Social-emotional learning, what you might know as SEL, is a decades-old philosophy that teaches emotional well-being alongside academic skills, promoting educational success that reaches far beyond grades on paper. Incorporating these ideas looks different for every parent, teacher, and kid — but if you’re searching for ways to help your child absorb social-emotional teachings, it might be worth trying out some accessible illustrated novels.

There’s a broad lexicon of SEL terms, principles, and varying definitions of what it means to teach social-emotional skills, but a simple way to think of SEL is to distill it into five key areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. In the classroom, you see these core competencies integrated into direct instruction and the daily, routine behaviors of both students and teachers, such as group work, conflict resolution, and emotional check-ins. Novels exploring these concepts through engaging narratives can be a fun way to support young readers in recognizing and modeling SEL skills.

And this all seems pretty great, right? As children learn the basics of academic subjects that will certainly help them in their educational journey, they’re also receiving a compassion crash course in how to take care of themselves as students, as community members, and as people. SEL isn’t age-specific, either, with its core lessons offering essential skills for adults and parents, as well.

Unfortunately, SEL isn’t free from the scrutiny of parents and politicians alike, many of whom have lumped its curriculum in with a wide-scale attack on inclusive teaching practices, critical race theory, and other so-called liberal learning agendas. Combine political turmoil with a concern for young people’s emotional health and development in an isolated, remote-learning age, and it’s clear our country’s educators can’t be expected to champion social-emotional wellness alone. 

While there are many teaching tools, books, and workshops online, an easy place to start is to introduce SEL-related options into your children’s media consumption. Mashable has put together a short list of graphic novels as a starting point for SEL, digging into related themes like empathy, emotional regulation, and relationship building, among many, many others.

1. Growing Pangs by Kathryn Ormsbee

Ages 8+


Credit: Penguin Random House

Growing Pangs is a graphic novel about Katie, a young girl whose summer camp worries about her best friend grow into a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Katie learns healthy ways to channel her worries about her friend Kacey, homeschooling, and generally feeling like an outsider. Her story is a kind, accessible look into young people’s mental health, friendships, and growing up. 

SEL themes: self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills

2. El Deafo by Cece Bell

Ages 8+


Credit: Abrams Books

In the elementary-appropriate graphic novel El Deafo, young bunny Cece processes attending school as a deaf student through a brave and powerful superhero alter-ego. The story touches on how children deal with complex emotions, accept individual differences, and spot social cues. Cece and her classmates also engage in a lot of collaboration and cooperation. 

SEL themes: self-management, social awareness, relationship skills

3. Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Ages 8+


Credit: Macmillan Publishers

Real Friends is a memoir-esque story inspired by Hale’s childhood and all the turmoil a young girl feels when she senses her friendships might be changing. The story’s main character is Shannon, who finds herself growing apart from her best friend, Adrienne, after she joins a tough, popular crowd at school. Shannon’s navigation of girlhood, relationships, and adolescent emotions inform the bulk of the illustrated tale. 

SEL themes: self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision-making

4. Stargazing by Jen Wang

Ages 10+ 


Credit: Macmillan Publishers

Wang’s novel depicts a new relationship between two fast friends: Christine and new-to-the-neighborhood Moon, who form a close bond as misunderstood preteens. The two of them navigate social conflicts, emotional upheaval, and life-changing health scares as they both compete in their school’s talent show.  

SEL themes: self-management, social awareness, relationship skills

5. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Ages 10+


Credit: Macmillan Publishers

In Be Prepared, tween Vera, a young girl from a Russian family that’s moved to American suburbia, is going to Russian summer camp. Hailing from a single-parent, low-income household and surrounded by much wealthier families, Vera is still trying to fit in and come to terms with disappointment, exclusion, and cultural differences. 

SEL themes: self-awareness, relationship skills

6. Duff Parker and the Downfall of the Dystopiad by J. Hill and Ian Moore

Ages 12+


Credit: Avenue A Books / The Center for Responsible Schools

In Duff Parker and the Downfall of the Dystopiad, middle schooler Duff seeks out graphic novels and his school’s science-fiction club as sources of stability and community as he deals with the aftermath of falling into a neighborhood gang — a circumstance that led to someone getting seriously hurt. The novel was published by the Center for Responsive Schools, an education nonprofit and publishing house that focuses on SEL resources.

A bonus: The graphic novel is illustrated by Mashable’s very own resident artist, Ian Moore. 

SEL themes: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making

7. Smells Like Trouble by Micah Amundsen and Marta Tedry

Ages 12+


Credit: Avenue A Books / The Center for Responsible Schools

This middle school graphic novel uses the tale of Dawn, a science whiz and chronic anxiety sufferer, and her best friend, James, to show how young people can manage their anxiety in uncomfortable and stressful social situations. When James is accused of a smelly, over-the-top prank, Dawn must overcome her own fears to stand up for her friends and passions. It was also published by the Center for Responsible Schools.

SEL themes: self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision-making

8. Essex County Trilogy by Jeff Lemire

Ages 13+


Credit: Penguin Random House

In Tales from the Farm, the first of a three-book collection following a community in an imaginary version of the author’s home in Ontario, Canada, Lemire tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lester who finds solace in some unexpected local relationships. The rest of Essex County shares the intimate stories of a single community navigating grief, friendship, love, and loneliness.

SEL themes: self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills

9. Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid by Yao Xiao

Ages 13+


Credit: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Inspired by the author and cartoonist’s own experiences as a young, queer immigrant, this graphic novel follows a young person on a journey to find a place of belonging as they explore their gender nonconformity, home life, and interpersonal conflicts. The book is a collection of Yao Xiao’s poetic monthly web comic series, known as Baopu.

SEL themes: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness

10. Alexis vs. Summer Vacation by Sarah Jamila Stevenson and Veronica Agarwal

Ages 13+


Credit: Avenue A Books / The Center for Responsible Schools

Alexis vs. Summer Vacation is a coming-of-age story about being 14 years old and struggling to figure out who you are and who you want to be. Alexis is about to start high school and is attempting to make new friends, all while coping with what that means for her now that she’s realized she has a crush on a girl. She must come up with a way to stand up for herself and her community while processing her own identity.

SEL themes: self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills

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