Shelf Awareness's Best Children's and Teen Books of 2021
While this year has brought more challenges, it also gave us some truly beautiful children's and young adult titles. Here are our top picks for 2021; scroll down to read our reviews of these excellent books. (Shelf Awareness's Best Adult Books will be announced November 30.)
The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer, illus. by Mariachiara Di Giorgio (Candlewick)
I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illus. by Michaela Goade (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson (Putnam Books for Young Readers)
It Fell from the Sky by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Strollercoaster by Matt Ringler, illus. by Raúl the Third and Elaine Bay (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham (Roaring Brook Press)
The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, photographs by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illus. by Onyinye Iwu (Candlewick)
Watercress by Andrea Wang, illus. by Jason Chin (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House)
Egg Marks the Spot: A Skunk and Badger Story by Amy Timberlake, illus. by Jon Klassen (Algonquin Young Readers)
The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin (Candlewick)
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia L. Smith (Heartdrum/HarperCollins)
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld (Neal Porter/Holiday House)
Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook Press)
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride (Feiwel & Friends)
Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore (Dial Books)
The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel & Friends)
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia (Quill Tree Books)
Pumpkin by Julie Murphy (Balzer + Bray)
Colombia's Biblioburro Program
Atlas Obscura noted that Colombian teacher Luis Soriano "had a dream, two donkeys, and a lot of books," resulting in the Biblioburro program.
Comics Beat offered a "peek inside Dav Pilkey's studio."
Cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld considered some "supply chain problems faced by the magical realism industry" for the Guardian.
CrimeReads investigated "Conan Doyle's children, or, thoughts on the competition."
"Planned Virginia Woolf monument overlooking the Thames River criticized as insensitive," ARTnews reported.
Russia Beyond showcased the "top five Fyodor Dostoevsky masterpieces."
Children's & Young Adult
The Midnight Fair
by Gideon Sterer, illus. by Mariachiara Di Giorgio
Ask 100 children what might happen if you put wild animals in charge of a country fair in the middle of the night--there's a good chance that variations of their answers appear in this gloriously imaginative wordless picture book by Gideon Sterer and Mariachiara Di Giorgio. Dozens of animals watch from the nearby woods as evening turns to night and the swirling, neon-bright magic of a country fair begins to wind down. A worker switches off the main power switch and drives away. But the night of thrills, games and fried dough is not over.
Di Giorgio's lush watercolor, gouache and colored pencil artwork is spectacular not just in its liveliness and beauty, but in its remarkable depth and perspective. Surprise after surprise emerges for the keen-eyed reader, and not a detail is neglected. The Midnight Fair--like a ride on a Ferris wheel--will likely elicit entreaties of "Again, again!" --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
hardcover, 32p., ages 3-7, 9781536211153
I Sang You Down from the Stars
by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illus. by Michaela Goade
An Indigenous woman joyously awaits the birth of her child in this New York Times bestselling celebration of family and tradition by Cree and Trinidadian writer Tasha Spillett-Sumner, with dazzling illustrations by Tlingit artist and Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade.
"I loved you before I met you," the mother says. She gazes up into an amethyst sky at sunset, longing for a child. Following the sweeps of stardust, she finds a white eagle feather in a strawberry patch, "the first gift in a bundle/ that will be yours." While the assembling of medicine bundles is practiced primarily by Indigenous cultures, Spillet-Sumner's tender free-verse tribute to the joy of welcoming a new baby should resonate with any caregiver who has excitedly awaited a child's arrival. Her spare, uplifting lines sing with gratitude, reverence and elation. Goade's ethereal watercolor and mixed-media illustrations soar across the page, overflowing with gorgeous touches. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager, Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers,
hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780316493161
Milo Imagines the World
by Matt de la Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson
Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson's Milo Imagines the World, a Kids' Indie Next List picture book, centers on a child's regular ride on public transportation. The occasion for the trip, it turns out, is Milo's monthly visit to see his incarcerated mother. To pass the time, Milo people-watches, using a notebook to record the places he imagines his fellow passengers going after they reach their stops. Robinson is back with his robust paint-and-collage art. Chunky geometric shapes stand out with brazen brightness against various train stations' determinedly industrial color schemes. To conjure what Milo puts in his notebook, Robinson switches to blunt strokes that look as though they were forged with crayons.
On the subway, Milo feels "excitement stacked on top of worry on top of confusion on top of love"; readers will likely feel compassion stacked on top of heartache on top of humility on top of hope. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780399549083
It Fell from the Sky
by Terry Fan, Eric Fan
Siblings Terry and Eric Fan craft a winsome world of bugs and botanicals in this meticulously drawn story of outsize wonder and greed, disproportionate to its diminutive setting.
"It fell from the sky on a Thursday," the narrator says of a gleaming orb that lands among the dandelions and mesmerizes the local bug and small wildlife population. The cat's-eye marble, transparent except for twists of lemon yellow, kelly green and turquoise, is luminous against the grayscale landscape. The black-and-white inhabitants can't identify it. Meanwhile, the Spider skulks in the margins, spinning. The Fans create a satisfying vintage feel with their playfully formal diction and detailed graphite and digital illustrations. Each exquisitely elaborate spread invites a longer look, and only the items "from the sky" are in color, suggesting their otherworldly quality and allure. Fans of David Wiesner should especially love this immersive miniature world where marbles are marvels. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth experience manager, Dayton Metro Library
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers,
hardcover, 56p., ages 4-8, 9781534457621
by Matt Ringler, illus. by Raúl the Third, Elaine Bay
In this vibrant, energetic picture book, Matt Ringler imagines one wild ride of a parent-child outing, illustrated by three-time Pura Belpré Award-winner Raúl the Third and artistic partner Elaine Bay.
"The inside feels too small for Sam," says a brown-skinned little girl with ink-black pigtails. Her dad can cure "this daily disaster" of a nascent tantrum: a ride on the strollercoaster! Her dad, a rubber-limbed gentleman with a high pompadour, scoops Sam into her stroller, which acts as a dad-powered carnival ride through their bustling neighborhood. Ringler's zippy, onomatopoeic description of a daily father-daughter ritual lays the track for a breathless thrill ride that perfectly mimics a classic coaster. Bay's peppy palette grabs the eye, and Raúl the Third's visual feast of detail-stuffed scenes and sly sight gags invites readers to linger. Strollercoaster shows that imagination and the bond between caregiver and child can transform a pedestrian routine into a joyful, unforgettable adventure. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager, Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library
hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780316493222
by LeUyen Pham
How do young children understand Covid-19 and the way it has transformed their world? The changes that happened to everyday life, starting in spring 2020, are chronicled in Outside, Inside, a book that grew out of Caldecott Honor artist LeUyen Pham's "way of coping with events as they unfolded." Using simple language and detail-filled digital illustrations, Pham builds scenes with which young readers will be familiar: "Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed./ Everybody who was OUTSIDE.../ ...went INSIDE."
Outside, Inside contains a sense of hope, although, of course, the virus continues after its publication. The virus is never named, but children and the adults with whom they share this book can use it as a springboard to discuss their own experiences. Pham's excellent illustrations are the heart of this book. Children will likely find comfort in seeing a scary time represented in such a gentle manner. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer
Roaring Brook Press,
hardcover, 48p., ages 4-7, 9781250798350
The Me I Choose to Be
by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley; Regis and Kahran Bethencourt, photographers
Imagination, ingenuity and passion collide on the pages of this inspiring tribute to children of color. The poetic composition by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley coupled with the ingenious photography of Regis and Kahran Bethencourt results in an exquisite book that trumpets the magic and unlimited potential of young lives.
The Bethencourts' imagery mirrors the boldness of Tarpley's words, and their use of light and shadow emphasizes her tone. The models' expressions are natural and authentic, and their raw portrayals exude beauty and confidence, and invite the audience to linger on the pages. Taken individually, the photographs and text are exceptional. Blended together, they create a book of outstanding aspiration and inspiration. Young children of color should revel in the beauty of the subjects that bear resemblance to them, and readers of any race can find insight into their own potential and ambitions. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers,
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780316461542
Too Small Tola
by Atinuke, illus. by Onyinye Iwu
Tola, a young girl who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her Grandmommy, brother and sister, shares what her life is like in this early chapter book. Atinuke uses wit and exactly the right amount of light-heartedness to bring each character in Too Small Tola to exuberant life.
Atinuke's use of Nigerian words throughout, accompanied by Onyinye Iwu's illustrations, immerses readers in Nigerian culture. The grayscale illustrations are stylized with realistic elements: characters wear traditional African garments such as wrap-around skirts, head scarves and dashikis, and have natural hairstyles--braids, puffs and afros. Iwu's focus on expressive faces and body language adds realism to the work, as does her attention to setting. Atinuke uses child-friendly, entertaining dialogue and incorporates accessible themes such as bullying and helping others in need. Her inclusion of rounded and well-developed secondary characters also helps tiny Tola recognize that strength might come not necessarily from the muscles, but the heart. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children
hardcover, 96p., ages 7-9, 9781536211276
by Andrea Wang, illus. by Jason Chin
In this Boston Globe-Horn Book Award honoree and Kids Indie Next List selection, Andrea Wang relates a childhood experience in touching narrative verse that is at once universal and distinctly personal. Paired with stunningly detailed watercolor illustrations by Caldecott Honor artist Jason Chin, Wang's story takes root and blooms into nourishing fare.
As the daughter of immigrants, Wang felt like an outsider, often embarrassed by her parents. But when they stop on the side of the road one day to pick weeds from a ditch, Wang is truly mortified. Chin juxtaposes Midwestern Americana with famine-struck China: in the gutter of one double-page spread, cornstalks turn into bamboo, with Wang on the left and an adult and child scrounging for food on the right. The time slips elicit an appreciation for the pain suffered by Wang's family in China and the cultural battle silently taking place in her psyche. Sincere and subtly inspiring, Watercress is transformative. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Neal Porter Books,
hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780823446247
Egg Marks the Spot: A Skunk and Badger Story
by Amy Timberlake, illus. by Jon Klassen
Skunk and Badger stumble into the adventure of a lifetime in round two of this quirky, comical early reader series about a mismatched pair of friends.
Newbery Honor author Amy Timberlake and Caldecott Medal-winner Jon Klassen team up again to build on their story of a friendship both tender and outrageously funny. Roommates Skunk and Badger set off on a camping trip to Endless Lake to escape home-life burdens and, perhaps, find a new agate for Badger's alphabetized rock collection. While book one (Skunk and Badger, a 2020 Shelf Awareness Best Book) establishes the fragile new bond between the roommates, Egg Marks the Spot, a Kids' Indie Next List choice, deepens the connection. Klassen contributes his trademark droll artwork in both full-color and black-and-white illustrations that invite leisurely perusal. Details like the cast-iron pan hanging from Skunk's massively overstuffed backpack work to build on and reinforce the hilarity of Timberlake's text. Book three, we're waiting for you! --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Algonquin Young Readers,
hardcover, 160p., ages 7-10, 9781643750064
The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
by Eugene Yelchin
Eugene Yelchin grew up where street tar was a substitute for chewing gum, "asking questions was considered not patriotic" and all the walls had ears--even those of your own home. Despite these challenges, he blossomed into an award-winning writer and illustrator. In this splendidly entertaining memoir of a bleak childhood in Cold War Russia, Yelchin turns a dark, drab world into a kaleidoscope of humorously enlightening anecdotes about a boy with a stolen pencil and a lot of questions.
The Genius Under the Table offers a fascinating glimpse into life in the USSR through the eyes of an artistic, imaginative and very funny child. Yelchin adorns the pages with his distinctive art, so each flip of the page brings a better understanding of this complex boy--his sense of humor, his understanding of the world and his struggles--by perfectly complimenting the text. Simply beautiful! --Jen Forbus, freelancer
hardcover, 208p., ages 9-14, 9781536215526
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids
by Cynthia Leitich Smith, editor
Sixteen of today's most skilled Indigenous children's authors join forces in this anthology of richly varied, loosely interconnected stories all centered on an intertribal powwow, "where our hearts beat as one/ to the thump of the drum."
From as far away as La Conner, Wash., and Durant, Okla., kids make the trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow. They are Cree and Choctaw, Ojibwe and Navajo, Coast Salish and Cherokee. The stories' broad assortment of family makeups, backgrounds and conflicts underscores the diversity of the Indigenous experience. Even so, overarching themes emerge around the importance of family, the solace of tradition and community, and growing personally through supporting others. This uplifting assembly affirms the vitality of Indigenous life today and offers accessible situations and characters to all young readers. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library
hardcover, 320p., ages 8-12, 9780062869944
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess
by Tom Gauld
London cartoonist Tom Gauld's The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess is a charming story about sibling loyalty featuring classic fairy-tale mainstays. It begins with an interracial royal couple lamenting their childlessness, after which the king asks the (female) royal inventor to create a child; meanwhile, the queen visits a witch in the woods for the same purpose. The inventor builds a wooden robot boy, the witch fashions a princess from a log, and the newfangled royal family is happy. When the princess goes missing, the robot boy goes to Augean lengths to find his sister. Readers who presume that the story will proceed as a one-sided rescue effort will be gleefully mistaken.
Drawn with pen and colored digitally, Gauld's art has exacting characterizations, sure-handed hatching and tidy layouts. The book also has a happy ending--the lone fairy-tale convention to which Gauld surrenders completely. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
Neal Porter Books,
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780823446988
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood
by Gary Paulsen
In a memoir that reads like the fiction that made him famous, Gary Paulsen (1939-2021) leads his audience through the rugged terrain of his childhood, a period that profoundly inspired his three Newbery Honor-winning classic wilderness and survival stories. Here the beloved author candidly lays bare the details of his tumultuous youth.
Some of the most inspiring moments in the book come in Paulsen's discovery of the library and the joy of reading. There he met the woman who introduced him to the magic of books, inspired him to write and showed the 13-year-old "how to feed his brain." This awakening of Paulsen's love of story ignited hope in his dark world and is part of what made him a librarian and teacher favorite. Gone to the Woods is labeled for middle-grade children, but this literary treasure is written for book lovers of any age. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
hardcover, 368p., ages 8-12, 9780374314156
Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown
by Steve Sheinkin
Three-time National Book Award nominee and Newbery Honor author Steve Sheinkin recounts the "most intense years of the Cold War" with a cinematic writing style that is keenly detailed.
In 1948, three years after the end of World War II, the Soviets and Americans, former allies who "crushed Hitler" and won the war in Europe, are clashing over postwar plans. The two countries find themselves "locked in a struggle for power and influence over the world" as American leaders encourage the establishment of democratic governments and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin pushes for the spread of Communism. Thus, the Cold War begins. A sense of urgency is apparent as Sheinkin moves through the events that brought the world to the brink of World War III. Switching rapidly between the viewpoints of Washington and Moscow, Sheinkin recounts the story as if it were a chess match between two grandmasters. Look no further for informative and entertaining nonfiction. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Roaring Brook Press,
hardcover, 352p., ages 10-up, 9781250149015
by Amber McBride
Amber McBride's debut novel, a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Kids Indie Next List pick, unfolds in a series of stunning, connected free-verse poems. Her words dance across the pages with the elegance of her ballerina protagonist, Moth, a teen girl grieving the death of her mother, father and brother. As a child, Moth's grandfather taught her how to work Hoodoo; she strives now to use this magic to soothe her loss. Sani, the son of a Navajo healer, lives with his mother and abusive stepfather in the town to which Moth has relocated. The teens, both struggling to find their place in the world, run away on a road trip together. Moth and Sani's belief systems blend as their hearts meld, culminating in an epic climax. Me (Moth) is a rich, soul-stirring gift for any young adult. Parents will likely want to read this one as well--if they can pry it away from their teen. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Feiwel & Friends,
hardcover, 256p., ages 13-up, 9781250780362
by Kristin Cashore
Kristin Cashore returns to her Graceling Realm series with a wonderful installment rife with political intrigue and tantalizing romance. When Queen Bitterblue of Monsea learns that two of her emissaries have died under suspicious circumstances, she's heartbroken. Merchants from Winterkeep have been stealing Monsea's zilfium--a powerful fuel--and it appears they've murdered her men to keep their secret. Bitterblue sails to the Winterkeep capital. As her ship approaches, she's swept overboard, "rescued" and then immediately imprisoned by persons unknown. Lovisa Cavenda, the daughter of two politicians in Winterkeep, is perfectly situated to dig into the mysteries: Where is the zilfium going? And who has Bitterblue?
Cashore's novel features two strong but different female protagonists. Bitterblue jumps into danger headfirst, while Lovisa is slower to challenge her demons. But confront them she does, in this gripping tale of spies, romantic tension and moral dilemmas. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
hardcover, 528p., ages 12-up, 9780803741508
The Mirror Season
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Anna-Marie McLemore's The Mirror Season is intelligent, brutal and exquisitely written. This novel, longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature, is a contemporary retelling of a fairytale ("The Snow Queen") with elements of magical realism.
Ciela was the type of girl who "reveled in... her brown skin... matching [her] lace-trimmed underwear to [her] makeup." But the party changed her. That night, Ciela and Lock Thomas were both sexually assaulted. Ciela tried to help Lock, a visiting white boy who had been drugged, but believes she instead put them both in danger. Now, she wants only to forget. But as commonplace items begin turning to glass and a shard gets stuck in Ciela's eye, Lock shows up at her school as a new student. McLemore's craft is superb and the emotions they describe are raw and realistically confused. The Mirror Season is ferociously beautiful. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Feiwel & Friends,
hardcover, 320p., ages 13-up, 9781250624123
A Sitting in St. James
by Rita Williams-Garcia
The masterful Rita Williams-Garcia depicts the brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the antebellum South in this Boston Globe-Horn Book Award-winning and Indie Next List title. Williams-Garcia intertwines the lives of the white Guilbert family and the Black people they enslaved in this shocking and dramatic novel.
In 1860s St. James, La., Madame Sylvie prepares to sit for a portrait with a well-known artist. As Madame gets ready to participate in this even-for-her-time mostly antiquated tradition, she nags her family into getting their affairs in order. With an extensive cast of characters, Williams-Garcia uses history to create the drama, constantly exposing how white slave owners depended completely on those they enslaved. Mature content and themes are treated with nuance and subtlety, but Williams-Garcia makes the cruelty clear: there is abuse, rape and child murder. In this traumatic and heartbreaking novel, she uncovers the vicious, disturbing realities enslaved people faced. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children
hardcover, 480p., ages 14-up, 9780062367297
by Julie Murphy
An aspiring drag queen grows to embrace his body and individuality in this winning contemporary YA novel. Waylon Brewster is fat and "the kind of gay that announces itself and asks for a wide berth." He is counting down the days until he can graduate, move to Austin with his twin sister, Clementine, and live his truth. When, as a "joke," Waylon is nominated for prom queen and Hannah, Clementine's Afro-Dominican girlfriend, is nominated for prom king, the two decide they'll run for the crown and win. Finally, Waylon steps into the spotlight.
Julie Murphy (Dumplin'; Puddin') populates Pumpkin with a captivating cast of supporting characters, including Clementine and Waylon's eccentric grandmother; the annoyingly handsome prom king nominee Tucker Watson; and Waylon's "self-proclaimed frenemy," Kyle Meeks. Waylon's relationships with these characters form the emotional core of Pumpkin; moments of humor and warmth work together with commentary on body positivity and gay rights. --Alanna Felton, freelance reviewer
Balzer + Bray,
hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9780062880451