Picture Books That Model Writing and SEL

Teachers can engage students in end-of-year reflection using these mentor texts to model SEL competencies and writing skills.

June 12, 2024
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The final weeks of school are exciting but overwhelming. Before becoming a literacy consultant, I was a fourth-grade teacher; one of my goals was to ensure that students had time to reflect on their accomplishments and set goals for their academic as well as social and emotional learning (SEL) the following year. 

I leveraged our final writing assignment and chose mentor texts to model the best examples of craft, structure, and conventions for my growing writers and illustrators. 

Marrying writing and reflection can be efficient and effective at the end of the year. Below, I share my favorite mentor texts that create opportunities for SEL.

Picture Books That Boost Literacy and SEL

Maurice: Maurice—a Parisian, accordion-playing dog—has music to share with the world. When times change and Maurice loses his audience, he’s heartbroken and uncertain how to survive. With help from feathered friends and memories he carries in his heart, Maurice learns how to share his gift with the world once more. As students follow his journey, there are many opportunities for them to think about responsible decision-making, self-awareness, and relationship skills. 

Jessixa Bagley’s book demonstrates foreshadowing; the use of precise nouns, verbs, and adjectives; different kinds of sentences (simple, compound, complex); similes and metaphors; introductory prepositional phrases; speech bubbles and dialogue to deepen character development; white space and line breaks that echo musical measures and create surprise for the reader; and rhyming action.

Students can craft their own verse set to a familiar song or original composition; their lyrics can describe themes of loss and rebuilding. You can also copy the cover of the book (under the jacket), which is a replica of Maurice’s accordion, and ask students to add words to each of the keys to describe things that keep them grounded when they’re having a hard time or feel alone. (Grades Pre-K–2)

The Perfect Place: Matt de la Peña’s newest picture book depicts the story of Luca, a boy who goes to a fancy private school in an upscale neighborhood, where he gets excellent grades and fits in perfectly. However, his home life, at least in Luca’s mind, is full of “not so perfect” circumstances; his mother works long hours at her waitressing job, he shares his small bedroom with his baby sister, and his father’s truck is continually breaking down.

Then, Luca visits “The Perfect Place” and wonders what being perfect really means. This text supports self-awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision-making. It showcases juxtaposition, temporal phrases, different sentence lengths (simple, compound, complex), precise verbs, a doubling up of adjectives, and sensory details.

Having students craft poems about the illusion of perfection helps them prepare for challenges that may lie ahead. Having students analyze abstract art (like the orange juice stain in the text) and discuss what they see encourages them to find unusual beauty throughout life. (Grades Pre-K–2)

Wait: In Antoinette Portis’s book, a mother and child attempt to make it to the train to get back home. The child has one perspective of slowing down, taking in every sight and sound to enjoy the stroll. The mother hurries, rushing the child to make the train. With only two words spoken (“Hurry” and “Wait”), this short but powerful masterpiece shows readers the beauty of slowing down and observing the world around us.

This text connects to three SEL competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills. It demonstrates techniques like showing movement of time through setting; close-ups versus landscapes; simple, evocative facial expressions; patterns and color; and perspective.

Invite students to contemplate how they might slow down over the summer and observe the world more closely. Ask them these questions: What can you do to enjoy every second of summer? What mind/body exercises can you practice to help you “wait” for things, even when you’re in a hurry? Students can develop mantras to center themselves when impatient or stressed. Discussions, interactive activities, or shared writing capture learners’ responses. (Grades K–1)

Not Perfect: In Not Perfect, by Maya Myers, illustrated by Hyewon Yum, two friends, Dot and Sam, create a poster as an at-home assignment. Dot is surrounded by lots of talented and supposedly “perfect” people in her life and feels like she can’t do things that others seem to do with ease. With help from her friend, however, she recognizes what perfection really means.

This book explores relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-management, and self-awareness. It exemplifies repetition; internal thinking; twin sentences; purposeful fragments; simple, compound, and complex sentences; limited but meaningful dialogue; environmental print; and intentional uses of white space, line breaks, and font size to exemplify emotions. 

Ask students these questions: What are talents you have that you could teach someone else this summer? What might you try for the first time this summer? How will you encourage yourself if, at first, you fail? What advice can you give yourself and others about the importance of not giving up, even when things are tough? 

First graders might answer in simple writing assignments or posters. Older students can craft paragraphs or use Google Forms to share with caregivers. (Grades 1–3)

Little Tree: While all other trees in the forest adapt to the seasons, in Loren Long’s book, Little Tree doesn’t; he fears change and is apprehensive about parting with his leaves. This simple, beautiful story gives students opportunities to discuss when it’s OK to let go and change, even when it’s difficult. It exemplifies sensory details, the repetition of one anchoring line, purposeful ellipses, various sentences (interrogative, exclamatory, declarative, imperative, fragments), temporal language that shows movement through time, personification, and a circular ending. 

Use this text to consider self-awareness, responsible decision-making, and self-management. To help students build confidence when facing fear or doubt, ask them these questions: If something concerns you about the summer, what is it, and how can you help yourself quell those fears? While the next school year may bring new challenges, what can you do over the summer (academically, socially, emotionally, physically) to make sure that when fall arrives, you have the best year possible? Who is one person you can rely on for support when you’re scared? What makes them a wonderful friend? 

Students can create mini-portfolios (handwritten or digital) to communicate their summer plans with family. (Grades 2–5)

Picture books model craft, convention, and structural moves—and provide opportunities to discuss students’ SEL. Leveraging their power makes those final days more rewarding.

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  • Literacy
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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