2021 Best Books for Young Readers

NEW THIS YEAR — Click here to print a Google Doc of the list!

Feeling cooped up and stressed? Looking for an escape from our dismal omicron-besieged reality for you or the young person in your life? Well, have I got a solution for you!

A few dozen solutions, actually!

Down below is my annual list of my personal favorites among the many, many titles published for young readers in 2021. Picture books, graphic novels, fiction, non-fiction, and even a few young-adult titles thrown in for good measure. Max out that library card and spend winter savoring these titles like the best variety-pack of ramen noodles, ever.

The Usual Caveats: This list isn’t comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination; if there’s a book you love that I didn’t include, it’s either because I didn’t have time to get around to it, or I didn’t like it (gasp!) – do you really want to know in which category your darling lies? 

Conversely: not every title on this list is for you. I guarantee it. I have broader tastes than most; if you’d like a personalized recommendation, feel free to reach out, I love to play matchmaker!

Lastly: books that contain sensitive topics for littles are marked with asterisks (**). You might want to take a close gander before handing them over to the young’un in your life.

Now that all that business is done, let’s get to the fun part. Shine up your bookmarks, launder those book totes, brew that nice cuppa, read and enjoy!


Illustrations so dazzling you might need sunglasses – Have You Ever Seen a Flower? by Shawn Harris

#1 Best Pick for preschoolers obsessed with trains – I Can Make a Train Noise by Michael Emberley illus. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

Best sweet, tear-jerky ending to a trilogy – Julia’s House Goes Home by Ben Hatke (seriously, if you haven’t read the “Julia’s House” books, you’re missing out!)

It’s so nice to know something about Franz Kafka that doesn’t involve giant cockroaches – Kafka and the Doll by Larissa There, illus. Rebecca Green

Best magical nature stories – (Mushrooms! Fairies! Spooky haunted tree stumps!) Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl

Quirkiest Friendship Story – The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld

Gorgeous photography, eye-popping costumes – The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, illus. Regis and Kahran Bethencourt (If you haven’t picked up the Bethencourt’s stunning adult nonfiction Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty, I recommend that one, too)

Most creative use of picture book format – Mell Fell by Corey R. Tabor

Best book for prompting deep conversations with kids – Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, illus. Christian Robinson

This is one of my favorite little-known illustrators, and it’s been YEARS since she’s made a new picture book! SQUEE! – Moose’s Book Bus by Inge Moore

Best Fable (also best illustration of dramatic irony) – New In Town by Kevin Cornell

Most Gorgeous Bedtime Story – The Night Walk by  Marie Dorléans

Most Hilarious Work-From-Home Story, with a twist I did not see coming – Off- Limits by Helen Yoon

Sweetest Grandparent Story On the Trapline by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett

Best Book to prompt Creative Play – The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

Most Gorgeous Adaptation – The Robin and the Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Jason Jameson

The One My Family Kept Passing Around and Laughing Out Loud – The Rock From the Sky by Jon Klassen

The Book that Changed the Way I Look at . . . Everything – Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler, illus. Loren Long

My Personal Favorite Read-Aloud – A Tree for Mr. Fish by Peter Stein

Gorgeously Written and Illustrated Immigration Story – Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin

A Refugee Tale, told as if in a dream – Wishes by Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai

GRAPHIC NOVELS (picked out this year with help from 11 year old Katie)

It’s kind of amazing how much characterization and world-building these authors accomplish in 100 pages, wow (plus gemstone ball gowns!!!) – Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld by Shannon and Dean Hale, illus. Asiah Fulmore

Best Spooky Victorian Hilarity – The Dire Days of Willoweep Manor by Shaenon K. Garrity, illus. Christopher Baldwin

Adventures in Babysitting, But With Cats! – Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable, illus. Stephanie Yue

Best Historical Fiction/Tall Tale Mashup – The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

Best Wonder Woman Remix – Nubia: Real One by L.L. McKinney, illus. Robyn Smith

You Wanna Know How Vaccines Work? Including the COVID-19 Vaccines? – A Shot In the Arm! by Don Brown

FINALLY! An action-adventure book based on the lives of real-life lady pirates! – Tell No Tales: Pirates of the South Seas by Sam Maggs, illus. Kendra Wells


For the Fantasy Fans In Your Life – Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Best Historical Fiction (also the one I could not stop talking about for almost all of 2021) – Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Julia Iredale

The One You’ve Probably Already Read – The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo (featuring monks and knights and a vengeful goat!)

A Ramona Quimby for the 21st Century – Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School by Emily Jenkins,  illus. Pete Oswald

Best Coming-of-Age Story – Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (Also best remix of “Oliver Twist”) (Also: “STICKS DOWN, KOWALSKI”)

Best, Most Poignant Children’s Sci-Fi to come out in YEARS – The Last Cuentista by Donna Barca Higuera (Seriously, y’all. Makes me think of The Giver)

Best Ghost Story (also, so nice to see Black History that ISN’T about enslaved people or the Civil Rights era!) – Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

It’s Like Sideways Stories from Wayside School (only somehow it’s also about bullying and mental health. With bonus “Choose Your Own Catastrophe” Adventure!) – Pity Party by Kathleen Lane

Best Novel-in-Verse (also, The One That Made Me Cry) – Red White and Whole by  Rajani LaRocca 

At the Forefront of the Fat Activism Movement Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Sweetest Novel-in-Verse – The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park


**Action, Adventure and the Cold War Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown by Steve Sheinkin (this book reads like an action thriller, so good!)

**Best History I’m Ashamed I’d Never Heard Of – From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo

People who keep comparing mask mandates to Soviet Russia need to read this book and then stop talking for the next decade (also this memoir is hilarious) – The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yeltsin

**The guy who wrote Hatchet knows more about surviving trauma than we’d ever guessed – Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

People who keep comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust need to read this book and then STOP TALKING FOR THE NEXT DECADE – Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís

You may be cool, but you’ll never be Nina Simone cool – Nina: a Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, illus. Christian Robinson

Helping kids talk about how sometimes our historical heroes did horrible things –  Runaway: the Daring Escape of Ona Judge by Ray Anthony Shepard, illus. Keith Mallett

Did you know how text messages work? I mean REALLY work? – The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message by Michael Emberley

Extraordinary Art About an Extraordinary Artist – The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice With Art by Cynthia Levinson, illus. Evan Turk

Sweetest Story About a Woman with Down Syndrome who Conquered the Art World – Unbound: the Life and Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet, illus. Melissa Sweet

**An Astonishing Retelling of One of the Most Difficult Moments of U.S. History – Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. Floyd Cooper

**Impeccable Research, Fascinating Topic – Violet & Daisy: The Story of Vaudeville’s Famous Conjoined Twins by Sarah Miller


Oh My Heck, a mainstream novel with a Mormon protagonist! (also, it’s gorgeous)– Beyond the Mapped Stars by Rosalyn Eves 

Best Prequel (with a hefty dose of 90s nostalgia) – Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

YA Post-Apocalypse Sci-Fi, told through the filter of our pandemic world – The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold

Learning so much about Native culture, Plus also a great crime thriller! – Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Best LGBTQ+ Romance (also a rather affecting historical fiction) – Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

The book I wish would replace Gone With the Wind in high school curriculum – A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

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