What one act will develop both the emotional intelligence and the future academic success of your child?
You only get one guess. (I bet you guessed right.)
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that reading aloud to your children helps them develop empathy and compassion. Picture books offer your children insight into the perspective of others as well as encouraging them to examine their own emotions and feelings. Today I am sharing a book list of some of the best picture books that support the development of emotional intelligence in children (and perhaps their adult readers, too!). Many believe that emotional intelligence is a stronger prediction of future success in life than academic achievement. Lucky for us, reading aloud nurtures both!
While curating this list I aim to go beyond a typical list of picture books about feelings so I chose books that not only demonstrate a complex understanding both of how children experience emotions, but also offer insight as to how they can self-regulate their overwhelming emotions. I worked hard to select titles for a wide variety of experiences that shape our emotional intelligence, from sadness, relationships with others, ethics, as well as big, scary emotions. You can read these books to preschoolers on up.
So go ahead and spend a little extra time with your child and a stack of books. You are doing a good thing!
(Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Grief and Sadness
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld is a wonderful reminder to listen to the needs of those around you. Taylor (depicted as gender neutral so any child can identify with Taylor) is building a block tower when a bird comes and knocks it over. Taylor is very upset and several animals come over to try and fix the situation. They go about it all wrong, however. They shout, vow revenge or try to dismiss Taylor's grief. The rabbit, however, listens and allows Taylor to experience an entire range of emotions over the loss of his tower. I absolutely adored this book and parents will learn a good lesson for themselves when reading it, too!
When Sadness is at Your Door by Eva Eland. This is a lovely book that teaches kids that accepting sadness is part of life. Sadness, represented by the blue-green form comes into a child's home and stays for a while, accompanying the child in all their daily activities. The overall message is not to be afraid of sadness, but to acknowledge it, name it and experience it. A wonderful, gentle book that every child should read.
Relationships with Others
The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros. All of grandpa's balloons represent memories. James loves those the memories and stories but one day some of the balloons start to drift away. The balloons act as a metaphor for grandpa's memory loss and dementia, although it is never named as such. As grandpa's balloons fade, James begins to hold more balloons and he sees that it is now his privilege to hold on to memories and share them with others. I was so impressed with the compassion in this book. Children don't necessarily need to have a loved one experiencing memory loss to appreciate the story.
The Fox on the Swing by Evelina Daciutè. Translated from the Lithuanian, this is a wonderfully whimsical tale of hope, friendship and happiness. Paul and his family live in a tree in a park and one day when Paul is on his way home from the bakery he meets a fox on a swing. Thus begins a rather interesting series of encounters with the philosophizing fox who creates just the right conditions for Paul to consider the nature of happiness and friendship. I love this book for encouraging emotional intelligence because the complex nature of the dialogue really challenges kids to consider the themes touched on in the story.
Wallpaper by Thao Lam. In this mostly wordless tale, a girl moves into a new home. She spies a trio of friends in a treehouse and watches them with interest. But when they see her, she hides, unable to make the leap necessary to join them. Instead, she peels back a piece of the wallpaper and steps into an imaginary world. Her adventure inside this world helps her find the courage to make friends in the real world. Making new friends can be incredibly tough for some children, but even if it is easy for your kids, learning to develop empathy for those who struggle is an important step towards building a depth of emotional intelligence.
My Heart Is a Compass by Deborah Marcero. Rose is looking for something unique to bring to show and tell. She doesn’t know where to look so she uses her imagination and starts to draw maps to help her search for a treasure. She draws all kinds of maps, still thinking she can’t find something to share with her friends. So she takes her maps into show and tell and they turn out to be the treasure she was looking for. I’d say this picture book, with its marvelous illustrations, is the treasure you and your kids have been looking for!
My Heart by Corrina Luyken. Beautiful, lilting rhymes describe the myriad of ways our hearts feel and how they change. Hearts can be open or closed, they can feel bright or shadowed. Luyken’s evocative charcoal illustrations add detail and charm. This book will resonate with all children (and parents, alike). Not to be missed.
Nina in That Makes Me Mad by Hilary Knight is a graphic novel from the Toon Book series, which is great for beginning readers but also satisfying to read aloud. A lot of things make Nina mad and she tells everyone exactly how she feels: mad. I liked the way this book refrained from moralizing. It was perfectly acceptable for Nina to express her feelings and my younger son really responded to this book for that very reason. For each thing that makes Nina mad, such as "when you don't let me help," or "when I try and it doesn't work" there is a short vignette showing an example from Nina's life. The solution to big feelings is wonderfully simple; Nina explains that she feels better when she is allowed to tell her parents when she is mad.
Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard is so, so funny (and accurate!). When Grumpy Bird wakes up, he is grumpy! Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. Too grumpy to do anything, even fly, so he walks along in his grumpy mood. As he passes each of his friends, he snaps at them but they join him anyway and the grumpy walk turns into a sort of follow the leader game and Grumpy Bird can't help but let friendship and fun turn his frown upside down.
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla. Every kid (and grown-up) has to deal with a bad day, or lots of bad days, really. Sammy has a really, really bad day. It seems like everything is going wrong and not only that, but his autistic brother, Benji is also experiencing a rough day. Sammy notices that Benji has a special place just for him when he starts feeling overwhelmed but Sammy doesn't have a spot like that. Benji notices Sammy's sadness and helps his brother out with the aid of a blue blanket. This heartwarming book teaches kids how having a go-to spot can help them self-regulate and the positive power of connection with others (especially family).
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall. I love young Jabari! Having a growth mindset means facing your fears, even if it takes a little extra time, and a bit of loving encouragement. Jabari thinks he is ready for the diving board, but it is such a big step! His dad lets him know that it's okay to feel scared and Jabari takes the time he needs and he finally does it! Part of breaking out a fixed mindset is accepting that some things might be scary but they are still worth doing.
Honesty and Ethics
The Lying King by Alex Beard. This picture book about a ruler who lies and lies and lies is quite the timely tale. When children lie (and they all do, eventually) they must deal with the emotions of guilt and regret, only then can they move forward. The Lying King's story is told in clever rhymes and depicts how lies snowball and ultimately catch their creator in a trap of his own making. The fate of the lying warthog will give your kids lots to think about. This picture book is a timeless story is important to share with your children and use as a springboard to discuss the value of truth.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. You may wonder why I have have this quirky, dark book on a list about books that teach emotional intelligence. Well, the sly narrative requires kids to engage their brains and debate ethical questions. Why does the story end the way it does? Is that right or wrong? Plus, encouraging kids to approach all kinds of narratives, both visual and linguistic, forthright or subtextual builds reading comprehension and an expansive view of the world.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. This is such an interesting and extraordinary book that will get your children talking and thinking critically about what it means to have perspective and how perspective might influence our opinions and actions. The text is very simple, identifying who "saw a cat" and the illustration of the cat changes based on the viewer. How a child, a dog, a fish, etc. sees a cat is all different. This is a great picture book for teaching empathy and perspective, important factors in developing a strong emotional intelligence.
Life by Cynthia Rylant asks the reader to reflect on small moments of life. Brendan Wenzel's illustrations of the animals that take us on the journey are magnificent and exquisite. "What do you love about life?" Rylant asks as she proceeds to demonstrate the beauty of seemingly ordinary moments like a bird soaring. She asks us to trust the animals, and reminds us that although life is not always easy, it is always worth waking up for.
I'll Root For You and Other Poems by Edward van de Vendel. If you've ever had a child who hates losing, you know how difficult it can be to build their resilience and teach them the emotional skills they need to be a good and fair sport. This collection of poems will encourage kids to take winning and losing at it comes, celebrate the successes, but also understand and learn from the loses. The poems cheer on athletes as they keep trying to do their very best.
Zen Socks by Jon J. Muth. Stillwater the Panda offers important lessons to his friends about the importance of kindness and empathy towards others. Stillwater tells the children three stories, about patience, sharing and compassion, helping them to learn how to be well-rounded individuals. Gentle humor and "ah ha" moments keep things from getting preachy and Muth's illustrations are marvelous as usual.
More picture books that support emotional development: