autism, nonfiction corner, social-emotional

Nonfiction Corner – Everybody Feels Fear/How to Build a Hug

Everybody Feels Fear (DK Children)
Written & Illustrated by Ashwin Chacko

For ages: 4-8
For a very long time, parents in America were taught to push their children despite signs that the child might have anxiety. The result was a society full of anxious people who were terrible at communicating their feelings. The solution to handling fear is different for every person. This book does an excellent job of talking to young children about how it is normal to feel fear and provides some strategies on what to do when you feel it. One of my favorite things about this text is that it emphasizes nothing wrong with feeling scared & that bravery has nothing to do with making fear disappear. Courage happens in spite of fear, and it can take time to build up enough of it.

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book list, social-emotional

List – Humanity & Homelessness

Turn on the news these days, and you’re likely to see a news report about the increase in homelessness. Unfortunately, the language used in this reporting is often cruel and dehumanizing towards the people who don’t have shelter. I find the way they are spoken about almost places them in a category separate from humans. It’s a troubling, fascistic way of talking about the poor. Empathy is needed, as well as material help in the form of housing, food, education, health care, and so on. We must teach our children that homeless people are people first. Their living conditions result from broken systems that harm us all to varying degrees. We’re also all one bad day away from ending up in that same position; creating a world where no one has to go homeless benefits us all. These books can help begin conversations with your children about the plight of people who have been forced to live on the streets or perpetually live on the edge of losing everything.

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science, social-emotional

Spotlight – Jabari Jumps/Salamander Sky

Jabari Jumps (Candlewick)
Written & Illustrated by Gaia Cornwall

For ages: 3-6
Jabari has decided this is the day he will jump from the diving board into the city swimming pool. His father and baby sister accompany him on this day out, with the little boy constantly stating aloud that he’s a good jumper & he’s not scared. Jabari is psyching himself up to do something he is somewhat frightened of. But he’s determined, though. As Jabari gets in line and moves closer to the ladder that will take him to the board he feels the butterflies set in. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all? He keeps finding ways to stall, like needing to stretch first. Dad never pressures him but reminds his son that being scared is okay. Of course, Jabari conquers his fear and learns a lesson. So do we.

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food, humor, social-emotional, spotlight

Spotlight: The Sour Grape/Donuts: The Hole Story

The Sour Grape (HarperCollins)
Written by Jory John
Illustrated by Pete Oswald

For ages: 4-8
You are likely already familiar with the Food Group series of picture books, and this is the latest (as of this writing) addition to the collection. The Sour Grape is a grumpy person who spends time explaining how they ended up this way. It started when the Grape planned an elaborate birthday party, but no one showed up. The Grape went from being sweet to bitter and then sour, lashing out at anyone who crossed their path. A relatable situation.

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author spotlight, black history, black lives, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Vanessa Brantley-Newton was born in Newark, New Jersey. She learned early on to celebrate being Black and living in a diverse community. One of her earliest reading memories is picking up Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day. Brantley-Newton has said that it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book, which had been Keats’s goal in making his protagonist Black. That began a life-long love of art, particularly picture book illustration. Although, like many artists before her, Brantley-Newton didn’t go straight to kids’ books and studied fashion at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, at the School of the Visual Arts, she took up children’s book illustration, which is now her job. Now she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband & daughter, regularly collaborating with writers on books that continue what the Snowy Day once did for her.

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african, social studies, social-emotional

Book List: Africa

Anansi and the Golden Pot (DK Children)
Written by Taiye Selasi
Illustrated by Tinuke Fagborun

For ages: 3-5
This remarkable retelling of an Anansi story centers on a little boy named after the fabled spider trickster. Anansi, the boy, travels with his family on a plane to Ghana, where the family’s relatives live. While staying at his nana’s seaside home, Anansi meets the actual spider, who gives him a golden pot. This magical pot will fill itself with whatever the boy desires most. However, there’s a catch; he must share the pot with the people he loves the most. This is a fantastic introduction to the stories of Anansi, one of the most well-known African folklore characters. I went in expecting just another simple retelling but placing this in the present day does a lot to freshen up some retold tales.

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animals, illustration, social-emotional, spotlight

Spotlight: The Littlest Yak/Carnivores

The Littlest Yak (Simon & Schuster Children’s)
Written by Lu Fraser
Illustrated by Kate Hindley

For ages: 4-8
No matter the period, it seems like children always feel a sense of inadequacy from being so much smaller than the world they are born into. Some kids are just itching to grow up because they feel left behind, unable to do all the things the big kids do. Gertie feels just the same, the smallest yak among a herd of very big ones. She sees the other yaks with their “hugest of hooves and humongous horns” and yearns for the same. Gertie’s mother tries to convince her to cherish these times of being a kid but Gertie just won’t have it. 

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black history, black lives, history, middle grade, social-emotional

Middle Grade Must-Reads: Swim Team

Swim Team (HarperAlley)
Written & Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas

For ages: 8-12
The story of how white supremacy erased beautiful cities has been shielded from white people’s view for at least a generation or two since it happened. Only in the last year have I learned that many cities across the country used to have public swimming facilities and even public amusement parks with rides. Where did these places go? When segregation was finally ruled unconstitutional, and these places were opened up to Black families, only then did the municipal leaders decide to shutter and demolish them. Now, most American suburbs and small towns have an absence of places for young people to play safely. I know the small Southern town I come from has nothing for the youth and plenty of drug problems caused by this cancerous boredom. How foolish that some white people should be filled with so much hate that they would torpedo their own children’s & grandchildren’s enjoyment of public spaces. 

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author spotlight, illustration, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Shaun Tan

You rarely see picture books that work for little children but become much more powerful the older you get. Shaun Tan writes and illustrates those very types of books that feel like modern classics. Tan finds ways to talk about profoundly difficult & complex ideas in a manner that a child will understand. Born in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia, Tan was drawn to art & storytelling from an early age. Around age eleven, he developed a deep interest in the Twilight Zone and the books of Ray Bradbury, both of which are apparent as influences in his work today. A brief dalliance with the idea of being a chemist in high school eventually became Tan shifting from academics at university to focusing on his art. The result is an incredibly distinct art style that combines traditional linework with collage elements. Reading and viewing Tan’s work expands your consciousness about what a picture book can do & say. If you are unfamiliar with his work, please check it out and think about what children in your life would click with these unique & moving texts.

The Lost Thing (Lothian Children’s Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan

For ages: 4-8
Tan made his debut as an author with this picture book which delivers a fairly standard plot made into something extraordinary through his art. A little boy finds a lost creature on the beach and tries to find the owner. He asks his parents if he can keep it. That is met with a no. So, our protagonist assumes he will have to hand the creature over to the authorities and hope for the best. However, the best place for this creature is discovered in the end. The images stand out because this lost thing is a towering hermit crab-like animal. Instead of a shell, it has nested inside a massive red teapot-like structure. Tan presents the city setting of the story as drab & gray. The creature is often the most colorful thing on the page. These visual cues are part of the story’s theme, an observation that the most beautiful/strange people & things have a difficult time finding a place in this world. Still, there is always somewhere that will embrace them with open arms.

The Red Tree (Hodder Children’s Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan

For ages: 4-8
In recent years, more picture books have been published addressing the complexities of human emotions, especially how children feel them. The Red Tree is enigmatic and requires the reader to engage with the text and think about what is happening. A little girl wakes up one morning and immediately shares how little she looks forward to the day. The world is colored by her mood, which is drab & bleak. Strange things abound: a fish floats over her head and spiders rain from the sky inside her bedroom. She wanders around a confusing world that often isn’t what it appears to be at first glance. Finally, she comes home, still feeling down. But something is different in her bedroom now; a bright gorgeous red-leafed tree sprouts and changes her mood. This is the only time we see her smile. I adore that Tan refuses to be so evident as to spell out what is going on in this story. I can guarantee the students who need to hear this one will get it, though. Tan can show depression in a form that, sadly, too many children relate to, but they need to see & hear they aren’t alone. Other people sometimes feel the same things, so there is a community to find that can provide support.

Cicada (Arthur A. Levine Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan

For ages: 9-12
Cicada is one of my favorite picture books of all time. That age range might come as a surprise. Still, this book will be most impactful with slightly older students as it works with some of the heaviest themes they are likely to encounter. Cicada is an office drone but also an insect. He wears a little suit and toils away in his cubicle for a company whose purpose we never quite understand. We see the world from his perspective, meaning people’s faces are obscured because they are tall. Cicada is a strong worker but is regularly bullied and marginalized in the workplace. His speech is exceptionally primitive, often missing direct/indirect objects and using incorrect subject-verb agreement. There is a rhythm to it that would make a read-aloud a pretty powerful thing. Despite feeling so sad for most of its length, Tan has a clever twist at the end that changes how we view Cicada’s perspective. What it does is mirror our own lives back on us: how we often marginalize people that are different & how adults accept such awful work/living conditions without protest. Cicada is a fantastic piece of literature & a vital meditation on examining our lives.

animals, family, humor, social-emotional

Spotlight: My Brother Is Away/The Eyebrows of Doom

My Brother is Away (Random House Studio)
Written by Sara Greenwood
Illustrated by Luisa Uribe

For ages: 4-8
Seven percent of all U.S. children have a parent in prison, amounting to 2.7 million kids. When you add in siblings, extended family, and family friends, that number grows ever higher. The American carceral system is structured & operated in a frigid, unfeeling way. It is not so concerned with rehabilitation as it is with keeping facilities full so private operators can scoop up large armfuls of government money. As an educator, you can show a feeling of warmth & compassion for students who have loved ones in prison through how you approach the subject. A fantastic first start is My Brother is Away.

A little girl narrates this story, sharing that her older brother is far away, which makes her sad. She gazes into his empty bedroom, remembers their fun times, and tries to pretend he’s still around. She has a strong bond with this older sibling, and his absence is felt powerfully. Eventually, she takes a long journey until she arrives at a gray, stony block building surrounded by fences. In the visiting room, the narrator is reunited with her brother, who wears a telltale jumpsuit. They hug, and she is so joyful that they get to spend even a little time together. 

The brother’s crime in this book is never detailed and isn’t important. Instead, the book aims to show empathy for children who have lost a loved one to this system. Maybe he needs to be incarcerated; perhaps he has been convicted and sentenced unfairly. That doesn’t matter. What does is that we understand that the brother is an essential person in the narrator’s life, a figure that helped her grow in many ways. The author ends the book with a beautiful note, a reminder, “If someone you love is in prison, I want you to know you aren’t alone, either.”


  1. If a student has a loved one incarcerated, have them journal about their feelings and share if they choose to. If a student doesn’t know anyone who is jailed, have them journal about what they imagine how that must feel.
  2. Have students pretend they are a friend of the narrator. Write about what they would do to make sure their friend was supported.
  3. Create a schoolwide support group for children who have loved ones in jail. This could involve making little care packages or writing notes that let these children know they are loved. This would be done with the consent of parents/guardians and the student themselves if they are comfortable sharing this information with their peers.

The Eyebrows of Doom (Tiger Tales)
Written by Steve Smallman
Illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez

For ages: 4-8
Absurdity is one of the effective forms of comedy to present a child with. They can identify elements that don’t adhere to the norms of everyday life and quickly notice the humor as a result. My favorite times reading aloud to children have been with a silly book. A reader who isn’t afraid to embrace goofiness and apply it to their reading style will have an audience of captivated children. It’s the same reason people have flocked to great storytellers for generations; humor & enthusiasm are contagious feelings that can be transferred via stories.

The Eyebrows of Doom starts us off with a silly premise. Bear is sweeping up his abode one day and a pair of slugs, covered in the accumulated dust, proclaim they are the titular Eyebrows of Doom. The visual joke is that when they slap themselves above Bear’s eyes, he suddenly looks evil due to their menacing tilt down towards his nose. Unfortunately, these Eyebrows also cause the bearer to do mean things, pulling pranks and causing mischief. They hop from animal to animal, leaving a trail of destruction wherever they go. At one point, the Eyebrows attach themselves to Seagull, who goes about bombing beach-going humans with his poop. The book even concludes with a tease that the specter of the eyebrows may not be gone completely. Do I smell a sequel?

Frequently, we are recommended books that have a big Lesson or Allegory to teach the children. Shouldn’t picture books exist to moralize the youth? Well, there are undoubtedly many that do that. Still, we seem to lose the sense that reading is a pleasurable experience. Few things are more delightful than laughter and joy. If a book can provide that, it is a good book….in my book. Books like The Eyebrows of Doom are perfect brain-break books; they can give a moment of relief for students who have been working hard, be it on daily work or those ridiculous & unnecessary standardized tests. Your students are hard workers, and they deserve a laugh & a break. The Eyebrows of Doom is that sort of read.


  1. Draw yourself with the eyebrows and what prank they would make you pull.
  2. Extend the drawing by writing a story about what happens when the Eyebrows find you.
  3. Create a warning poster for the community about the Eyebrows, including signs that the Eyebrows might be in your area.