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).