Our Favorite School Stories for Social-Emotional Growth

Yesterday, I posted our favorite first day of school stories, a collection of books that will help children of all ages and experiences get ready for that first day of school. Up today is a list of our favorite school stories that help to set students up for a positive year.

These are stories of kindness and inclusion, stories that help children build empathy and understanding of self and others, stories of self-love and self-confidence. In short, these are stories children need. I love reading these year-around, but they’re perfect for helping children start their school years off on the right feet. They’re perfect to read at home or at school, independently or as a read aloud. And they’re timeless. So get them from your library or take the plunge and purchase them to own!

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Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill —  This one ranks towards the top of my all-time favorite picture books. It’s just so incredibly well written and beautifully illustrated, and Miller addresses such an important piece of being kind… Sometime’s it can be hard to know exactly what to do! Be sure to check out my Instagram review here.

The Dot by Peter Reynolds —  Peter Reynolds has written and/or illustrated many, many phenomenal books with powerful social-emotional messages for children. The Dot was one of his earliest author/illustrator works and continues to be widely popular (in fact, it’s definitely my favorite Reynolds work). Frustrated by not feeling good enough in art class, Vashti is given creative freedom from her very kind, patient, and encouraging art teacher. This freedom to create and subsequent celebration of creation grows Vashti’s confidence and allows her to explore her new-found way to express herself. In the end, she is able to share this confidence and freedom in a really touching way. If you’ve read and loved this book, consider joining in Reynolds’s International Dot Day coming up in September (oh how I wish I had participated in this as a teacher!)!

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow — Molly Lou doesn’t quite fit in, but throughout her life, her grandmother has always encouraged her to be herself and believe in herself. And she always has… Until she moves and has to go to a new school. Though she becomes the target of the bully in the story, Molly Lou remembers her grandmother’s wise words and overcomes obstacles to make friends and have a great new year. Though this errs slightly on the saccharine, wrapped up in a pretty bow, Catrow’s illustrations are downright hillarious, keeping the story from being too sweet and perfect. Regardless, the message is powerful and one that all children should be reminded of as they start a new school year, new school or not.

Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka — You’d never know that so few words could be so powerful. But, Chris Raschka shows through simple dialogue the impact that inviting and including others can have. Though this is terrific for all ages, Yo! Yes? is especially accessible to young audiences, and easy to read independently for new readers. Even Raschka’s illustrations are simple, including only images of the 2 boys in nearly bare backgrounds, but this simplicity allows us to focus on their feelings and desires. Adept observers may even notice how Raschka subtly changes the mood of his background as the mood of the 2nd boy shifts. Yo! Yes? is a simple yet incredibly powerful story of noticing those who may need attention and welcoming them into play.

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld — Though this isn’t explicitly a school story, the events shown here can very easily take place at school (and have likely happened to many children at school!). Something frustrating, and to the main character, tragic, happens… And by reading this story, children gain insight into both ways to deal with frustration, anger, and sadness, as well as how to help friends who are experiencing these emotions. I absolutely love that the main character is named Taylor and could easily be read as either a boy or a girl. Be sure to check out my instagram review here!

Someone New by Anne Sibley O’Brien — Someone New is a three-storyline book, depicting experiences of three immigrants as they start in new schools. I believe two things set Someone New apart from other school stories about immigrants and kindness. First, we are given insight into how difficult it is for some of the returning students to know how to bridge the gap and welcome them. They want to be kind, but language barriers exist, and these returning students say, “I feel uncomfortable,” “I don’t know what do to,” and “I can’t figure out how to help.” As with Be Kind, I love that the difficulty inherent in being kind is shown, because sometimes, it is indeed really, really hard to know what to do. Second, the gaps are bridged by the new students themselves! In so many children’s stories, we read about the returning students being the ones to learn to welcome new students, but new students can take steps to make connections as well. Thank you, Anne, for your fresh take on this school story!

One Green Apple by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ted Lewin — Similar to Someone NewOne Green Apple tells the story of an immigrant in a new school in a new country, specifically, the story of her second day. Though she has a language barrier preventing her from conversing with her new classmates, she eventually finds ways to connect with them nonverbally. Bunting has a phenomenal gift to pack powerful messages into simple stories, and One Green Apple is one of my favorite stories of hers. I also love that this book, published in 2006, showcases a Muslim immigrant and is so incredibly relevant still today.

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith — As adults, we all know that navigating the freedom of recess can be one of the most difficult parts of a child’s school day. O’Neill has written this in rolling rhyme, and managed to include laugh-worthy words such as “lollapaloosh ’em.” It’s fun to read aloud! Though the brightly-colored illustrations include silly touches like charicature-type people and steam coming out of characters’ ears, readers do sense the emotion and intensity of the realistic situations shown. I love this one because seeing “The Recess Queen” as a playmate and extending kindness to her is exactly what The Recess Queen needs to unlock the kindness that she does indeed have inside her.

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania Al Abdullah and Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa — Inspired by an incident from Al Abdullah’s childhood, The Sandwich Swap teaches a powerful lesson about preconceived notions and prejudices in a non-preachy and easy-to-read way. As Al Abdullah writes in the Author’s Note, “If we take the time to get to know each other, stand in each other’s shoes, and listen to a different point of view, we learn something wonderful– about someone else and about ourselves.” The soft illustrations are as gentle as the message, with tiny bits of humor thrown in!

I Walk With Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët — The only wordless story on my list, Kerascoët use emotion-filled illustrations and color changes to leave quite an impact on their readers. In our house, reading this book together has resulted in wonderful conversations about reading facial expressions and body language in order to understand others’ feelings. Because of the wordless nature of this book, conversations are bound to be deep and impactful on the children with whom you decide to share this book. Be sure to check out my Instagram review here!

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin; Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis; and Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken — I put these three books together because they have very similar themes, but each stands alone as a book worth reading. These three stories each address the concepts of bullying, standing up to others, the power of words, empathy, preconceived notions, socio-economic diversity, friendship, and regret. When I was in the classroom, I read The Hundred Dresses as my first chapter-book read aloud each year (Thank You, Mr. Falker was always my first read aloud– see below), and I’m planning to read it with my older daughter, and eventually both girls, before school starts each year, beginning in just a few weeks. In both Each Kindness and The Hundred Dresses, the main characters learn a hard lesson from mistakes that they have no way to rectify, whereas in Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horsethe main character is given an opportunity to make up for her wrong-doing and get to know the boy to whom she was unkind. All three are phenomenal and worth reading with school-aged children of all ages.

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton — We all know that there are some kids in classes who tend to go through school unnoticed. They may be the quiet ones who follow all the rules, and academically they don’t need lots of extra support but aren’t leading the pack, either. They don’t stand out in sports or tell the funniest jokes, but they have so much else to offer. Often, they’re intentionally overlooked, but sometimes they’re snubbed by their peers. But, they have so much to contribute, if only someone would notice. Trudy Ludwig eloquently tells the tale of one of these children, Brian, a child that is invisible to those around him, until his kindness gets the attention of a classmate. And Barton’s illustrations highlight both Brian’s invisibility as well as his tranformation. Ludwig also includes a set of discussion questions for read-aloud and recommended reading for both children and adults.

Thank You, Mr. Falker and The Junkyard Wonders, both by Patricia Polacco — Both of these touching stories are based on Polacco’s real-life school experiences as she learned to read and navigate her school year’s with learning difficulties. Both books beautifully touch on themes of embracing differences, perseverance, anti-bullying, acceptance, and empathy. Similar to The Dotreaders see the impact that incredible, caring teachers can have on their students. You can read them individually or as a mini-series, with Thank You, Mr. Falker as the first. Target audience for Thank You, Mr. Falker is 5-8 and The Junkyard Wonders is 6-9, though my girls enjoyed Thank You, Mr. Falker much earlier, and both can be powerful for older children, too. Characters do die in each of these books, in case that’s a sensitivity for your children.

If you liked this, be sure to check out our favorite first day of school stories for a variety of ages, as well as this list of some of our favorite books for fostering empathy and kindness. You might also enjoy our Family Focus Trait booklists

What are your favorite school stories to share with your children? What school stories do you love for the messages and lessons that your children can take from them?

11 thoughts on “Our Favorite School Stories for Social-Emotional Growth

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