisher for Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Picture Books, says this story touches on responsible decision-making, in terms of making caring and constructive choices, considering ethical standards, and assessing the benefits to society as a whole. “You can look at Winton’s courage and heroism,” she says. “And you can also look at the courage of the children, who had to navigate these very difficult circumstances.” The book’s backmatter includes a timeline and more details and context about the Holocaust, Winton, Hitler, and the children.

Never Give Up by Debbie Dadey, illustrations by Juliana Oakley, March 2023, ISBN 9781728456331, is a picture-book biography of Dr. Kati Karikó, a Hungarian American biochemist who was instrumental in the development of mRNA vaccines. Her story begins with a young, curious, science-obsessed girl who immigrates to the U.S. to pursue mRNA research and faces enormous challenges from colleagues along the way. The book takes us all the way up to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pivotal role Kariko’s research played in developing vaccines against the virus.

Hinz says self-management is a big theme in this story, including self-motivation, setting personal and collective goals, the courage to take initiative, and personal and collective agency. The backmatter delves into the science of mRNA vaccines in greater depth.

For Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself, March 2023, ISBN 9781728450988, authors and educators Monica Edinger and Leslie Young took the 18th century autobiography of a once-enslaved man and edited it into a more accessible story in verse. The resulting middle grade book covers the span of Equiano’s life from his birth in West Africa, through his enslavement and liberation, to his work as an abolitionist.

“The verse shows how Equiano wrestles with self-awareness and self-management,” says Shaina Olmanson, editorial director for young adult nonfiction. “When he is working to purchase his freedom, he consistently faces hardships and injustice. In the verse, he often explains and examines his emotions and his reactions to those situations and the prejudices he faced.”

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Victoria Stapleton, executive director of school and library marketing for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a division of Hachette Book Group, says the division keeps SEL front of mind when it comes to acquisitions. Little, Brown aims to balance its list across the spectrum of SEL categories but skews younger, with most of its titles in the picture book range.

The next title in a much-loved Little, Brown series, The Invisible String Backpack by Patrice Karst, illustrations by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, July 2023, ISBN 9780316402286, is about the challenges children face when starting at a new school. Stapleton says the backpack is a symbol of the emotional weight that kids carry into school, or it can represent a protective area for carrying that emotion close. “The picture book works to accommodate some emotional flexibility and to equip the child with coping strategies and to equip educators and other adults to talk to children about big emotions,” Stapleton says.

Another picture book, Sorry, Snail by Traci Subisak, May 2023, ISBN 9780316537728, is about apologizing meaningfully. “Sometimes when we apologize, we don’t always have an appropriate understanding of our offense,” Stapleton says. “We may feel embarrassed. We may feel defensive. We may feel upset and blame others for needing to apologize for something we’ve done. But we can get through that. And Sorry, Snail is a really great book at modeling communication. It models—in an insistent yet gentle way—how apologies should be delivered.”

Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the middle grade novel The Hurricane Girls by Kimberly Willis Holt, August 2023, ISBN 9780316326094, is about dealing with the aftereffects of trauma. The book looks specifically at how middle graders process grief, particularly the physical loss of a home or a family member. “I think this is a sensitive depiction of how friendship can be strained but also strengthened by powerful emotions,” Stapleton says. “It models the flexibility of relationships and how to process these emotions in a positive, constructive way. It shows the investment that we need to make in relationships at a more advanced level than what a picture book could convey.”

Middle grade graphic novel Buzzing by Samuel Sattin, illustrated by Rye Hickman, July 2023, ISBN 9780316628419, takes readers into the experience of anxiety and OCD. “This is a case of neurodiversity rubbing up against social emotional learning,” Stapleton says, “and using different coping mechanisms, whether visualization strategies or kinetic strategies.” In the main character’s case, drawing helps him cope; Stapleton contrasts this with the characters of The Hurricane Girls, who favor verbal communication. “Children can use different strategies to process emotions, and I think this book is really great at showing how this works for kids.”

Pity Party by Kathleen Lane, January 2021, ISBN 9780316417365, is a middle grade collection of linked short stories about social anxiety and social awkwardness. “One of the things I love about Pity Party is [that] you can see the perspective of one set of characters in one of the short stories, but the next story shows the feelings, emotions, and rationales of another set of characters who were more peripheral in the previous story,” Stapleton says. “So the stories build that empathy, that communication through alternating voices and perspectives.”

Interlink Publishing

For over 35 years, Massachusetts-based Interlink has been focused on bringing voices from around the world to the U.S. market, says Managing Director Harrison Williams. And while that has historically centered around cultural diversity, more recently the press has made an intentional shift to highlight themes related to mental health and well-being.

Zebra in the Mirror by Tina Arnuš Pupis, illustrated by Marta Bartolj, August 2023, ISBN 9781623717452, is a picture book for ages 4–10 designed to be read in both directions. Front to back, it tells the story of a happy, confident zebra who, through the course of the story, gets bullied, and this erodes its self-esteem. On the last page, the zebra looks at itself in the mirror, feeling sad. Back to front, the zebra starts out very low but decides to ignore everyone and stand tall and proud anyway. “One of the major reasons we’re publishing this is because of social media and its adverse effect on children's self-esteem and long-term mental health,” Williams says.

In Much Too Busy by John Bond, September 2023, ISBN 9781623717223, a high-profile working pigeon is always so busy that he can’t focus on anything and keeps making mistakes. Then he meets a very relaxed mouse who teaches him to slow down and appreciate the present moment. Williams says this book is as much for parents as for children. “We have so much to do at work and only so many hours in the day,” he says. “You're thinking, ‘I'll just stay a little bit longer,’ but that’s time you could spend with your kids. What does it teach them?”

Inspired by activists Greta Thunberg, Yusra Mardini, Marley Dias, and Iqbal Masih, A Child Like You by Na'ima B. Robert, illustrated by Nadine Kaadan, October 2023, ISBN 9781623717230, follows four characters who are troubled by the inequalities and injustices of our world and think nobody else feels the way they do. “A lot of children feel that older generations aren’t talking about the environment proactively enough,” Williams says. “But eventually the book shows activists who are like [the protagonists] and presents an alternate ending, where even kids can make a change in the world.”

In the picture book Small Stanley’s Big List of Scary Stuff by Angie Morgan, November 2023, ISBN 9781623717209, young Stanley grows increasingly anxious about the world around him. His grandfather suggests that Stanley make a list of the things scaring him; the list grows until it’s so long, it gets caught in the wind and blows away. Then Stanley can’t remember what he was afraid of. “He realizes that letting go of some of his fears will actually allow him to enjoy day-to-day life a little bit more,” Williams says.

Another picture book with an unusual format, The Ferris Wheel by Tülin Kozikoğlu, illustrated by Hüseyin Sönmezay, December 2023, ISBN 9781623717216, tells the stories of two families—one safe and one refugee—that mirror each other on opposite pages of each spread. “The author has seen a lot of refugees in recent years, and the principal thing she has learned is that [winding up country-less] can happen literally to anybody,” Williams says. “We’re all on the same Ferris wheel. Your place [in the world] could change so very quickly. The book is really focused on developing empathy for other people.”



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