Understanding Ourselves and Others: 11 Social-Emotional Learning Books for Back-to-School by Lisa Rogers

I’m excited to welcome fellow literacy supporter and animal lover Lisa Rogers to Frog on a Blog today! Lisa is a children’s librarian turned children’s book author and has published several books with several more on the way. It’s no surprise that she loves books and reading and writing “from the shores of a pond outside of Boston, Massachusetts (and sometimes from on the pond itself, where I kayak almost every day in summer).” Lisa stopped by today to share 11 beautiful recent social-emotional learning picture books that are perfect for back-to-school time. This is a must-read post!

Back to school is an excellent time to introduce children to books that support their social-emotional learning. During this transition to the school year, that support can help children as they develop routines, negotiate new friendships, adapt to new environments, and understand expectations.

It’s not simply a matter of putting on a backpack and being ready to learn. Each part of the day – waking up on time, gathering school materials, getting out the door, lining up at school, unpacking that backpack, finding one’s cubby, choosing a seat on the bus or at the lunch table, working with new partners, having a different teacher – can be filled with ups and downs that challenge a child’s sense of self and equilibrium.

Picture books give children an opportunity to see, understand, and respect themselves and others during what can be a vulnerable time. Here are 11 books to share at home and school with suggestions for related activities.

Every year on the first day of school, I sat, fraught with worry, anticipating that the teacher would mispronounce my name and that my classmates would laugh. Saying someone’s name correctly shows caring, respect and affirmation, and that models that for everyone. Hearing a child’s name mispronounced inspired educator Jamila Thompkins-Bigelow to write YOUR NAME IS A SONG, illustrated by Luisa Uribe and published by The Innovation Press in 2020. “Names are songs. Sing your name,” says Kora-Jalimuso’s momma. And so she sings her classmates’ names, her teacher’s name, and her own in this book of affirmation and respect. Children will enjoy singing their own names and those of their classmates!

Children’s multifaceted personalities are met with understanding in WHAT I AM written and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan (Viking, 2021). Her main character might be shy at first, then reluctant to leave a party, have dark skin compared to some friends and light compared to others, is sometimes mean and selfish, other times kind and generous.” We must take care never to doubt our own worth,” the author says in a note.  “Each of us is a unique, priceless, vital part of this world.” To extend the experience of reading this book, young readers might draw or write about facets of their personalities.

At age 3, my daughter put together her own dollhouse using Allen wrenches. Upending gender stereotypes and celebrating individual preferences is the theme of EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Joshua Heinsz (Little Bee Books, 2019). The takeaway: “Be exactly who you are.” Children might discuss their own preferences in dress, in work, and in play.

Taking pride in one’s heritage and understanding that love is what connects us is the focus of WHERE ARE YOU FROM? by Yamile Saied Méndez, illustrated by Jaime Kim (Harper, 2019). When other children ask the main character where she’s from, she asks her abuelo to help her answer, because “like me, he looks like he doesn’t belong.” Abuelo’s answer will surprise readers and inspire them to talk about their own loved ones. Teachers might also use the text as a model for a whole classroom poem or individual poems about families.

Lots of family moves take place over the summer, so it’s natural for children to feel sad at not seeing those friends when they go back to school. GOODBYE FRIEND, HELLO FRIEND, written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial, 2019), shows the many losses that children experience can be balanced with some very joyful hellos. This book could be used as a wonderful model for a group-generated poem on goodbyes and hellos.

A little support and love helps Magnolia thrive in APPLE AND MAGNOLIA by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Patricia Metola (Flyaway Books, 2022). Though sometimes making an extra effort to reach out might not seem worth the trouble, this lovely book validates the importance of caring and kindness. In a short author’s note, Gehl notes the ways in which trees actually do help each other. Young readers will be able to note the parallels between Apple and Magnolia and themselves.

With the change of pace, new experiences, and full schedules that back-to-school brings, HURRY UP! A BOOK ABOUT SLOWING DOWN by Kate Dopirak, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Beach Lane, 2020) is a reminder that taking time to enjoy the world around us can bring calm and delight. Children can follow the main character’s lead in slowing down, paying attention to the big and small worlds around them, and finding a peaceful end to each day. Children might brainstorm ways to make their lives less stressful or add beauty through observation.

Everyone learns differently. In Jamilah Thompson-Bigelow’s ABDUL’S STORY, illustrated by Tiffany Rose (Salaam Reads, 2022), Abdul loves to tell stories but has difficulty with forming letters and with spelling. Encouraged by a visiting writer who shows Abdul his own mistake-filled writing, Abdul perseveres and writes a story of which he’s proud. This book is a natural conversation starter about understanding learning differences and the importance of compassion, encouragement, and not giving up.

Hugs are a great way to show affection (or were until the pandemic hit) but not everyone likes them. The main character in DON’T HUG DOUG by Carrie Finison, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman (Putnam, 2021) good-naturedly explains that he doesn’t like hugs. This book models ways to politely but firmly decline unwanted shows of affection. Children could discuss their likes and dislikes and share their preferences with their friends and classmates and try out the myriad of fun high-fives depicted in the book.

Learning how to handle one’s emotions is important at home and at school. The premise of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR PET BRAIN by Nelly Buchet, illustrated by Amy Jindra (Beaming Books, 2022) is that your brain is like a pet: it can get into some tough situations, but with some planning and practice, you can teach your brain to acknowledge the feeling, balance your emotions, and find calm. A fun and practical approach that can be modeled in the classroom and at home.

In BE KIND by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill (Roaring Brook Press, 2018), a child considers what it means to reach out with and support others, how difficult that can be, and the ways that small acts of kindness can make a difference. Children would enjoy thinking of ways they could be kind, and recounting the ways in which others’ kindnesses have made a difference in their own lives.


Lisa Rogers is a Boston-area longtime elementary school library teacher who now writes full-time. Her debut picture book, 16 WORDS: WILLIAM CARLOS AND “THE RED WHEELBARROW,” illustrated by Chuck Groenink (Schwartz & Wade, 2019), received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, a Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice, a Junior Library Guild selection, an ALSC Notable Books shortlist book, and winner of the Boston Authors Club Julia Ward Howe Award and the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.

HOUND WON’T GO, a rhyming picture book illustrated by Meg Ishihara (Albert Whitman, 2020), is a 2021Massachusetts Must-Read book. She has two poems in FRIENDS AND ANEMONES: OCEAN POEMS FOR CHILDREN (Writers’ Loft Press, 2020) and a poem in the forthcoming IF THIS PUDDLE COULD TALK (Candlewick, 2024) edited by Irene Latham and Charles Waters. DISCOVER HER ART: WOMEN ARTISTS AND THEIR MASTERPIECES, coauthored with Jean Leibowitz, (Chicago Review Press, 2022) features the lives and paintings of 24 women artists. Five forthcoming picture book biographies are to be announced. Find her at lisarogerswrites.com or @LisaLJRogers on Twitter and Instagram.

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