Using Comics to Support Social & Emotional Learning

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

It’s always been hard being a kid, but 2020 has presented unique challenges. Now more than ever, many young people are feeling confused, disconnected, alone and downright afraid. Educators and librarians can make a difference by reaching out and letting them know they’re not alone, but that gap can often be difficult to bridge.

Introducing young people to books that are accessible, at their reading level, and capture how they may be feeling can speak to them in a truly meaningful way, building roads to more open communication.

ComicsPlus’ collection of Social & Emotional Learning titles is intended to help foster empathy for self and others by providing immersive perspectives on relatable situations. It includes titles for every age range focused on dealing with the types of hardship, adversity, and emotional obstacles many young people are facing today.

Meh by Deborah MalcolmMeh by Deborah Malcolm

This wordless, beautifully illustrated graphic novel can reach any audience thanks to how it captures universal feelings of loneliness and depression. Beginning with a young boy enjoying activities on a sunny day, he is quickly pulled from his rainbows by a shadowy hand into sadness and confusion. He encounters a feline spirit guide who leads him through the dark and roaring back out into a world where they stand together in the light. The book includes a discussion guide to help readers think about both the story and their own emotional awareness.

Imperfect: A Story of Body Image by Dounya AwadaImperfect: A Story of Body Image by Dounya Awada

Dounya is a devout Muslim who aspired from a young age to keep up with her seemingly perfect mother. Exhausting herself with domestic tasks, excelling in academics, and achieving physical perfection, Dounya finds comfort in food. What follows is her struggle with obesity, body dysmorphia, and an eventual fight for her life against self-loathing. Illustrated depictions of the devil punctuate how real and terrifying her struggle continued to be. Hitting a literal breaking point at 73 pounds, with her family out of financial options to continue paying for treatment, Dounya feels “Allah wrapping his gentle arms around” her and finally fights off the demon. This powerful, uplifting autobiographical account is appropriate for classroom discussions about body image issues, and features teaching and parenting guides along with a photo album and updates from the author. Imperfect is part of an extraordinary series of similar social-emotional topics written by teens for their peers, published by Zuiker Press.

Super Chill by Adam EllisSuper Chill by Adam Ellis

Adam Ellis’s semi-autobiographical book Super Chill: A Year of Living Anxiously is a hilariously surreal portrait of the artist’s various quirks that seem to constantly manifest as he navigates a modern life. Rendered in a highly entertaining style that many readers will find quite engaging, Ellis’s cartoonish lampooning of his own flights of fancy and neurotic self-image is equal parts poignant and relatable, as well as regularly laugh-out-loud funny. For young teens struggling with their own anxiety issues, or those of us who simply take ourselves a little too seriously, sometimes there is nothing quite as cathartic as the ability to hold up a mirror and laugh at oneself to gain a new perspective… and Super Chill is a wonderfully charming testament to that ability.

Essex County by Jeff LemireEssex County by Jeff Lemire

For anyone struggling with a sense of belonging, Jeff Lemire’s award-winning Essex County is a haunting tribute to the ties that bind us all together… even when we find ourselves hopelessly estranged. This ambitious trilogy of intertwined narratives weaves its way through time and space to explore the lives of a number of residents of the eponymous (and fictitious) Canadian county, following the disparate threads of history, blood, and fate that tie their disjointed family tree together. Filled with moving scenes of compassion and loneliness, friendship and betrayal, love, loss, death—and throughout it all the ache of failed connection—anyone who has ever understood the desire to feel a part of a team, a community, and especially a family will find any number of heart-wrenching instances in this book deeply relatable. While its casually coarse language does make the book more suitable for the teen reader, those students ready to tackle tough subjects may find lessons of great value in between these quiet pages.

Goodbye: A Story of Suicide by Hailee Joy LamberthGoodbye: A Story of Suicide by Hailee Joy Lamberth

Suicide is always a difficult topic, but it’s an essential one to be able to discuss with young people. Written for young teens and also published by Zuiker Press, Hailee Joy Lamberth was a vibrant middle schooler who was hiding a dark secret from her family: She was the victim of relentless bullying. Her story includes depictions of self-harm and eventual suicide, but the story ends in a thoughtful, cautiously uplifting manner that would be ideal for classroom or book club dicussion. Her case led to “Hailee’s Law” being passed in Nevada, requiring schools to report bullying to both the victim and bully’s families. Back matter on this title includes tips for adults on talking to teens about suicide, and an action plan for when the immediate crisis has passed. An essential read. (Ages 13+)

Everything Is Beautiful and I am not Afraid by Yao XiaoEverything Is Beautiful and I am not Afraid by Yao Xiao

This poetry collection reads like a simple, illustrated journal, taking potentially complex concepts concerning a queer, gender non-conforming Chinese immigrant and making them digestible for middle school students. Everything from universal loneliness and seeking connection, living with parents who fight a lot, living up to family expectations, fulfilling gender norms, and even immigration laws are examined while somehow still being a breezy read. Snippets of life depicted in both difficult moments—such as coming out to your parents, along with beautiful ones—like making an essential human connection with a new friend. The illustrated format can also inspire readers to examine their own thoughts in a similar manner, featuring beautiful pages full of inspiring quotes next to more depressed cloud covers and shades of gray.

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie GreenLighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Fans of Raina Telegemier’s Guts and other titles will connect with Lighter Than My Shadow. An autobiographical look at eating disorders, bullying, self-harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and sexual abuse, it follows Katie from her early teen years, culminating with her as a young adult and embattled survivor. Her story is both heart-wrenching and an essential read, even for adults, to be reminded of the effects their seemingly innocuous comments and actions can have on struggling teens. This story is for everyone who has had to grow up, accept bad advice, suffer disastrously false starts, fail miserably—and yet somehow manage to keep getting back up every time they fell.

NOTE: A version of this article was also published by Good Comics for Kids.

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