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.
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These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).