Seeking Personally Relevant SEL Books for Children and Teens

by Deidra Purvis, acquisitions editor for children and teens for Free Spirit Publishing

Seeking Personally Relevant SEL Books for Children and TeensHello! My name is Deidra Purvis, and I’m pleased to introduce myself as the new acquisitions editor for children and teens at Free Spirit Publishing. I’m excited to share my journey to this role as acquisitions editor and the types of books I’m seeking.

Growing up, what I remember more than anything was my mother’s repeated wish for me and my two older brothers: she wanted us to be happy, healthy, and safe. She told us this nearly every day.

But like all children, I faced challenges in meeting those goals. Through my own experiences and those of family and friends, I became aware of many hard facts about life from an early age: alcoholism, body image issues, debt. But my mother’s mantra—to be happy, healthy, and safe—stuck with me.

In my search for happiness, I got a lot of things wrong, and I got a few things right. Because of the magical world of the internet and books, as a teenager, I started doing something none of my peers were doing in my small, rural, mostly white town in Ohio in the early 2000s: I started meditating. I also started pursuing happiness in other ways—riding my bicycle, writing, and gardening. So began my passion for social and emotional wellbeing.

Because of the lack of access and lack of representation, children and teens in rural areas, low-income households, BIPOC children, and those belonging to other underrepresented groups often aren’t able to see what’s possible. I didn’t have a lot of examples of career paths in front of me. I loved writing, so I became an 8th-grade English teacher.

Later, my life led me to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Here, I found an organization where I could learn more deeply about meditation and mindfulness. I enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing, learned about the art of writing, and gained experience on an editorial board.

I also spent seven years as a personal book shopper, helping teachers and other education leaders find books for their classrooms—books that would help children and teens fall in love with reading. This is when I first heard books described as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors,” as coined by Rudine Sims Bishop.

In my role curating custom book collections for teachers across the country, “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted every child and teenager to have access to high-quality, high-interest books that they would find personally relevant, and that would encourage empathy for and relationships with others.

Working with educators, I also saw a rise in the whole-child approach to teaching, leading to an increase in social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. Thinking back to my own experience as an educator, I was brought tremendous joy when I saw my students grow as readers and writers. But my real dream for my students wasn’t for them to grow up to be the smartest, most talented humans; my dream for them was to discover their passions and grow up to do good things in the world, for themselves and for others.

During my time as a curator of classroom book collections, I received requests to curate book lists aligned with SEL programs—allowing me to build collections of both fiction and nonfiction trade books aligned with key skills and traits such as growth mindset, connectedness, mindfulness, determination, and creativity.

This was my favorite part of my job, and my passion for SEL grew. I now see it everywhere. When I think about the core content areas in school, I think about how SEL is the most important tool for success. Take science, for example. For a scientist to succeed, they need to appreciate and celebrate failure as a learning opportunity, and they need to have the determination and patience to keep going. They need a growth mindset.

When building these collections, I sought SEL books where students could personally relate to the character—see themselves represented—and have discussions about the character’s emotions, actions, and skills. As acquisitions editor for children and teens, these are the books I’m most excited to find.

Whether picked up by students or caregivers at a bookstore, the library, or school—my goal is to acquire books that will make our youth feel seen and provide them with the tools they need to face challenges.

My life has come full circle. I’ve been an educator, writer, bookseller, and a person with a passion for SEL. Now, as acquisitions editor for children and teens for Free Spirit Publishing, it’s all combined into one. I still have the important role of finding books children and teens will find personally relevant, meaningful, and helpful.

Only now, I’m one step closer to the source. I get to find books that need to be made available to children and teens but aren’t yet published.

And here’s what I’m looking for in children and teen books:

  • Authentic voices from underrepresented authors
  • Human characters
  • Books that are culturally relevant for today’s children and teens
  • High-interest and lyrically written pictures books about experiences children will find personally meaningful and that also align with an SEL skill or strategy
  • Fiction and nonfiction books portraying SEL skills applied to STEM
  • Books that portray important stories and explore the truths of pain and joy from historically underrepresented voices
  • Titles applying SEL to youth activism
  • Titles exploring appreciation for the environment
  • Books for kids and teens on mental health topics

I’m especially seeking manuscripts from authors of diverse representation; including race, ethnicity, culture, religion, social class, LGBTQ identities, ability, and physical differences.

Writers and fellow SEL enthusiasts, please follow me on Twitter @FSPacqauisitions. I look forward to reading your work!

For details about how to submit a book proposal to us, check out our submission guidelines on Submittable.

Deidra Purvis, the acquisitions editor for children and teens for Free Spirit PublishingDeidra Purvis is the acquisitions editor for children and teens for Free Spirit Publishing. She’s looking for new board books, picture books, and chapter books with an SEL focus. Follow her on Twitter @FSPacquisitions.

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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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