Looking Back at 2021 Fiction
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
For many years, we have recommended books to each other. With fiction continuing to play an important role in entertaining, inspiring, and grounding us during the COVID pandemic, our 2021 “you-must-read-this” lists were long. As a result, deciding on only twenty-five books for Looking Back at 2021 Fiction was a challenge.
Amos McGee Misses the Bus. Philip C. Stead. Illus. by Erin E. Stead. (2021). Roaring Brook.
After staying up late planning a surprise for the animals, the elderly zookeeper from A Sick Day for Amos McGee (2010) misses the bus. After walking to City Zoo, tired Amos falls asleep on a bench, and the animals finish his chores. He awakes in time to take his animal friends to the beach on the afternoon bus. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Beatryce Prophecy. Kate DiCamillo. Illus. by Sophie Blackall. (2021). Candlewick.
Kate DiCamillo spins a medieval epic about a prophecy recorded in the Chronicles of Sorrow that “one day there will come a child who will unseat a king” and that “this child will be a girl.” The girl found by Brother Edik in the barn at the monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing who only remembers that her name is Beatryce might be that child. (Gr 3 Up)
Being Clem (Finding Langston Trilogy). Lesa Cline-Ransome. (2021). Holiday House.
Nine-year-old African American Clemson Thurber Junior, whose father was one of the sailors who died in the 1944 Port Chicago Disaster in San Francisco, lives with his mother and two older sisters in Chicago’s Southside and is dealing with issues of grieving, bullying, and racism. Through confronting his fear of water, Clem begins to accept who he is and what the future might hold. (Gr 3 Up)
Boy, Everywhere. A. M. Dassu. (2021). Tu.
Eighth-grader Sami al-Hafez lives in Damascus, Syria, where his biggest worry is whether he’ll make the football (soccer) team. His life is turned upside down when Mama and his sister barely escape a bombing at a mall. Sami’s family become political refugees in a life-and-death journey to reach the United Kingdom where their problems with racism as asylum seekers are not over. (Gr 6 Up)
The Capybaras. Alfredo Soderguit. Trans. by Elisa Amado. (2021). Aldana Libros.
The hens and their chicks lead a contented life in a pen with plenty of food and a comfy coop at the edge of a wetland until five hairy, wet, big strangers—capybaras—come seeking refuge during hunting season. The spare text and black-and-white artwork with touches of red of this captivating picture book offer a gentle message about accepting others and building community. (PreK-Gr 2)
Cat Dog. Mem Fox. Illus. by Mark Teague. (2021). Beach Lane.
Mem Fox’s dog-and-cat-and-mouse tale is told through questions and “Yes! or “No!” responses about what’s going on in Mark Teague’s expressive double-spread illustrations. “And then the mouse came out to say hi, right?” on the final illustration showing the cat and dog staring at the mouse, who has emerged from its mousehole with a violin in hand, and “Hmmm, what do you think?” on the following white page are sure to draw responses from young children. (PreK-Gr 2)
Cookies for Breakfast (Interrupting Chicken). David Ezra Stein. (2021). Candlewick.
When sleepy Papa vetoes Chicken’s breakfast-in-bed plan but agrees to read a nursery rhyme book, she can’t help interrupting. “There was an old woman / who lived in a shoe. / She had so many— Cookies, she gave me a few!” David Ezra Stein’s laugh-out-loud story ends with Chicken’s creation of her own poem, “Chikn’s Rime,” that Papa interrupts with a “RROARRR!” (PreK Up)
Inside Cat. Brendan Wenzel. (2021). Chronicle.
“Inside Cat knows many windows, / finds a view wherever it goes” while roaming through its building. With cleverly detailed mixed-media illustrations and a playful rhyming text, Brendan Wenzel explores the indoor cat’s perception of the outside world, which is colored by its vivid imagination. Inside Cat (and the reader) might think there is nothing more to discover—until a surprising twist is revealed on the final double-page spread. (PreK Up)
The Legend of Auntie Po. Shing Yin Khor. (2021). Kokila.
In this historical graphic novel set in an1885 Sierra Nevada logging camp where her father is head cook, thirteen-year-old Chinese American Mei transforms tales of Paul Bunyan into legends of Auntie Po (Po Pan Yin). Auntie Po becomes an integral part of Mei’s life as she deals with racism and camp politics, recognizes the changes in her feelings toward Bee (the foreman’s daughter), and makes plans for her future. (Gr 6 Up)
Little Bird’s Day. Sally Morgan. Illus. by Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr. (2021). Blue Dot Kids.
A rhythmic, patterned call-and-response text and stunning traditional Australian Aboriginal artwork describe a day in the life of Little Bird that begins with daybreak. “Here comes Sun, / rising and shining. / Time to stretch, Little Bird, / time to sing the world alive. / I warble with Sun / to wake the lazy sleepers.” (PreK Up)
Little Red and the Cat Who Loved Cake. Barbara Lehman. (2021). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In Barbara Lehman’s retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Little Red delivers a cake to Grandma’s with Wolfie, a cake-loving cat, in pursuit. Young children will enjoy reading speech bubbles with pictographs, store signs, and posted notices in the comic book-style panels. Lehman adds a challenge: Find twenty-four “lost” sheep and images from various fairy tales and nursery rhymes in the illustrations. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess. Tom Gould. (2021). Neal Porter.
In this original fairy tale, an inventor builds a little wooden robot and a witch uses magic to make a log princess (who turns back into a log when she sleeps and must be awoken by the words “Awake, little log, awake”) for a childless king and queen. As is often true in fairy tales, bad things happen to the unusual siblings before the happily-ever-after ending. (PreK Up)
On the Other Side of the Forest. Nadine Robert. Trans. by Paula Ayer. Illus. by Gérard Dubois. (2021). Greystone Kids.
In this story evocative of classic children’s books, anthropomorphized rabbits Arthur and his dad live in a clearing surrounded by a dense forest. It takes a village to help inquisitive Dad build a tall viewing tower to discover what’s on the other side of the forest, and once he and Arthur climb to the top, they’re in for a surprise. (PreK-Gr 2)
Pax, Journey Home. Sara Pennypacker. Illus. by Jon Klassen. (2021). Balzer + Bray.
Thirteen-year-old orphan Peter joins the Junior Water Warriors, a remediation program for war-damaged water sources, and plans to look for Pax, the fox he was forced to abandon when his father went to war. Pax now has a family. When his daughter falls ill from drinking poisoned water, he knows only Peter can save her. Both Peter and Pax make journeys home in this heart-wrenching sequel to Pax (2019). (Gr 3 Up)
The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book: A Greenglass House Story. Kate Milford. Illus. by Nicole Wong. (2021). Clarion.
Will the rain ever stop? Twelve guests, the innkeeper, a maid, and a neighbor are trapped in the Blue Vein Tavern by flooding. To pass time, they take turns telling tales, but will someone come forward to connect them, maybe whistle the only song the Devil can’t play, and save the town? (Gr 6 Up)
Road Trip!: A Whiskers Hollow Adventure. Steve Light. (2021). Candlewick.
After Bear has a little accident with an acorn in his red 1940s Chevy pickup, he needs a new headlight. He invites Mouse and Donkey on a romping ride across a rickety bridge and through a bramble tunnel to Elephant’s Old Junk Tree, where the friends serendipitously locate the headlight. Steve Light’s colorful illustrations will have young readers chuckling over this Whiskers Hollow adventure. (PreK-Gr 2)
Room for Everyone. Naaz Khan. Illus. by Mercè López. (2021). Caitlyn Dlouhy.
As Musa and Dada ride a daladala (minibus) to Zanzibar’s Nungwi Beach, the driver picks up more passengers (from one old man and his bike to ten scuba divers with their gear). Naaz Kahn’s 1-to-10 counting story in rhyme and Mercè López’s energetic mixed-media artwork take readers on a fun-filled excursion as it takes a great deal of wiggling, giggling, and wriggling to make room for everyone. (PreK-Gr 2)
A Sitting in St. James. Rita Williams-Garcia. (2021). Quill Tree.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s family saga unfolds over six decades of horrific secrets, interwoven genealogy, and a dynasty built upon the backs of enslaved people. In 1860, when eighty-year-old Madame Sylvie Guilbert, the stern, proud mistress of Le Petit Cottage on her husband’s Louisiana plantation, insists on unveiling her portrait at an extravagant party and allowing an engagement announcement that might save the family’s legacy, the confluence of brutal history and much-awaited liberation produces shattering consequences. (Gr 9-12)
Stuntboy, in the Meantime. Jason Reynolds. Illus. by Raúl the Third. (2021). Caitlyn Dlouhy.
This new comic book-style series introduces Stuntboy, a young African American superhero who goes by his human name, Portico Reeves, in public to keep his identity a secret because his superpower is keeping other superheroes super safe. Readers can anticipate the reveal of another secret, where Stuntboy learned all his stunts, in a sequel. (Gr 3 Up)
Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World. Jacqueline Davies. Illus. by Deborah Hocking. (2021). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
This beginning chapter book introduces two unlikely friends: Sydney, a skunk who is content to read and nap in their cozy burrow, and Taylor, a hedgehog who sometimes has Big Ideas. When Taylor declares his desire to see the Whole Wide World, Sydney reluctantly agrees to an expedition to Places Unknown to make his friend happy. (PreK-Gr 2)
Too Small Tola. Atinuke. Illus. by Onyinye Iwu. (2021). Candlewick.
Being called Too Small Tola by everyone makes Tola, who lives with Grandmommy and her older siblings, Moji and Dapo, in “a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria,” feel too-too small. In three episodic stories, Tola proves that although she is small, she is strong, brave, and an important member of the community. (PreK Up)
We All Play = kimêtawânaw. Julie Flett. (2021). Greystone Kids.
Expressive illustrations and a spare patterned text tell the story of animals and children engaged in playful activities in a field, the ocean, and snow. In the final sequence, bats, bobcats, buffalo, and children fall asleep. “We do too / nîstanân mîna / Zzzz . . .” A glossary of Cree wild animal words and a note from Cree-Métis artist-illustrator Julie Flett are included. (PreK-Grade 2)
Wild. Sam Usher. (2021). Templar.
In this imaginative companion to Free (2021) in which a young boy and his Granddad care for a sick bird, it is “taking-care-of-the-cat day,” but the cat is not interested in playing, eating, or cuddling. When the cat escapes through an open window, they try to follow her but get lost in a fantastic jungle. Once reunited with the cat, the boy and Granddad join a wild party with tigers, lions, and cats of all kinds. (PreK-Gr 2)
Wishes. Mượn Thị Văn. Illus. by Victo Ngai. (2021). Orchard.
A young girl and her family escape from southern Vietnam on a boat overcrowded with others seeking refuge. In Mượn Thị Văn’s spare, patterned text, inanimate objects voice wishes on Nagai’s exquisite double-page spreads that portray their perilous journey. “The boat wished it was bigger. / The sea wished it was calmer.” Finally, the family steps ashore and into their new life. (PreK Up)
The Year I Flew Away. Marie Arnold. (2021). Versify.
In 1985, ten-year-old Gabrielle has the opportunity to leave Haiti for America. Living with relatives in Brooklyn, she struggles with homesickness and not fitting in at school. When Lady Lydia, a witch, offers her a magic mango to make her problems go away in exchange for her essence, Gabrielle accepts. But is the price of getting her wish to be a “real” American too great? (Gr 3 Up)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
Looking Back at 2021 Nonfiction
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
As we have done in previous years, we have made consideration of the diversity of reading interests of children and young adults and the identification of outstanding trade books with curriculum connections priorities in looking back at the bounty of nonfiction published in 2021. Here are our best-of-the-year picks.
Across the Rainbow Bridge: Stories of Norse Gods and Humans. Kevin Crossley-Holland. Illus. by Jeffrey Alan Love. (2021). Candlewick Studio.
Jeffrey Alan Love’s arresting illustrations add to the haunting and ominous tone of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s tales about Norse gods who at times cross the Rainbow Bridge from their home in Asgard to interact with humans in Midgard (Middle Earth), the world inhabited by humans but also trolls, ghosts, and other supernatural beings. (Gr 6-8)
African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History. Tracey Baptiste. Illus. by Hillary D. Wilson. (2021). Algonquin.
Tracey Baptiste provides an engaging introduction to ten African icons, including kings, queens, military figures, writers, scholars, and innovators who shaped the early history of the African continent and its people. Hillary D. Wilson complements each of Baptiste’s profiles with a stunning full-color portrait. Back matter includes an author’s note, source notes, extensive bibliography, and index. (Gr 6 Up)
The Beak Book. Robin Page. (2021). Beach Lane.
“Bird beaks come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes.” Robin Page’s well-designed informational picture book introduces young readers to the various ways this common feature of birds is adapted with realistic head shots of twenty-one different birds in profile paired with “This beak is for . . .” sentences. A small inset shows the bird using its beak and identifies it by common name. (PreK-Gr 2)
Bones Unearthed! (Creepy and True). Kerrie Logan Hollihan. (2021). Abrams.
In Bones Unearthed! readers learn about some of history’s creepy and true discoveries of skeletal remains. Kerrie Logan Hollihan relates stories about the solving of the mystery of the burial site of King Richard III of England, ritual killings and the creation of Aztec tzompantli (skull racks), evidence of cannibalism in the Jamestown Colony, and other incidents of murder and mayhem. (Gr 6-8)
Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter. Veronica Chambers (with Jennifer Harlan). (2021). Versify.
This engaging Black Lives Matter primer documents the history of the movement with captioned full-color photographs, accessible text, topical insets, quotes, graphics, visual timelines, and brief interviews with Black Lives Matter leaders. Back matter includes further reading, acknowledgments, photo credits, selected bibliography, and index. (Gr 6 Up)
Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua. Gloria Amescua. Illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh. (2021). Abrams.
Gloria Amescua’s lyrical text and Duncan Tonatiuh’s signature style illustrations incorporating elements of indigenous Mexican art tell the life story of Julia (Luz) Jiménez (1897-1965). When Milpa Alta, her village, was destroyed during the Mexican Revolution, the Jiménez family fled to Mexico City. Luz’s sharing of cultural stories and traditions while modeling for painters, photographers, and sculptors led to her recognition as “the soul of Mexico.” (PreK Up)
Circle Under Berry. Carter Higgins. (2021). Chronicle.
This interactive concept book invites readers to explore colors, shapes, and simple objects arranged in vertical or horizontal lines—“a stack of shapes / can make you think / and wonder what you see.” The book also offers a language lesson on prepositions as readers can come up with other ways to describe the relationships of the figures (cut and collaged from hand-painted paper and assembled digitally against a white background). (PreK-Gr 2)
Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown. Steve Sheinkin. (2021). Roaring Brook.
Steve Sheinkin’s narrative history of the post-World War II competition between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for global dominance covers major events of the Cold War Era from the nuclear arms race and development of the hydrogen bomb to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fallout reads like a suspenseful thriller. (Gr 6 Up)
Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme. Melissa Stewart. Illus. by Steve Jenkins. (2021). Beach Lane.
Double-page spreads featuring Steve Jenkins’ cut- and torn-paper collages and couplets of Melissa Stewart’s rain forest rhyme tell the story of monkeys that live together in Peru’s Manú National Park. Additional text in small print describes the monkeys’ characteristics and behaviors. Back matter includes an infographic showing the tree height at which each monkey lives, “More about the Monkeys of Manú,” resources, and further reading. (PreK Up)
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement. Paula Yoo. (2021). Norton.
Paula Yoo chronicles details of the fatal beating of Chinese American Vincent Chin by two white men in Detroit in 1982. Outrage over their lenient sentence ($3,000 fine and three years’ probation) after pleading guilty to manslaughter eventually led to the first federal case for a hate crime committed against an Asian American. (Gr 9-12)
Hello, Earth!: Poems to Our Planet. Joyce Sidman. Illus. by Miren Asiain Lora. (2021). Eerdmans.
In Joyce Sidman’s poems, nestled amidst Miren Asiain Lora’s exquisite illustrations on double-page spreads, children studying Earth talk to the planet and ask thought-provoking questions such as “Earth, is it true / that the moon / pulls at your oceans / with her twirling gravity?” Back matter includes “More About How the Earth Works” (explanations of scientific concepts in the poems) and resources. (Gr 3-5)
In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers: The Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Months, and Years After the 9/11 Attacks. Don Brown. (2021). Etch.
Don Brown chronicles events of the terrorist attack on New York City’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and its aftermath in this graphic novel with varied arrangements of panels created in pen and ink with digital paint in predominately somber tones, dialogue bubbles, and narrative blocks. Back matter includes an afterword, statistics, source notes, and bibliography. (Gr 9-12)
Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Nikki Grimes. (2021). Bloomsbury.
Nikki Grimes follows up her celebration of poetry from the Harlem Renaissance in One Last Word (2017) by pairing original poems written in the “Golden Shovel” format with poems by lesser-known women poets of the era (Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Annie Spencer, and twelve others). Exquisite full-color illustrations by contemporary Black woman artists complement the poetry. Includes brief biographies notes of the poets and artists. (Gr 6 Up)
100 Animals. Steve Jenkins. (2021). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In this padded board book, Steve Jenkins introduces young readers to one hundred animals, both familiar ones (like butterfly and shark) and lesser knowns (like macaw and yak). Crafted in Jenkins’ cut-paper style, portraits of animals are grouped on double-page spreads by habitat: underwater, underground, treetop, airborne, desert, arctic, and indoor. On each double spread, two flaps offer an interactive experience to learn more about the animals’ habitats and behaviors. (Preschool)
Over and Under the Canyon. Kate Messner. Illus. by Christopher Silas Neal. (2021). Chronicle.
Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal take readers on a hike with a mother and son during which they observe the natural wonders of a desert canyon ecosystem. Back matter includes Messner’s note about the inspiration for the book: a family camping trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California, notes about the twenty-four animals and plants pictured, and further reading (books and websites). (PreK Up)
The People Remember. Ibi Zoboi. Illus. by Loveis Wise. (2021). Balzer + Bray.
Ibi Zobi’s lyrical narrative with its effective repetition of “the people remember” and Loveis Wise’s vibrant digital artwork connect African American history to the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Extensive back matter includes information on the origin of Kwanzaa, a timeline of events from the transatlantic slave trade (1518-1853) to the Black Lives Matter Movement (2012-present), and further reading. (PreK Up)65
The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas. María García Esperón. Trans. by David Bowles. Illus. by Amanda Mijangos. (2021). Levine Querido.
This treasure of traditional tales includes fifty-six sacred stories of Indigenous Peoples of the Sea-Ringed World (the Aztec name for the Americas)—from “Sedna,” an Inuit story from the northernmost region of Canada, to “Land of Fire,” a story of the Selk’nam (Ona) from the southern tip of South America. (Gr 6 Up)
Separate No More: The Long Road to Brown v. Board of Education. Lawrence Goldstone. (2021). Scholastic Focus.
Beginning with the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson in which the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine, Lawrence Goldstone traces almost sixty years of state and local court cases leading up to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that ended school segregation. (Gr 6 Up)
Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! Fiona Waters (Ed.). Illus. by Britta Teckentrup. (2021). Nosy Crow.
Fiona Waters has selected animal poems, one for each day of the year, and Britta Teckentrup has created stunning double-spread artwork offering realistic portraits of animals in their natural habitats for this wonderful poetry anthology. The 366 poems are indexed by poet, poem title, and first line. William Blake’s “The Tiger,” which begins with “Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright,” is the poem for January 31. (All ages)
Treasury of Magical Tales from Around the World. Donna Jo Napoli. Illus. by Christina Balit. (2021). National Geographic Kids.
This anthology of folktales introduces a host of magical characters in twenty-nine lesser-known stories from arounds the world, including “The Mundopuma” (Ecuador), “Bunbuku the Teakettle” (Japan), and “Princess Golden Flower” (Thailand). Each of Donna Jo Napoli’s well-told tales includes a sidebar with contextual information and is embellished by Christina Balit’s colorful, stylized artwork. (Gr 3 Up)
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. (2021). Carolrhoda.
In rhythmic free verse, Carole Boston Weatherford describes the Greenwood district of segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma, before and after the Black community was violently attacked by a mob of armed white Tulsans. Floyd Cooper’s evocative artwork, done in oil and erasure, sets the tone for this poignant picture book about the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst racial attacks in United States history. (Gr 3 Up)
We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance. Deborah Hopkinson. (2021). Scholastic Focus.
Deborah Hopkinson’s narrative nonfiction collection of true stories of Jewish youth from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Poland during the Nazis’ “Final Solution” in World War II honors the courage of Holocaust victims and those who played roles in their survival. The memoirs also serve as a reminder that “we must not forget.” (Gr 6 Up)
We Shall Overcome. Bryan Collier. (2021). Orchard.
Bryan Collier sets the lyrics of “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel anthem which continues to serve as a rallying cry for justice and equality, in a banner along the bottom of his stunning illustrations which depict parallel stories of the activities of a contemporary young Black girl and key events of the civil rights movement. Back matter includes note on “We Shall Overcome,” historical moments of civil rights activism in America, and an illustrator’s note. (PreK Up)
Wombat. Christopher Cheng. Illus. Liz Duthie. (2021). Candlewick.
Against a background of Liz Duthie’s earth-toned illustrations (done in watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil) that set the scene as the Australian bush, Christopher Cheng’s lyrical narrative details a day in the life of Wombat, a female nocturnal marsupial. Insets in an italic font on the double-page spreads provide additional information on the wombat’s physical characteristics and behavior. Back matter includes an “Information About Wombats” note and index. (PreK Up)
Your Legacy: A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History. Schele Williams. Illus. by Tonya Engel. (20021). Abrams.
Schele Williams’ accessible narrative introduces young readers to African American history. The focus on the legacy of love, intellect, determination, courage, brilliance, strength, ingenuity, grace, and dignity passed down by enslaved ancestors is further celebrated in Tonya Engel’s vibrant mixed-media artwork. Your Legacy includes an empowering and challenging statement: “EQUALITY is the gift you will pass down to the next generation.” (PreK Up)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).