SEL: More Important Than Ever

Distance learning has deprived kids of social interaction, in-person connection with their teachers, close collaboration with their peers, and the face-to-face sharing of emotions. The full impact these deprivations will have on kids’ mental and emotional health remains to be seen.

By Jessica Levine

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, schools face the challenge of addressing the toll a full year of remote learning, isolation at home, and pandemic stresses and anxieties have taken on kids. Distance learning has deprived kids of social interaction, in-person connection with their teachers, close collaboration with their peers, and the face-to-face sharing of emotions. The full impact these deprivations will have on kids’ mental and emotional health remains to be seen.

“We’re expecting to see some slide in social and emotional learning with kids, because they haven’t been around their peers,” says Stephanie Miller, Capstone content strategy manager. “They’re missing those formative interactions that often happen in classrooms. Kids are going to be lacking those skills and are going to need some more help or coping mechanisms.”

Educational pundits and SEL experts anticipate that, while the pandemic’s impact on reading and math skills is considerable and plans will be needed to overcome COVID-19 learning loss, its effect on SEL skills is even more significant. In an article on the McGraw Hill website Medium, school psychologist Adam Parker writes, “What’s most important upon a return to school? Social and emotional learning.”

In short, “there’s never been a more important time for SEL,” says Roger Rosen, CEO of Rosen Publishing. “It’s certainly been front of mind because of the trauma that students are under.”

Here, six children’s publishers share titles that will build children’s confidence, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and social skills, as they return to in-person activities in their communities and at school.

Interlink Publishing

A multigenerational, immigrant-owned press, Interlink Publishing has been operating out of Northampton, MA, since 1987. Its children’s imprint, Crocodile Books, publishes seven to ten books a year for ages 3–11. Its mission is “to bring the world closer to children in the hopes that the children of the world could be closer together,” says marketing director Maha Jane Moushabeck, who along with her sisters joined the family business.

Planting Peace by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Margaux Carpentier, June 2021, ISBN 9781623718855, is the narrative nonfiction story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 64 pages, kids ages 7 and up learn how Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in the 1960s and inspired communities across Africa to unite in the effort to plant 30 million trees in 30 years. Through her example, young readers learn about the power of community and what one courageous woman can do. The vibrant illustrations depict people playing, working, and planting in the Kenyan landscape.

Another title about the power of community, Adrift by Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrated by Anastasia Savorova, September 2021, ISBN 9781623719098, began as a metaphor for the COVID-19 pandemic. This charmingly illustrated story, for ages 3–8, is about a frightened mouse riding out a terrible storm alone on the ocean. As the storm begins to lift, he sees other mice in boats alone like him and starts to feel better. “It ultimately teaches children that it’s OK to be scared,” Moushabeck says.

Eeny Up Above! by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Kathryn Brown, October 2021, ISBN 9781623718657, explores social anxiety for readers ages 3–8. Eeny the mole is curious about the world up above ground but also fearful, especially of humans. When she ventures out of her hole, she meets a nice little girl and learns that what she feared is not so scary after all. This title’s theme will be particularly meaningful for the many kids who will be returning to school this fall after a year at home and may face similar anxieties.

Wanda by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, illustrated by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne, March 2021, ISBN 9781623718640, is a picture book for ages 3–8 about a little girl who gets bullied at school about her hair. Her mother tells her that her hair is her crown, but she doesn’t feel like a queen. Through her grandmother’s stories, she finally learns to appreciate and be proud of her hair and who she is. “It spoke to our whole family, as an immigrant family, because this book celebrates cultural differences,” Moushabeck says. “And that’s something that, as an Arab American, I hope my daughter will learn from.”

Interlink’s 2009 title Fairy Tale Feasts, pairing folktales with recipes, was so successful it spurred a series for readers ages 8–12. The series now includes Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts, Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts, and the newest addition, Arab Fairy Tale Feasts, by Karim Alrawi, illustrated by Nahid Kazemi, recipes by Sobhi and Tamam al-Zobaidi & Karim Alwawi, November 2021, ISBN 9781623719081. The Egyptian author’s original stories and recipes take readers on a journey into Arab culture and cuisine.

Rosen Publishing

Rosen Publishing was founded in 1950 by current CEO Roger Rosen’s parents. Rosen publishes about 1,200 curriculum-aligned K–12 books a year available in various formats including print, ebooks, and interactive ebooks. “We have a long tradition of publishing in the space of health and guidance, even before the term ‘SEL’ came to the forefront,” Rosen says. The company’s focus is on offering SEL material in developmentally appropriate formats, from picture books to in-depth research databases for secondary schools.

Rosen’s Windmill Imprint addresses SEL issues through fiction picture books for grades Pre-K–3. The Windmill catalog highlights key SEL themes in each of its titles. Roger Rosen’s own first book, Will the Word Eater, illustrated by Jenny Ziomek, February 2021, ISBN 9781725394315, explores the themes of self-confidence, self-expression, and social engagement through the story of an eight-year-old boy. Will has to swallow his words, because he doesn’t feel safe saying what’s on his mind within his family’s dynamic. The story follows “how he comes to a place of self-expression and empowerment,” Rosen says.



Igor, written and illustrated by Francesca Dafne Vignaga, February 2021, ISBN 9781499486599, teaches kids accurate self-perception, self-confidence, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others through the story of a furry creature who has never seen anyone like himself before. Igor wonders if there is someone else like him somewhere and leaves home to find out. On his journey, Igor meets butterflies, bats, fish, birds, raccoons, and owls before he finally finds another creature like him. The book shows kids how interacting with people different from yourself helps you find commonality.

Rosen’s “Spotlight on Social and Emotional Learning” is a collection of 25 interactive ebooks for grades 3–7. Closely correlated with the CASEL framework, these books and videos are written for use both in the classroom and as library reference resources. They include explanations of SEL theories, along with profiles of real-world peers, leaders, and organizations. Inquiry and project-based learning activities reinforce and facilitate integration of the concepts, helping students see themselves and practice applying SEL concepts. Some examples of collection titles include Collaborating with Others: Teamwork and Different but Equal: Appreciating Diversity.

For grades 7–12, Rosen’s regularly updated and enhanced Teen Health & Wellness database offers students articles and self-help tools on health and wellness topics—and none are taboo. Students can also use the platform for self-expression through the personal story project or to unwind with music and podcasts in the recently launched “Calm Room.”

Tanglewood Publishing

Peggy Porter Tierney was looking to fill a gap in children’s literature when she founded Tanglewood Publishing in 2003 in Indianapolis, IN. “Children’s books were going through a little bit of a puritanical era. And I had a son who liked books that were a little less sweet and more fun, maybe even about kids being naughty,” she says. “I wanted to do books that are not necessarily what adults want kids to read but are something that kids actually want to read.”

Tanglewood publishes five to six titles a year, from board books to YA, including the best-selling picture book The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. An SEL title that predates the term, it’s about a racoon who’s afraid to go back to school until his mother kisses his hand and shows him how he can “carry” that kiss with him.

Now, Tierney is publishing her own debut nonfiction picture book for readers ages 4–8, How to Change the World in 12 Easy Steps, illustrated by Marie Letourneau, October 2021, ISBN 9781939100542. Inspired by her friend and Holocaust survivor, author, and international speaker Eva Mozes Kor, Tierney set out to record Kor’s simple but powerful advice for her young audiences. From easy gestures, like sitting with someone who is alone or smiling at someone who seems sad, to accepting people who are different from you and forgiving people who hurt you, Kor believed in the power of these acts to ultimately bring friendship, happiness, and acceptance to their own lives. “That was really her message to people,” Tierney says. “She was kind of a pioneer in forgiveness.”

Lerner Publishing

With over 60 years in children’s publishing, Lerner has long published books on character, values, and relationship skills. But in 2020 it created its first SEL catalog and dedicated website landing page. Librarians looking to build out SEL collections will appreciate that the catalog is color-coded by CASEL competencies and that the website is easily searchable by SEL topic.

Lerner partnered with Sesame Street for Come Together, Change the World by Jackie Golusky, September 2021, ISBN 9781728429014, to introduce readers ages 4–8 to racial justice concepts. Through simple text, Sesame Street characters teach that everyone is special, all skin colors are beautiful, and some people are treated unfairly because of how they look. “It empowers kids by telling how they can help combat racism,” says school and library marketing director Lois Wallentine.

Hair Story by NoNieqa Ramos, illustrated by Keisha Morris, September 2021, ISBN 9781541579163, promotes self-awareness and cultural pride through the story of two little girls, one Puerto Rican and one Black, who play hair salon. While playing, they learn about their cultures from their mothers through their hair. “You’ve seen a lot of books about hair these days, but this is really celebrating hair and the stories that it can tell, how it can be expressive and connect to our identities,” Wallentine says.

The autobiographical picture book From the Tops of the Trees by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada, October 2021, ISBN 9781541581302, tells Yang’s story of growing up in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand and never knowing any life outside the fence. One day her father takes her to the tallest tree in the camp, so she can see the world beyond that she’ll one day explore.

ESL teacher Victorya Rouse began collecting the 36 immigration stories that form Finding Refuge, September 2021, ISBN 9781541581562, from her teenage students in the 1990s. Their first-person narratives are accompanied by information about the local conflicts that drove them to leave their homelands. These powerful refugee stories provide a great resource for teens to build empathy and understanding of someone else’s perspective. “Given what’s going on in our country at the border, I think it’s very timely,” Wallentine says.

Clavis Publishing Inc.

Launched in Belgium in 1978, Clavis Publishing grew from founder Philippe Werck’s desire to procure more books he would want his daughters to read. The company has since become the largest children’s book publisher in Belgium and the Netherlands. In the U.S., it publishes 60 to 70 titles a year, including board books for ages 0–3, hardcover books for ages 2–4, and picture books for ages 4–8.

“Clavis believes that the world of tomorrow depends on the education and upbringing of the kids today,” says sales and marketing representative Carolina Schwarz. The company’s books look to build children’s social and emotional skills through engaging, age-appropriate stories.

Child psychologist Adam Ciccio helps kids identify and cope with emotions through his picture books. His latest book, A Beary Rainy Day, illustrated by Emilie Timmermans, April 2021, ISBN 9781605375984, is a story about positive thinking and overcoming social anxiety for ages 5 and up. Wallow the Bear struggles with sadness on rainy days, but eventually he discovers how much fun the rain can be when he sees other animals playing and giggling outside.

Clavis’s Mila series for toddlers ages 30 months and up, focuses on divorce and addresses children’s emotions associated with this disruptive family event. In Mila Misses Mommy by Judith Koppens, illustrated by Anouk Nijs, May 2021, ISBN 9781605376233, Mila splits her time between her divorced parents. One day at school, she struggles to engage with her friends, has an unfamiliar knot in her stomach, and loses her appetite. Her teacher helps her understand that she feels the way she does because she misses her mother.

Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart by An Swerts, illustrated by Eline van Lindenhuizen, September 2020, ISBN 9781605375793, was inspired by the true story of an Italian chef who famously dropped a lemon tart, served it to a restaurant critic, and got rave reviews. This 48-page picture book for ages 6 and up is about Lucy, who begins worrying about making mistakes and loses interest in doing the things she liked to do. Her favorite place to be is her father’s restaurant until the day she drops a special guest’s lemon tart. But the mistake doesn’t end up being the catastrophe she fears it will be. Instead, the imperfection is celebrated. “This is an encouraging story about fear and failure and accepting that it’s OK to make mistakes,” Schwarz says.


In 30 years, Capstone has grown from 48 titles to over 10,000 print titles, 9,000 ebooks, and 6,000 audiobooks for grades Pre-K–8. In recent years, the company has focused more on titles incorporating SEL themes. “We really try to consider social and emotional learning in a lot of what we do,” says content strategy manager Stephanie Miller. “It’s such an integral part of growing up in those formative years.”

First Day of Unicorn School by Jess Hernandez, illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, January 2021, ISBN 9781684462797, is a read-aloud picture book for K–3 readers. Milly is excited about going to the best school for unicorns. There is just one problem: she’s actually a donkey in a party hat. Milly is uncomfortable initially but soon realizes that she is more like the unicorns than she expected. “The more kids get into social settings, the more they start to self-identify as being different or being the same,” Miller says. Combining the ever-popular mythical unicorn, funny wordplay, and matching illustrations, this title makes SEL relatable and fun.

Another read-aloud picture book, Mindful Mr. Sloth, written and illustrated by Katy Hudson, August 2021, ISBN 9781684463978, introduces the concept of mindfulness to K–3 readers. Sasha wants to do everything at once, as fast as possible. But her friend Mr. Sloth likes to stop and smell the roses. Eventually, Mr. Sloth teaches Sasha that it’s OK to slow down, take a break, and be mindful of your surroundings.

Donut Worry by Christianne Jones, illustrated by Jack Viant, August 2021, ISBN 9781684460731, is a picture book about back-to-school anxiety, which Miller expects to be at an all-time high this fall. When Donut starts worrying about returning to school, her friend Cookie talks her through it. “This book really helps kids navigate anxiety and how to be OK with your concerns, by acknowledging, naming, and countering them,” she says.

A series of four K–2 readers, “Mr. Grizley’s Class” includes Emily’s Big Shot by Bryan Patrick Avery, illustrated by Arief Putra, August 2021, ISBN 9781663910349, which focuses on building confidence by helping kids recognize their own strengths. Emily isn’t good at floor hockey and doesn’t like playing it. “Her classmates provide leadership, cooperation, empathy,” Miller says. “They can relate to Emily’s concerns, but they don’t want her to give up.” Emily ends up making the winning shot.



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