STARRED REVIEW

December 2021

The Best Books of 2021

The BookPage editors are pleased to present our most highly recommended books of the year.

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The children's literature scholar Deborah Stevenson once wrote that "to define children's literature we need, at bare minimum, to define a child and to define literature, and then to define what combination of their meeting counts as the genre." This year's best middle grade and chapter books each contain their own compelling answers to these questions as they center child protagonists and privilege the child reader's perspective in works that range from lighthearted to weighty and from grounded to fantastical. With young readers fortified by these books, the future looks bright indeed.


10. Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalia

Sixteen well-known and up-and-coming authors offer humor, honesty and, yes, plenty of joy.

9. The Sea in Winter by Christine Day

Day portrays depression with sensitivity, and her depiction of Maisie's deepening understanding of her Native American heritage is just as well done.

8. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna

In this fast-paced fantasy adventure, Kiki struggles with the disconnect between who she believes herself to be and who she thinks she needs to be.

7. Leonard (My Life as a Cat) by Carlie Sorosiak

This witty, inventive tale of an interstellar visitor trapped in the body of a cat is a wonderful reminder of all the things humans often take for granted, from cheese to thumbs to friendship.

6. Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca

In her first novel in verse, LaRocca showcases the best of what verse can do, telling a story that is spare and direct and rings with truth.

5. Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale

Schlitz transports readers back in time to ancient Greece in this ambitious illustrated novel written in verse and prose.

4. Legacy by Nikki Grimes

Grimes stakes a claim for women in the pantheon of Harlem Renaissance poets in this tour de force of a poetry collection. Her poems follow a complex form that enables them to be shaped by the words of the women she honors.

3. Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

The three illustrated stories in this chapter book connect in ways that will reward multiple readings, and their gentle morals linger with a satisfying combination of inevitability and surprise.

2. Ahmed Aziz's Epic Year by Nina Hamza

Hamza's debut features a fresh and funny protagonist, a sensitive exploration of loss and grief and homages to some of the most classic titles in children's literature.

1. The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

A young girl's love of storytelling forms the heart of this bittersweet science fiction tale that demonstrates how our oldest and most cherished stories continue to grow with us.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

The year's best middle grade and chapter books center child protagonists and privilege the child reader's perspective in works that range from lighthearted to weighty and from grounded to fantastical.

The best picture books of 2021 demonstrate how impactful the form can be. They're master classes in the interplay of text, image and the magic of the page turn, tiny treasures to savor and return to again and again.


10. Have You Ever Seen a Flower? by Shawn Harris

This surreal book's joy, color and hopefulness will ignite the imagination of anyone lucky enough to experience its magic.

9. Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl

As you read this enchanting ode to the calm and peaceful magic of nature, you'll feel as though you have journeyed deep into Mosswood Forest alongside Hazel and her friends.

8. Shy Willow by Cat Min

This gentle, moving story reminds us that shyness and courage can coexist. Min's sweet characters and luminous artwork underscore her book's hopeful nature and quiet, supportive heart.

7. Keep Your Head Up by Aliya King Neil, illustrated by Charly Palmer

Neil's touching portrait of a child doing his best to manage a difficult day is expertly enhanced by Palmer's powerful, impressionistic illustrations.

6. When Lola Visits by Michelle Sterling, illustrated by Aaron Asis

Like all the best childhood memories of loved ones, When Lola Visits feels familiar, friendly and faded to perfection. It's a little hazy with age, and a little more shimmery for the haze.

5. I Can Make a Train Noise by Michael Emberley and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

This immersive and fully choreographed journey creatively sweeps readers along on an adventure that bursts with rhythm and energy.

4. Mr. Watson's Chickens by Jarrett Dapier, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi

This tender, spunky tale of a couple whose house is overrun by 456 chickens is the year's most bighearted picture book.

3. Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin

Wang's childhood memory of picking watercress by the side of the road serves as the inspiration for this emotional powerhouse of a picture book.

2. Unspeakable by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

This extraordinary account of the Tulsa Race Massacre is a reminder of "the responsibility we all have to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope."

1. Wishes, by Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai

This powerful picture book illuminates the closely held wishes of refugees the world over. Its spare, lyrical text and cinematic illustrations are simply unforgettable.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

The 10 best picture books of 2021 are master classes in the interplay of text, image and the magic of the page turn.

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