In the wake of the social isolation that Zoom school brought to students, this year I’ve been flooded with requests from teachers for books about social emotional learning (SEL). There are many aspects of SEL, from developing empathy to encouraging self-confidence, but the request I’ve received the most is books about growth mindset. Carol Dweck coined the term in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,sparking a revolution in business and education circles that’s still echoing today. In a nutshell, growth mindset means embracing the belief that your abilities can grow through hard work. The idea of putting in effort and learning from your mistakes goes way back (as Benjamin Franklin said in 1758, “There are no gains without pains”). However, Dweck’s studies offer scientific evidence that growth mindset actually changes brain chemistry by strengthening connections between neurons, making success more likely.
Despite the promise of positive outcomes, the concept can be difficult for kids to embrace. Heck, it can be difficult for adults! Experiencing failure or seeing someone else succeed when you’re struggling can make it tempting to just give up. The following ten picture books do an excellent job of reminding readers the importance of persistence. In some stories, the road to success means not giving up until you get the desired results; in others, the answer may lie in altering your expectation of how that success will manifest. Either way, it turns out that what some people are quick to call failure is actually an opportunity waiting to be discovered.
Jabari Tries by Gaia Cornwall
Jabari’s frustration grows as he tries and fails to craft the perfect flying machine. To make matters worse, his little sister keeps getting in the way! When Jabari’s father steps in and suggests Jabari take a deep breath, Jabari tries again—this time with his sister as a partner, helping him to view the problem in a new light.
Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems
Nanette has a new responsibility: getting the baguette! Unfortunately, she can’t resist the temptation to eat the bread, and she is beset with regret. My favorite line: “‘The day’s not over, yet, Nanette,’ says mom. ‘Let’s reset!’” Filled with fun wordplay, this ode to the warm and wonderful baguette also shows the value of forgiving mistakes and moving on to try again.
Saturday by Oge Mora
Sometimes things don’t go exactly according to plan. Every Saturday Ava and her mother have a special day together, but on this particular day nothing goes right. Refreshingly, it’s the child who teaches the parent the power of resilience in this book. The illustrations are a delight, featuring Mora’s signature vibrant acrylic paintings and cut-paper collage.
After the Fall by Dan Santat
It’s perhaps the most famous fall of all: Humpty Dumpty’s experience on that wall. Every day he walks past the wall and remembers how scary it was, yet his greatest desire is to be high up there with the birds again. What happens when Humpty finally faces his fears and tries again is truly transformative.
The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
A girl begins a drawing and makes one eye too big. She compensates by making the other big, but that’s a mistake too! Then she adds glasses and voila: a lesson in how mistakes can take your creative expression to places you never expected.
Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea
A paean to looking at situations with a new perspective. Goat thought he was pretty cool until Unicorn came along and made it really hard to be special—I mean, how can you follow someone who makes it rain cupcakes? With Unicorn’s help, Goat learns he has his own unique abilities.
Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle by Chris Raschka
The title says it all. Others might learn faster. You might hurt yourself while trying. You’ll probably fall down, again and again (and again!). But eventually: You. Will. Learn. To. Ride. A. Bike!
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
Sometimes kids get a big idea they can see so clearly in their heads, they must make it a reality—but achieving that reality is hard when you’re a perfectionist. After several attempts, a girl cannot make the magnificent thing she envisions and gives up in a fit of temper. With the help of her assistant (her dog) and some time, she rethinks the situation and finds a solution to her problem.
The Good Egg by Jory John and Pete Oswald
The Good Egg is already perfect, and that’s the problem. He can’t get the other eggs to be as good as he is, and his shell is cracking under the pressure! The Good Egg takes some time out to dial it back a bit and figure out how to be the best he can be without worrying about the efforts of others.
The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi and Lorena Alvarez
This one was perhaps directly inspired by Carol Dweck, as she’s mentioned “the power of yet” in several of her lectures. Rhyming couplets accompanied by bright, cheerful illustrations remind the reader that no one started off knowing how to do everything, but with the magical Yet in place, anything is possible!
Sally Engelfried (@SalllyE) is a children’s librarian at Oakland Public Library, where she also works as the school librarian for two elementary schools. Her debut middle grade novel, Learning to Fall, will be out with Little, Brown in Fall 2022.