SEL Book Review: Small Things by Mel Tregonning

Written by Charlie Merrow

October 31, 2019

Social-emotional Learning

Looking for a good book to help grades 3-6 students with childhood anxiety? I found a great one, with no words. This book is particularly relevant to me right now. Two weekends ago I went back to my elementary school reunion – over 30 years after we graduated. No, I have never heard of an elementary school reunion before, but this one happened thanks to a random comment on a Facebook group and some very organized and motivated people. It was amazing to tour the building (shout out to P.S. 24 in Riverdale!), sit in the auditorium, and see how childhood faces grew into adults ones.  

Also remarkable were the stories that were shared during the day and over drinks later that night. People most fondly remembered all the performances we did and the dancing at lunchtime. The lunch monitors would put on Grease Lightening and all the boys would do their best John Travolta. We’d do conga lines to New York, New York

But people also shared many of the small but powerful moments of difficulty of childhood. The social anxiety, the scary moments at Halloween, the complexities of navigating school, family, and friends. When I returned home I found a book at our library that seemed more poignant than ever: Small Things by Mel Tregonning. 

In this no-words graphic novel, Tregonning tells the story of a boy facing the “tiny demons of worry that surround all children.” (There are no words, but there’s a thoughtful note to adults in the back of the book.) He struggles academically, he can’t fit in socially, and he lashes out at his family. With incredible artistry, the book shows how it can feel to children like those demons are eating away at their very being. 

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Tregonning wrote this book based on her own experiences with depression and anxiety and she passed away from depression-related issues before finishing the book. Shaun Tan, inspired by her, finished it for her. 

What I find most moving about this book is how Tregonning does not sugar-coat the resolution. There isn’t a flashy fix at the end. The protagonist finds solace by naming his feelings (as we teach in our emotional literacy lessons), meeting someone else who is struggling, and realizing that he is not alone. Like so many social and emotional learning ideas, this is one that speaks to adults as much as children.  

Either placed quietly amidst the books for students to find or as a conversation starter with a trusted adult, Small Things is a powerful addition to an elementary school library. I’m sending one to P.S. 24. 


About the Authorimg 0008 Noah Teitelbaum is the Executive Director of Empowering Education. Noah started his 20 years in education with 5th graders in Harlem and then went on to teach in other schools serving low-income students in the NYC area. He knows firsthand the need for tools for teaching SEL and Mindfulness. Noah has also been an instructional coach, an author of teaching handbooks and curricula, a consultant to some of the most innovative schools in the country, and a business manager and product innovator for a national test-prep business. He’s earned his Masters in Education, and an MBA, and has done significant course work in Instructional Leadership.


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Written by

Charlie Merrow

Charlie has over a decade of experience working in education across the world in North America, Asia, and Africa as a classroom teacher, curriculum specialist, university instructor, and educational researcher. His passion lies in promoting education equity and development through mindfulness and inclusive practices. Charlie has a MA in Special Education, is a PhD candidate studying Education Equity, a licensed special education teacher, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and a certified yoga instructor.

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