Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
As reviewers, one of the tasks we undertake each January is weeding our crowded bookshelves to make room for new releases. We add some books to our personal collections and put some aside for the grandchild or special friend we know will love them. We will send the others to schools and libraries, but before we do, here is our list of books we didn’t get reviewed in 2021 that are too good to miss.
Africa, Amazing Africa: Country by Country. Atinuke. Illus. by Mouni Feddag. (2021). Candlewick.
Atinuke’s accessible guide to the fifty-five countries of Africa is organized into five sections: South, East, West, Central, and North. Each section includes a double-page spread featuring a list of the countries in the region, an introductory paragraph, a “welcome” in regional languages, and a colorful map followed by one-page entries for each country. (PreK Up)
Ambushed!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield (Medical Fiascoes). Gail Jarrow. (2021). Calkins Creek.
On July 2, 1881, four months into his first term as the twentieth president of the United States, James Garfield (1831-1881) was assassinated by Charles Guiteau. President Garfield suffered for eighty days before succumbing to infection following faulty diagnoses and primitive medical care. This medical thriller with Gail Jarrow’s gripping narrative includes primary source insets, captioned archival photographs, and extensive back matter. (Gr 6 Up)
Bei Bei Goes Home: A Panda Story. Cheryl Bardoe. (2021). Smithsonian Kids.
Cheryl Bardoe’s photobiography of Bei Bei covers the first four years of the giant panda’s life from birth at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, in 2015, to relocation at China’s Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in 2019. Double-page spreads feature full-color photographs of Bei Bei, one or two paragraphs of narrative text, and a side bar of panda facts. (PreK Up)
The Book of Math: Adventures in the World of Shapes and Numbers. Anna Weltman. Illus. by Paul Boston. (2021). Kane Miller.
In this oversize book, readers venture into the world of shapes and numbers by exploring forty illustrated double-page spreads full of fascinating facts about topics such as “I Spy Pi,” “Weird Measurements,” “The Secrets of Prime Numbers,” and “Puzzling Paradoxes.” (Gr 3 Up)
Cold-Blooded Myrtle (Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery #3). (2021). Algonquin.
When the owner of Leighton’s Mercantile is found dead at the unveiling of the store’s annual Christmas window display, twelve-year-old amateur sleuth Myrtle Hardcastle follows clues that appear in the display to learn that Leighton’s career as Professor of Archaeology was destroyed by the death of a student during a secret society initiation at the local college. As suspects keep dying, Myrtle risks her life to connect past events to the present murders. (Gr 6-8)
Disasters by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. Steve Jenkins. (2021). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Steve Jenkins’ fascinating introduction to natural disasters, including earthquakes, blizzards, locust plagues, pandemics, asteroid impacts, and climate change, is organized in four categories: Earth, Weather, Life, and Space. One-to-four-page entries feature an introductory paragraph and a wealth of information explained with infographics (maps, charts, graphs, and accessible explanatory text). (Gr 3 Up)
Fish and Sun. Sergio Ruzzier. (2021). HarperAlley.
Bored Fish swims to the ocean’s surface and meets Sun. When Sun sets after a day of playing hide-and-seek, Fish sadly swims back home. On the following day, Fish returns to the surface, Sun rises, and the two friends make plans to play all day every day. A simple text (in speech balloons) and colorful sequential artwork make this early reader a good introduction to stories in graphic novel format. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. Colleen Paeff. Illus. by Nancy Carpenter. (2021). Margaret K. McElderry.
Cholera outbreaks in the 1800s that killed more than 37,000 people were caused by poop-polluted water, not foul air as Londoners believed. In 1858, engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) built a gigantic sewer system to safely reroute raw sewage and clean up the Thames, and “the great stink” and plagues abated. Back matter includes an informative “Poop Pollution Today” update and timeline. (Gr 3 Up)
Have You Seen Gordon? Adam Jay Epstein. Illus. by Ruth Chan. (2021). Simon & Schuster.
It is too easy to spot Gordon, a purple tapir, in crowds in this seek-and-find book because he won’t hide, so the narrator directs readers to locate Jane, a shy blue rhinoceros—who keeps running off the pages. Gordon’s suggestion, “Ask who wants to stand out,” leads to scenes crowded with eager-to-participate creatures and “Can you find . . .” lists followed by a surprising final page. (PreK-Gr 2)
I Am the Subway. Kim Hyo-eun. Trans. by Deborah Smith. (2021). Scribble US.
“I rattle and clatter over the tracks, same time, same route, every day.” Readers join the narrator, the subway, as it makes stops at stations around Seoul to pick up and discharge passengers. The warm, expressive watercolor artwork and rhythmic text of this picture book provide portraits and tell the stories of passengers taking the subway each day. (PreK-Gr 2)
The List of Unspeakable Fears. J. Kasper Kramer. (2021). Atheneum.
During the typhoid epidemic in 1910, anxious ten-year-old Essie O’Neill adds moving to New York’s North Brother Island where her new stepfather runs a quarantine hospital for incurably ill patients (including the infamous Typhoid Mary) to her alphabetized list of unspeakable fears. Haunted by a recurring nightmare of a red door with a ghostly riddle to solve, Essie must unlock family history to free herself. (Gr 3 Up)
One Great Lie. Deb Caletti. (2021). Atheneum.
Eighteen-year-old Charlotte Hodges is in a summer writing workshop with author Luca Bruni, whom she idolizes, on a private island near Venice, Italy. Although she becomes disillusioned as Bruni’s true self emerges, she successfully digs into a mystery about a poem stolen from her ancestor Isabella Di Angelo by a famous seventeenth-century poet Antonio Tasso—and discovers that sexist treatment of women artists hasn’t changed much since the Renaissance. (Gr 9-12)
Opposites Abstract. Mo Willems. (2021). Hyperion.
Mo Willems invites readers to explore the concept of opposites by responding to questions about pairs of abstract paintings. Some of the questions—“Is this light?” and “Is this dark?”—are easy to respond to; others—“Is this intentional?” and “Is this accidental?”— are more difficult to interpret. All the questions will encourage conversations about opposites and abstract art. (All ages)
Picturing a Nation: The Great Depression’s Finest Photographers Introduce America to Itself. Martin W. Sandler. (2021). Candlewick.
In 1935, ten photographers documented the daily lives of people in the United States during the Great Depression. Martin W. Sandler’s commentary for this photodocumentary with one hundred four black-and-white and color photographs organized by four regions (South, Midwest, West, and Northeast) highlights the importance of this U.S. Farm Security Administration project as an historical record. Includes profiles of the photographers. (Gr 6 Up)
Summertime Sleepers: Animals That Estivate. Melissa Stewart. Illus. by Sarah S. Brannen. (2021). Charlesbridge.
A simple narrative and double-spread watercolor illustrations tell the story of how and where twelve animals “sink into a summertime sleep called estivation.” Each animal is identified by its common and scientific name in an overlaid black-and-white notebook sketch, and a “More About Animals That Estivate” endnote provides additional information on the featured animals. (PreK Up)
The Three Princes of Serendip: New Tellings of Old Tales for Everyone. Rodaan Al Galidi. Trans. by Laura Watkinson. Illus. by Geertje Aalders. (2021). Candlewick.
In “A Note from the Gatherer of Tales,” Iraqi native Rodaan Al Galidi (b. 1971), who sought asylum in the Netherlands in 1998, states “stories are the best migrants and the finest travelers.” This collection of twenty retold tales from his childhood in Iraq, illustrated with Geertje Aalders’ intricate cut-paper collage artwork, supports this assertion beautifully. (All ages).
Two at the Top: A Shared Dream of Everest. Uma Krishnaswami. Illus. by Christopher Corr. (2021). Groundwood.
In alternating voices, this picture book with colorful folk art-style illustrations tells the story of Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986), who grew up in Nepal, and Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), who grew up in New Zealand. Both dreamed of one day ascending the highest peak in the Great Himalaya Range. Years of separate climbing experiences led to their making history together in 1953 as the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. (PreK Up)
Up Cat Down Cat. Steve Light. (2021). Candlewick.
Steve Light’s artistically-designed board book featuring two feline companions, one black and one white, offers a first lesson on opposites: black-white, long-short, lost-found, straight-curvy, up-down, wet-dry, empty-full, and awake-asleep. With repeated readings, young children will discover the visual story being told of one day in the life of the two collaged cats and enjoy spotting the cats’ blue toy mouse in the mixed-media artwork. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life. Amy Butler Greenfield. (2021). Random House Studio.
This well-researched biography chronicles the extraordinary life of pioneering cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892-1980). Often teamed with her husband, William Friedman, and often unacknowledged for her contributions, Elizebeth uncovered enemy secrets, hunted spies, and developed U.S. government code-breaking units during World Wars I and II. Amy Butler Greenfield includes “Code Break” inserts with intriguing information on codes and ciphers. (Gr 9-12)
You Can’t Say That!: Writers for Young People Talk About Censorship, Free Expression, and the Stories They Have to Tell. Leonard S. Marcus (Ed.). (2021).
Leonard S. Marcus’ in-depth interviews of Matt de la Peña, Katherine Paterson, Angie Thomas, and ten other children’s and young adult authors explore their experiences of growing up, writing, and having their work challenged or banned along with sharing wisdom on various topics. Marcus’ introduction provides background on the history of censorship and contemporary issues related to intellectual freedom. (Gr 6 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).