The Best Books for Growing Emotional Intelligence

published May 19, 2021
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In a year of multi-tiered catastrophes, parents, teachers, and caregivers have been uniquely challenged in guiding children through our radical situation. We need resources to answer children’s questions and give them frameworks through which to understand their own and others’ experiences. 

Both my husband and I are writers and teachers. Since our daughter was born seven years ago, we’ve relied heavily on books to help her name feelings, cultivate resilience, and advocate in her community. Over the years, her bookshelves have filled with hundreds of titles, mostly curated by my husband, who has taken a special interest in children’s lit and lined her walls with bookshelves. 

Here are some of our family’s favorite books to help nurture emotional growth:

Naming Feelings (Infant-3 years old)

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain

We loved this book during early language acquisition. Each page names a feeling — happy, silly, angry, jealous, sad — with a corresponding image. Using easy-to-memorize rhyme, this brightly illustrated book helped our daughter give words to her emotions. As she learned that adults would recognize these feelings and offer support, she became less reliant on physically expressing them. 

Buy the book: The Way I Feel

When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang

Personally, I like when a young female character is allowed to be angry. After an argument between Sophie and her little sister, Sophie “roars a red, red roar” and runs into the nearby woods. There, in privacy, her anger melts into tears, which offer release. Once Sophie has let her feelings take up space, she notices the natural beauty around her. The “wide world comforts her.” Sophie returns home to a family eager to make amends. 

Other great titles: No Matter What by Emma Dodd and The Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake

On Worrying (2-5 years old)

Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival

Ruby experiences worry for the first time. Because she is ashamed of this new feeling, which makes her feel apart from others, she tries to hide it, but this only makes the worry — represented by a yellow scribble that follows her — grow larger. But then one day she recognizes another worry scribble following another child. As the two children share their worries, the scribbles hounding them begin to shrink. Ruby learns that everyone worries, and that by sharing, she can diminish a worry’s power over her. 

Buy the book: Ruby Finds a Worry

Other great titles: Little Frog and the Scary Autumn Thing by Jane Yolen and Ellen Shi and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Ruth E. Harper, and Nancy M. Leak

On Being Yourself (3-6 years old)

Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko

Stephanie likes to be original and uses her appearance — especially her ever-shifting ponytail — to express herself. But when other kids at school begin copying Stephanie’s hairstyles, she threatens to show up at school with a shaved head. The following day, all the kids (and even the teacher!) show up with shaved heads, while Stephanie walks in with “a nice little ponytail coming right out the back,” reclaiming her identity. 

The Day You Begin by Jaqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez

Subtly examining racism and classism at school, this book surveys the experiences of disconnection and microaggression of minority children. Through the use of character interiority, we see kids internalizing their differences as shameful. But when given space to share their stories, the kids recognize themselves in each other and value what makes each of them unique. 

Buy the book: The Day You Begin

Other great titles: Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes and Ruby the Copycat by Peggy Rathmann

On Resilience (3-6 years old)

The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do by Ashley Spires

Lou is imaginative and adventurous, but when her friends want to climb a tree, Lou’s fear keeps her on the ground. At first, she tries to convince herself she doesn’t want to climb a tree. Then she strategizes how to do it more effortlessly (“Trampoline? Pole Vault?”). In the end, and with her friends’ encouragement, Lou faces her fears and begins to climb. The twist? She still can’t do it — not yet, anyway! This heartwarming story acknowledges that we won’t always succeed on our first try, with Lou promising to return to the tree tomorrow so she can try again. 

Other great titles: The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, Ish by Peter Reynolds, and The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein 

On Racism and Racial Justice (4-8 years old)

Something Happened in Our Town by Marianna Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard, and Jennifer Zivoin

After police shoot an unarmed Black man, classmates Emma (who is white) and Josh (who is Black) discuss the incident at home. Emma’s parents explain what racism is and how it leads to the kind of violence she learned about at school. They also help her understand that as a white person, Emma has a responsibility to speak up when she witnesses racism. Meanwhile, Josh’s parents explain that while fairness is a value taught in school, it’s not always enacted in life. When Josh feels angry that his skin color makes him less safe, his father teaches him how to hone anger into positive contributions. At school, both Emma and Josh take their lessons to the playground where they stick up for and include Omad, a new student, in their soccer game. 

Not My Idea by Anastasia Higginbotham 

The primary audience for Not My Idea is white families struggling to talk openly about racism, including police violence against Black and brown bodies, the history of white supremacy, and the urgency for whites today to disavow the racism they may not have invented, but will perpetuate if they don’t commit to dismantling it. The book also speaks powerfully to white parents about the need for honesty at home, trusting children to have empathic hard-wiring that can handle difficult truths. 

Buy the book: Not My Idea

Other great titles: The Color of Us by Karen Katz, Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo, and A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

On Grief (3-8 years old)

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

My father died just a year before my daughter entered the world. The Heart and the Bottle not only helped me explain his absence in our lives, but also how grief becomes part of someone’s story. The book centers on a girl whose life was irrevocably changed by the loss of her father, causing her to lose her sense of wonder and joy. At first, the girl puts her heart in a glass bottle to protect it from further pain. But by compartmentalizing her grief, she becomes unable to experience the world as she once did. Only when her own daughter is born years later, with hands small enough to remove the heart from its bottle and give it back, does she regain her emotional range. Ultimately, this powerful book makes a quiet and elegant case for the importance of grieving. 

Other great titles: Love You Forever by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw, Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi, and What Happens When We Die? By J.R. Becker and Max Rambaldi