Here are my favorite books published in 2021: picture book fiction and non-fiction, chapter books, middle grade books, and graphic novels. Some of them are beautiful, some of them sidesplittingly funny, and some fascinating — but all of them are books I would happily reread.
My First Pop-Up Mythological Creatures, Owen Davey [Amazon | Bookshop]
A beautifully engineered pop-up book with spectacular design
A magnificent follow-up to My First Pop-Up Dinosaurs [Amazon | Bookshop] that’s filled with intricate and beautiful pop-ups. Each spread features a mythological creature, its country of origin, and a short description. It’s truly beautiful but also sturdy enough to withstand repeat readings from most toddlers. (But be aware: a few of the creatures are a little frightening.)
Christmas Street, Jonathan Emmett and Ingela P. Arrhenius [Book Depository]
A festive, interactive flap book that doubles as a backdrop for play
In this gorgeous and exciting follow-up to the brilliant Alphabet Street [Amazon | Bookshop], readers are treated to a 6-foot-long concertina fold-out scene featuring festive shops, cozy homes, and loads of flaps to peek behind. The reverse side of the concertina is a beautiful outdoor snow scene, with ice skating, musicians, and food stalls. You can read it in order (it’s an alphabet book, too), or you can stand it up, unfold it, and use it as a backdrop for creative play — or a holiday decoration on its own. It’s a spectacular gift book.
Inside the Suitcase, Clotilde Perrin [Amazon | Bookshop]
A supremely inventive flap book with a charming story that’s sure to impress and delight
This incredibly clever flap book puts most other flap books to shame. A boy packs a suitcase (which you can open and inspect, of course) and sets off on a trip. On the way, he’ll need the contents of his suitcase to problem-solve, and he’ll pick up new items, too. The flaps on most pages are stacked in layers, so reading it is like peeling away layers of an onion – one surprise after another. You can peel back the layers of his suitcase, peer deeper and deeper into a house, or journey through a landscape. It’s gorgeously illustrated, brilliantly engineered, a wonderful work of art. And the conclusion is a pure delight. (While it’s a little pricier than your typical children’s book, it has the feel of something lovingly made by hand, exquisite and worth every penny.)
Circle Under Berry, Carter Higgins [Amazon | Bookshop]
A thoughtful, inventive book about shapes, colors, and positions
Circle Under Berry is very fresh take on colors and shapes books for babies, with beautiful illustrations reminiscent of Eric Carle. Other similar books might feel one-dimensional next to this one, which pairs bright shapes and animals with intriguing descriptions of their positions: “lion over scarlet / under oval / over frog” and “house above / heart below / chicken in the center.” One spread at the end features a lovely mini game so enjoyable I could have done with six more pages just like it. (And if you like creative books about shapes, check out Christopher Danielson’s and Tana Hoban’s books, too, like Which One Doesn’t Belong? and Shapes, Shapes, Shapes — somewhat mundane titles but terrific books.)
Blanket: Journey to Extreme Coziness, Loryn Brantz [Amazon | Bookshop]
A laugh-out-loud, silly, and cute ode to blanket cocoons
This very funny book about the pleasures of making blanket cocoons is a bit suspenseful, quite dramatic, and very, very silly. The illustrations are superbly done and key to the humor — seeing a cocooned child orbiting Earth or bouncing through the jungle had my children in stitches. And I think the book’s cartoonish wildness and near-hyperventilating fervor are a bit reminiscent of Allie Brosh and Hyperbole and a Half, so if you’re a fan…! Aside from being very funny, the book’s guide to making blanket cocoons might well inspire children to try their hands at rolling themselves up and getting extremely cozy, too.
A Pizza With Everything on It, Kyle Scheele and Andy J. Pizza [Amazon | Bookshop]
A wild, laugh-out-loud, sublimely absurd adventure
Just try to read this one aloud without laughing. The premise is this: a boy’s father owns a pizza restaurant, and one day the boy decides he wants a pizza with everything on it. Simple enough, you’d think, but the boy means this literally and wants ev-er-y-thing on his pizza. Not just what’s in the restaurant, or in the town, but everything. This soon creates some cosmic problems. The joke is simple but done magnificently well, and the illustrations are hilarious (I admire Andy J. Pizza’s commitment to pizza, too). I loved this and laughed and laughed while reading it.
Barbara Throws a Wobbler, Nadia Shireen [Amazon | Book Depository]
A cathartic book about meltdowns that’s great for discussion (and for laughs)
This lovely, expressive picture book about a cat’s terrible day might be just the thing to turn a day around. Barbara’s having the kind of day that so many toddlers have: there was a weird pea on her plate, the socks were all wrong, a little game didn’t go as planned… and when she drops her ice cream, it’s absolutely the last straw. Her tantrum manifests as the Wobbler, simultaneously ominous and adorable, “like an angry jelly.” The Wobbler gives the reader a few chances for a good, cathartic yell, and then Barbara learns she can un-summon it, too, by taking a deep breath. The last spread here is particularly good, with all of Barbara’s friends frozen in some state of playground disaster (like a knocked-over sandcastle or an ice cream truck that’s closed for business). The final page is a wonderful catalogue of bad moods: the Sulk, the Tizzy, the Seethe, the Huff, the Grump, and, of course, the Wobbler. The descriptions are specific and evocative, so you can have some terrific discussions with kids about when you all last had a Tizzy or a Seethe. Unlike many books about bad moods, there’s no guilt or shame here. Instead, it’s lighthearted and fun. Bad moods just happen sometimes, the book implies, and you’ll get through them.
The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth, Bruce Handy and Hyewon Yum [Amazon | Bookshop]
A thought-provoking and contemplative book about feelings
This slow, poetic, and meditative book is all about contrasts and feelings, like how a difficult feeling can lead to a brilliant one (agonizing over a decision, having made a good decision; worrying about leaping, then experiencing the leap). Or how the same condition can produce wildly different feelings (having nothing to do, for instance) or profoundly complex ones (remembering someone you’ve lost). It’s thoughtfully, beautifully illustrated, with clever images that might lead to intriguing discussions. (And maybe it’s one the few books to celebrate the feeling of peeing when you really need to.)
Chirri and Chirra: The Rainy Day, Kaya Doi and David Boyd [Amazon | Bookshop]
One of the most beautiful and comforting books ever written for children
The latest in the supremely soothing and gorgeous Chirri and Chirra series from Japan is a delight. In each book, two cheerful little girls set out on matching bikes to explore a world filled with busy, welcoming animals, all of whom treat the girls to delicious snacks, spectacular sights, or comforting and cozy experiences. Here, Chirri and Chirra bike through the rain to the lovely Cafe Umbrella to drink jewel-toned tea and eat frozen raindrop candy, and then pick out raincoats, visit an upside-down water world, and eat magic gumdrops from a gumdrop tree. Chirri and Chirra are always picking from beautiful arrangements of objects, and children love deciding what they would choose from these magnificent displays. These are some of the most comforting, cheerful, gentle books on the planet — like ASMR in a book — and are absolute treasures.
Milo Imagines the World, Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson [Amazon | Bookshop]
An open-hearted and beautiful book that’s both entertaining and fantastic for discussion
As Milo and his sister take the NYC subway to visit their mother in prison, Milo imagines narratives about the other passengers and doodles these fantasy lives. They’re wonderfully entertaining, but maybe what he imagines isn’t quite accurate? The text and illustrations here are both beautiful – it’s a pleasure to read this aloud and a pleasure to notice all the details in the pictures – and the story is terrific for discussion. It’s a treasure of a book, generous and kind, one that not only opens up possibilities but multiplies them, too, dazzlingly.
Ergo, Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz [Amazon | Bookshop]
A sweet and laugh-out-loud philosophical story about being and becoming
In this bright, hopeful, and funny book, a curious chick explores the inside of her egg before she hatches — and boldly concludes: “I AM THE WORLD.” But it isn’t quite so simple as that… Many books about empathy and caring, like this one, sacrifice story for the message (you read them once and then that’s enough), but Ergo’s story is engaging and wonderful. Children are in on the joke (Ergo is not the world!), and Ergo is such an adorable and expressive character that it’s fun to read this over and over. And Ergo’s big questions and grand conclusions make this a fun one to read aloud, as theatrically as you like!
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, Tom Gauld [Amazon | Bookshop]
A special, compassionate fairy tale with gorgeous illustrations
In this original fairy tale, a witch and an inventor craft two children for a royal couple: a wooden robot and a princess. The princess, however, was crafted from a log, and every night she returns to her log form. As you might imagine, it’s this detail that precipitates the adventures. What’s wonderful about this little story, though, is that the quest isn’t a job that one hero or one heroine can accomplish alone. Instead, the quest must be completed with kindness and a whole community of helpers. We need new and better fairy tales like this one. It’s a lovely picture book, and the illustrations are truly something special — unique and charming and beautifully detailed.
Sato the Rabbit, Yuki Ainoya [Amazon | Bookshop]
A colorful, dreamlike book of whimsical adventures, simply told and startling in their originality
This collection of very short tales is an offbeat visual feast. The premise is explained matter-of-factly: “One day, Haneru Sato became a rabbit. He’s been a rabbit ever since.” This kind of dream-logic pervades the rest of the book, as Sato goes boating on a watermelon, drinks colors, finds a world inside a walnut shell, and opens puddle-doors into the sky. You can read the whole book in just moments, but it sticks with you and invites re-reading, as many of the most visually-startling books do. It’s immensely charming and refreshing — in a wholly different world from most children’s books.
Memory Jars, Vera Brosgol [Amazon | Bookshop]
A sweet and tender tale about grief
Following her grandfather’s death, Freda struggles with time passing, memories fading, and how temporary joy can be. After she learns that blueberry jam can be preserved in jars, she wonders: what else can I save? She goes on a spree, packing all of her favorite experiences into jars — and then she begins jarring her favorite people. There’s a touch of humor to it, but lots of genuine emotion, too, and perceptiveness about how tempting it is to combat grief and anxiety by exercising meticulous control. But Freda’s grandmother’s support helps her to release control and be vulnerable again. After all, even though opening oneself to emotion means fully experiencing grief, it also means fully embracing joy.
The Museum of Everything, Lynne Rae Perkins [Amazon | Bookshop]
A contemplative, beautifully artistic book about observation and feelings
In exquisite and thoughtful prose, this book’s narrator muses about fantasy museums, imaginary places she likes to go when the world feels too overwhelming. These are very particular, specialized museums on the micro scale: a museum of bushes or hiding places or shadows or the sky (tucked neatly into a book). There’s something meditative about many of the displays in these museums. In the museum of shadows, for instance: “a leaf, warmed by sunlight, melts a perfect leaf-shaped hole in the snow. A shadow of melting.” The world can be overwhelming, the text indicates, and to examine the small, to look closely and to ponder, can offer a kind of refuge. To accompany all of this beautiful language, Perkins photographed detailed mixed-media scenes and tiny shadow boxes. It’s delightful to read and delightful to look at — a wonderful work of art.
There Is a Ghost in This House, Oliver Jeffers [Amazon | Bookshop]
An ingeniously designed and not-too-spooky book about ghosts
A girl living in an old house wonders if it has ghosts… but she can’t seem to find any! In this beautifully designed book, readers turn tracing paper pages to reveal the mischievous, friendly ghosts hiding in each room. The tension between the girl’s observations and the ghosts’ cheeky behavior — happening right under her nose! — will tickle readers, and flipping the tracing paper pages over to reveal the ghosts is great fun, too. A large, gorgeous book with plenty of antique flair.
Out of Nowhere, Chris Naylor-Ballesteros [Amazon | Bookshop]
A beautiful story about connection and love during and after change
A sweet, charming picture book about a friendship that endures even the biggest changes. A beetle and a caterpillar are the best of friends, but one day the caterpillar disappears. Where could she have gone? The beetle goes searching, but his friend, now magnificently changed, finds him again — and they pick right up where they left off. Beautifully illustrated and with lots of heart.
The Boys, Lauren Ace and Jenny Løvlie [Amazon | Book Depository]
A tender and inclusive story about boyhood and friendship
A sequel of sorts to the wonderful book The Girls [Amazon | Book Depository], The Boys is a generous-hearted, beautiful, inclusive look at what it is to identify as a boy. Here, four diverse friends grow up together, support each other, drift apart, and eventually reconnect. Its sensitive portrayal of boyhood and its conviction that boys can have deep, emotional connections with other boys are so refreshingly unusual. And scenes of the boys in adulthood are especially touching: when the men joyfully gather together to celebrate Tam’s wedding to his husband, for instance, and a collection of all the men, now fathers, doing laundry, baking, and reading with their children. Successes and joys in this book are found in relationships, in showing up for loved ones, and in being vulnerable and kind and patient.
Grandad’s Camper, Harry Woodgate [Amazon | Bookshop]
A sweet story about grief and connection, featuring older LGBTQ characters
Woodgate noticed that there weren’t many old LGBTQ characters in children’s literature, so they wrote a book about a girl who goes to visit her grandfather, who is still grieving the loss of his beloved husband. He recounts to his granddaughter the many adventures her two grandfathers, Grandad and Gramps, had together in their camper van — a cheerful pink vehicle with a rainbow pride flag streaming behind it. But grandad hasn’t gone on any trips since his partner died, and his granddaughter gently suggests that that should change. Maybe they should go somewhere together? The love and tenderness between her two grandfathers is so beautifully rendered here. Even though it’s painful that Gramps has passed away, there’s still so much pleasure in talking about him, remembering, and honoring him — particularly with those who loved him, too. It’s a tremendously sweet story.
Picture Book Nonfiction, Math, and Science
The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story, Maria Popova and Ping Zhu [Amazon | Bookshop]
A magnificently tender true story about gender, genes, and a special snail
From masterful science writer Maria Popova, a superbly touching true story about a snail with situs inversus, a mirror-image body. Because Jeremy the snail’s body is a mirror image of most snails’ bodies, they cannot mate with each other, and so an international hunt for another snail with situs inversus begins. It’s wonderful and heartening that so many people searched their gardens for a snail companion for Jeremy, and the ending to the tale is gorgeously bittersweet. Popova writes sensitively about Jeremy, about how snails are not “he” or “she” but “they” instead, and about how all types of bodies are wonderful and miraculous and precious. The discussion about genes here might be a little tough for the youngest readers to grasp, but the story itself is so lovely, the writing so beautiful, that younger children will be moved by this, too.
Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race, Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, and Isabel Roxas [Amazon | Bookshop]
A beautifully constructed book about race for young children and their parents
A clear, thoughtful board book about skin color, racism, and social justice, written to interest and appeal to both toddlers and early elementary students. Many of the pages feature questions to get your conversation going as you read (“What do you call your unique skin color?” “What do you love about your skin?”) — questions children will actually want to answer and talk about. It’s brilliantly executed, a pleasure to read, and helpful for kids and parents alike.
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, and Nikkolas Smith [Amazon | Bookshop]
A beautiful and essential book of poetry that movingly explores the history of many Black Americans
This brilliant book begins with a child’s question: Where is my family from? She’s frustrated that she can’t trace her ancestry, but her grandmother has answers, beautifully conveyed in a series of evocative, dazzling poems. These poems start with life in Africa, then movingly explore the Middle Passage and enslavement in America – and what it means to be a Black American now, too. This book is, in short, a must-read for understanding American history. Wonderfully constructed, informative, and imaginative, it’s not only a deft look at history and identity but also a work of art.
Bodies Are Cool, Tyler Feder [Amazon | Bookshop]
An inclusive book about bodies in all their glorious diversity
Written in cheerful, rhythmic verses, this is a spectacularly body-positive and inclusive book about how everyone’s body is a good body. The pages are packed with such a beautiful diversity of humans that it feels, in fact, like almost everyone is represented. And every scene feels joyous, comfortable, and supportive. This is a wonderful must-read and perfect, too, for even the youngest readers.
Making a Baby, Rachel Greener and Clare Owen [Amazon | Bookshop]
An inclusive, direct look at all the ways babies come into the world
Possibly the most inclusive book about sex and babies, this one covers almost all of it, including sex, adoption, IVF, C-sections, and more. It’s also very direct, plain-spoken, and detailed, so kids will see detailed diagrams of penises, for example, and the mechanics of sex. It answers the questions! The illustrations portray all different types of families (including families with two moms or dads) and different types of bodies in a really lovely way.
I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe., Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick [Amazon | Bookshop]
An awe-inspiring, interactive science book with spectacular design
This brilliantly designed book conveys fascinating and often mind-blowing science facts through colorful text and graphics. The book itself is the narrator here, and it encourages readers to wear the book as a hat, drop it on the floor, slam the pages shut as loudly as they can, fan the pages to make a slight breeze, and even eat it (but don’t do that!). And it’s not just for show, as all of these interactions demonstrate some of the ideas within it. On a page about tongues, for instance, readers can hold the book to their faces and compare their tongue lengths to those of giant anteaters, moths, butterflies, and nectar bats. It’s all charming, clever, and impressive — a really fun way to get excited about biology, physics, and chemistry, and also about design.
How to Be an Art Rebel, Ben Street and Jay Daniel Wright [Amazon | Bookshop]
A brief introduction to art, with better-than-average inclusivity
This quick, zippy introduction to art for young people (especially preschool and elementary students) aims to make art seem accessible, less intimidating, and fun. Leo the cat quickly guides readers through portraits, still lives, sculpture, surrealism, abstract art, and more. It’s briefer than a lot of art books for kids, but unlike most of those other books, this one makes a decent attempt to be inclusive. The artists here are still largely white, and mostly male, and mostly from the West, but it includes more than just a handful of women artists and brings up slavery, class, feminism, disability, and sexuality in art. Briefly! But the book itself is brief, and educators and parents can continue the conversation after. It’s an entertaining guide, a good first step in making kids feel comfortable thinking and talking about art.
Molly and the Mathematical Mysteries: Ten Interactive Adventures in Mathematical Wonderland, Eugenia Cheng and Aleksandra Artymowska [Amazon | Bookshop]
A jaw-droppingly fascinating and fun interactive math picture book to make just about any kid excited about math
Some books are so impressive that it’s hard to know where to start. So: first, this is a work of art, with exquisite illustrations and puzzles kids can solve by manipulating elements of the book. But more importantly, it’s a book that can make both kids and adults excited about math. Molly receives a mysterious invitation to go on a mathematical adventure, and in every new, gorgeous room she finds herself in, there’s yet another letter, with hints about how to solve the puzzle there and move on to the next one. Each spread of pages focuses on a different concept: infinity, self-similarity, tessellation, impossible objects, symmetry, fractals, and more. (The back of the book has more detail on these concepts and others, too.) Reading this is a marvelous way to expose kids to the idea that math is more than just equations — that it can be fun, mind-bending, creative, and beautiful.
Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small, Dr. Jess Wade and Melissa Castrillón [Amazon | Bookshop]
A masterfully clear and gorgeous picture book about nanoscience
This extraordinarily beautifully illustrated picture book explains nanoscience to children in simple language. It’s wonderfully written, walking children through the concepts of atoms, elements, and materials before exploring some of the ways scientists are using nanotechnology (and specifically the nanomaterial grapheme) to solve problems. Maybe you had never wished for a picture book about nanotechnology, but you’ll appreciate it once you’ve read it. Even many preschoolers could enjoy this, and it’s not too simple either, for older children (and grown-ups!).
Stuntboy: In the Meantime, Jason Reynolds and Raúl the Third [Amazon | Bookshop]
A laugh-out-loud work of art, packed with incredible characters and knock-out prose
Stuntboy is a work of art, a rare chapter book that’s funny, tender, clever, and visually beautiful, too. Portico Reeves lives in an apartment building with his parents, his best friend, Zola, and an interesting and charismatic group of neighbors. But Portico has two big problems: his nemesis Herbert Singletary the Worst also lives in the apartment building, and his parents have just announced that they’ll be moving to separate apartments, on separate floors. To deal with these difficulties, Portico and Zola compare their problems to plotlines in their favorite retro space program, Super Space Warriors, and Zola gives Portico tips on breathing and relaxation from her mom, a meditation and yoga coach. But Portico also goes a step further. When his parents start arguing — and go into “the Mean Time” — he becomes Stuntboy, a superhero who performs elaborate stunts to cope with stressful situations. It’s all incredibly entertaining, with cameos from fascinating neighbors like Mr. Mister and the magnetic character everyone calls “Soup” — and wordplay so clever that even adults will laugh out loud. The design is stunning, too: colorful and incredibly imaginative illustrations in a variety of styles. (I was particularly fond of the retro-comics look of Super Space Warriors — the SSW interludes look truly cool.) Here, the words and pictures work together as equal partners, much like in a graphic novel. It’s such a joy to read a book like this.
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, Erin Entrada Kelly [Amazon | Bookshop]
A punny, quirky, and delightful chapter book about anxiety and trust
I love a lot of things about this book: its many puns, its trivia about silent movies, its Louisiana setting, the way Socrates pops up every now and then, and a magnolia tree adversary named Peppina. But it’s also a touching book about worry and sensitivity. Marisol is sensitive (she treats objects as though they have feelings, as many of us sensitive children do or did) and she worries a lot. Will she know what to say when someone at school is mean to her? What will it be like to meet her relatives in the Philippines? But her central worry in this book is whether she’ll ever feel comfortable climbing Peppina the magnolia tree, as her best friend Jada does. This is such a funny and wise book about anxiety, vulnerability, and trust — a real pleasure to read.
Too Small Tola, Atinuke and Onyinye Iwu [Amazon | Bookshop]
Heart-warming, gently funny stories about a girl’s life in Lagos, filled with delightful characters
From brilliant veteran children’s writer Atinuke, a lovely collection of three stories about a little girl living in Lagos. These stories show that even though Tola is the littlest of her siblings, she can do amazing things: from helping her grandmother by carrying loads of shopping on her head, to standing up to a bully (with some backup from strong neighborhood women), to traveling all over the city to take measurements for Easter and Eid outfits. As always, Atinuke’s stories are immensely kind-hearted and filled with delightful details. And so much of the humor comes with a wink. Grandmommy, whose supporting role here is particularly funny, is a true character and scene-stealer.
Bad Panda, Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey [Amazon | Bookshop]
A super-silly chapter book for kids who just want to laugh
In Bad Panda, a super-duper cute and fluffy panda named Lin isn’t too happy about being separated from her brother and sent to a zoo. So she whips up a plan: to be so very bad that the zoo has to send her back. But there’s a problem. Every time Lin does something bad, people think it’s adorable! Things escalate to a truly absurd conclusion. This book’s sense of humor has some overlap with the 13-Story Treehouse books: zany, joke-a-minute, and plenty of gross-out gags. I found it truly funny at times and laughed out loud, even as I was reading on my own. It’s loaded with goofy color illustrations and is also, unusually, part chapter book and part graphic novel. It’s not deep, but it’s a fun read for kids who like the wacky and ridiculous.
Middle Grade Fiction
Children of the Quicksands, Efua Traoré [Amazon | Book Depository]
A suspenseful adventure about magic and mystery in a Nigerian village
When Simi is sent to live with her estranged grandmother in the deep countryside of Nigeria, she’s apprehensive: How will she keep busy without WiFi or a cell signal? Why are her mother and grandmother not on speaking terms? And is there any truth to the local story that children who stray too close to the forbidden lake get taken to a mysterious world beneath the water? This story is exciting from page one and feels like a classic, with magic, feuding goddesses, a powerful priestess, trances and enchantment, and the world beneath the water, too (which of course you get to visit). Brilliant characters, lots of suspense, and terrific writing — Traoré wanted to share the magic of her childhood in Nigeria, and this book is bursting with it.
The Chime Seekers, Ross Montgomery [Amazon | Book Depository]
A page-turning firecracker of an adventure filled with real danger and profound emotion
This brilliant read positively crackles with storytelling magic and suspense. After Yanni’s parents have a new baby, they decide to move the family to the countryside, leaving behind Yanni’s beloved old home and friends. But as Yanni is struggling with longing and jealousy, something momentous happens on All Hallow’s Eve: an immensely powerful faery charms his way into Yanni’s house and steals his baby sister, leaving a wild changeling in her place. Yanni, the changeling, and his quest-loving cousin, Amy, fall through the new house’s fireplace into the dangerous Land of Fae, where Yanni must win a series of wagers with the faery to win back his sister and save himself. This book’s plot is so terrific that it’s hard to do it justice in a short summary, but it’s reminiscent of much of the best children’s literature – filled with real stakes, danger, tragedies, and lovable, memorable characters. The villain, Lord Renwin, is truly frightening – Yanni is in a match of wits with the devil, and souls are on the line. But aside from being a truly cracking adventure story, this is also an immensely moving book about love. We’re often led to believe that love is instantaneous and immediate, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way, as Yanni discovers. So often love develops not in the moment but after truly taking care of something, giving it attention and thought – some of our most profound loves begin in just this way, and watching Yanni learn this lesson is a tremendous pleasure. I found it hard to put this book down and loved every bit of it — it’s a treasure.
Starboard, Nicola Skinner [Amazon | Book Depository]
This book, about life crises and a real ship, packs a huge emotional wallop
This stunningly original and funny novel is about a real ship, the SS Great Britain (which you can actually visit if you ever go to Bristol), and a fictional 11-year-old reality star, Kirsten, whose time in the spotlight has led her life astray. While visiting the SS Great Britain with her class and her ex-best friend Olive, Kirsten and the ship (who talks) forge a psychic connection, and — stay with me here — the ship breaks through its dry-docked enclosure and plunges into the ocean for one last very important voyage. A talking map gives Kirsten a set of clues about what she must do, mannequins in Victorian dress come alive, and through all of this she’s got to navigate repairing her relationship to Olive. And, yes, the SS Great Britain, with her big, charismatic personality, is communicating with Kirsten through it all, too. It might sound like a lot, but it’s so cleverly done, a literal journey for Kirsten and the ship and a metaphorical journey through their own feelings as well. And as it turns out, these quests lead them toward acceptance and compassion, toward living authentically and joyously. This is a page-turner, an adventure story, and a book that’s beautiful and wise and heartbreaking and hopeful. It’ll give you big, warm feelings for a real ship in Bristol and it might also leave you in tears. (Be aware that the book mentions reality TV exploitation and diet culture, though with the clear message that these things really aren’t great.)
The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, Kate Milford [Amazon | Bookshop]
A cozy, fireplace-ready novel full of mystery, riddles, and atmosphere
Kate Milford’s Nagspeake books are nothing if not darkly and cozily atmospheric, and like the others, this one is perfect for reading by the fire. If you’re familiar with her books, you might remember that The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book is mentioned in Greenglass House as a fascinating text given to that book’s protagonist, Milo. But if you haven’t read Greenglass House or its sequels, no worries — you could easily start here. Told by mysterious guests at a hotel during a threatening flood, the tales in this volume are filled with antique technology, folklore, and magic. In one story, a boy ridiculed as a coward spends the night in a house with a physically impossible layout and a propensity for violence. In another, a homesick man purchases a London pea-souper from a catalog, but things quickly get way out of hand. Despite seeming to be strangers, the storytellers here might well know each other… and are their tales separate or somehow interconnected? As in Milford’s other books, you’ll read lots of words like “oddment” and “cheroot” and “widdershins,” solve puzzles, and try to work out identities and relationships. Plus, there are devils and portals and bones and reliquaries galore. Dickens’s winter tales inspired Milford to write this one, and it shows. It’s terrific winter reading, atmospheric, dark, and magical. It’ll go down especially well with fans of Ben Guterson’s Winterhouse books, Philip Pullman, Joan Aiken, and kids who love mysteries, riddles, or steampunk. And adults might well enjoy this one, too.
A Glasshouse of Stars, Shirley Marr [Amazon | Bookshop]
A touching novel about immigration, resilience, and compassion
Shirley Marr’s intense and beautiful middle grade novel is based on her own experience of immigrating to Australia as a child. Her protagonist, Meixing, faces many tough and heartbreaking challenges after arriving in her new home: learning a new language, bullying at school, racist intimidation and attacks, and her father’s sudden death late in her mother’s pregnancy. As her mother becomes depressed and withdrawn, Meixing must care for them both and find friends and allies to support her. Although you might find the book startling and strange at first, stick with it. It’s written entirely in the second person present tense and has magical realist touches — it can feel at times suspenseful, dark, heartbreaking, bright, hopeful, and sparkling. And it pulses with Meixing’s heart, compassion, resilience, and bravery.
Pencilvania, Stephanie Watson and Sofia Moore [Amazon | Bookshop]
An immensely moving and creative novel about grief and the life-altering power of art and creative expression
This heart-wrenching and brilliantly creative novel about life after the death of a beloved parent is an intense and wonderful read. Zora and Frankie’s mother promises them that she’ll recover from leukemia, so Zora is not only devastated when her mother dies, but she feels betrayed and angry, too. The two sisters move in with their grandmother, a relative stranger, and Zora is so heartbroken that even her passion for drawing vanishes. But when Zora and Frankie are magically transported to Pencilvania, a world composed of all the drawings Zora has ever made, she has to grapple with her grief and decide the course of her life: Can she bring herself to draw again, if it means saving the loving and supportive citizens of Pencilvania from the power-hungry and evil horse Viscardi? If it means saving her sister? Like Harold and His Purple Crayon, Zora can draw her way out of problems, but the scale of the universe, and her powers within it, make this idea perhaps even more enchanting. It’s a truly lovely idea, that we might all have a Pencilvania of our own, filled with the friends we created as children. As you would hope, the book is bursting with brilliant illustrations. Sofia Moore’s pictures are just fantastic, showing not only Zora’s more sophisticated and experimental drawings, but also her early stick figures and scribbles. While reading it, I was reminded so often of Lynda Barry’s thoughts about the aliveness of children’s drawings, their character and charm. To spend a few hours in a world of these drawings is a true pleasure, nostalgic and hopeful and sweet. Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, and there are magical, lovable characters, too (Airrol the horse, for instance, and the baby-like Eeps). But the novel also aches with loss, with a feeling of real and intense grief, and several adorable Pencilvanians die. Even so, if you’re willing to shed a few tears, the payoff is terrific: Zora’s loss is immense, but her ultimate decision to embrace life and change is tremendously moving, too.
Maya and the Robot, Eve L. Ewing and Christine Almeda [Amazon | Bookshop]
An extremely entertaining robotics-themed novel that’s perfect for kids transitioning from chapter books to middle grade fiction
This wonderfully readable novel begins with a terrific hook: a slow-motion food fight disaster sequence, featuring screaming teachers, pudding, and creamed corn (of course). It’s laugh-out-loud funny, brilliantly done, and the rest of the book is just as good. Fifth-grader Maya is distraught that she’s been put in a separate class from her two best friends, because making friends isn’t easy for her. But things look up when she inherits an adorable robot designed by a mysterious engineer, the son of a family friend. Maya’s passionate about science and robotics, and although the robot’s capabilities are probably a bit more fantasy than reality (it’s funner that way, after all), there’s a lot of scientific stuff to be excited about here. The book also deals with anxiety, shyness, and, briefly, gun violence, but the plot is anchored in a supportive, lovely community, and the narration is terrific: clever, charismatic, a bit sarcastic. It’s a great read that straddles the line between chapter books and middle grade fiction — probably best for grades 2-5.
The Beatryce Prophecy, Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall [Amazon | Bookshop]
An adventure tale with a scene-stealing, charismatic goat
In this medieval-esque novel, a girl named Beatryce finds herself in a monastery but cannot remember who she is or how she got there. Unlike most people and all girls, she can read, and this fact is enough to put her in danger. Plus, it seems the king is after her, too. With the help of a few friends — a monk, a boy with a remarkable memory, a wandering former king, and a spirited goat — she’ll find out who she is and face down the wicked king. This slower-paced book will reward more patient readers and might especially please animal-loving kids. The goat, Answelica, is an absolute star, a brilliant, lovable, classic character who steals the show. (Although it isn’t especially scary, there’s still peril and death aplenty, but it’s balanced with love, gentleness, and bravery.)
The Many Meanings of Meilan, Andrea Wang [Amazon | Bookshop]
An expertly constructed novel about the power of stories and names — and about righting injustices
In this expertly constructed novel, Meilan accidentally sets off a chain of events that splits her extended family apart, causing them to sell their beloved bakery in Boston’s Chinatown. With her parents and grandfather, Meilan moves to a small Ohio town, where most of the residents are white and her school principal insists on renaming her Melanie. To cope with the changes in her life and the disrespect she’s shown at her new school, Meilan begins splintering her personality, becoming Mist when she wants to be invisible or Basket when she’s trying not to let down her parents. But a crisis with her grandfather and the support of her new friend Logan will help her become whole again and find hope, confidence, and joy. So much of this book explores the power of names and stories, and these ideas are beautifully woven into the narrative, with references to Mandarin, metaphors and proverbs, and The Wizard of Earthsea. Although it’s a bit slow to get going, once it’s going it’s terrific, and I found the conclusion particularly satisfying — the plot has so many layers, so much richness, and yet it all resolves so neatly and beautifully.
The One Thing You’d Save, Linda Sue Park and Robert Sae-Heng [Amazon | Bookshop]
An inventive, thought-provoking, and engaging story in verse
In Park’s story in verse, modeled after the Korean poetic form of sijo, a middle school teacher asks her students to discuss the one thing they’d save in a fire (assuming their relatives and pets are already safe). All we hear are the voices from the class: contemplating, discussing, and sharing both the joyful stories behind their choices and the sad ones. It feels like eavesdropping on a tight-knit group of thoughtful souls, sweet and touching and real.
How Do You Live?, Genzaburō Yoshino [Amazon | Bookshop]
A gentle, genuinely touching novel that engagingly delves into philosophy and ethics
Newly translated in anticipation of Hayao Miyazaki’s new film, this supremely gentle and kind book from 1937 follows a boy, Copper, his friends, and his contemplative uncle. Although fiction, it’s meant to be a guide to ethics for young people, too, and chapters of Copper’s story alternate with letters from his uncle, who writes to his nephew about the issues in Copper’s life, and about history and philosophy as well. While somewhat slowly paced, the crises here are real: a classmate is unfairly teased or Copper’s friends are viciously bullied, and in each instance Copper must decide how he wants to behave. His decisions lead to spectacular joys and sometimes to wrenching regret, but the book deals with each one thoughtfully and with real emotion – it feels genuine, honest, and incredibly relatable. And the culmination of the book is tremendously touching. The book advocates convincingly and movingly for egalitarianism, decency, and compassion, and it made me reflect upon seemingly small but pivotal moments in my life that profoundly influenced my own ethical viewpoint. It made me remember, too, how painful, surprising, and marvelous it was to be a child who was just discovering all the complexities of the world. It’s a beautiful guide to living thoughtfully, to growing from mistakes, to being kind – to living a good and worthwhile life.
Kaleidoscope, Brian Selznick [Amazon | Bookshop]
A moving, inventive meditation on friendship and loss, for slightly older children and adults
Selznick’s books for middle-grade readers are often hybrid art-stories, as much picture as text, and his new one inserts both art and text into a kaleidoscope and produces something beautiful. Written during the pandemic, the book meditates upon a friendship between the narrator and James — a friendship immensely important and vital, and also one that is permeated with longing and grief. Themes and ideas echo through the brief stories, and although the project might feel a bit aimless at first, meaning and emotion accumulate and compound into something sad, sweet, and deeply affecting. It made me think of two other books I love: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
The Legend of Auntie Po, Shing Yin Khor [Amazon | Bookshop]
An introspective historical tale interwoven with larger-than-life myths
In this beautiful and thoughtful graphic novel about stories and myths, thirteen-year-old Mei bakes pies for loggers in an 1880s Sierra Nevada logging camp. Her father, a Chinese immigrant, runs the kitchen with tremendous expertise and Mei’s pies are nearly revered, but there’s tension in the camp: the Chinese immigrant loggers are not treated the same as the white lumberjacks, and Mei herself dreams of a life other than the one that seems scripted for her. She’s a brilliant storyteller and fascinates the camp’s children with stories of Auntie Po, a Paul Bunyan-like logging crew chief with a giant blue buffalo named Pei Pei. These myths help Mei as she sorts through her romantic feelings for her best friend, Bee, and her longing to go to university one day. And the legend of Auntie Po helps her, too, when racist threats of a boycott force her father from his job. The book’s portrayal of this logging community, through discrimination, tragedy, and repair, is wonderful — full of heartbreak, support, and hope.
Monster Friends, Kaeti Vandorn [Amazon | Bookshop]
An immensely sweet odd-couple graphic novel about friendship, anxiety, and vulnerability
This sweet graphic novel makes great use of an odd-couple pairing. Reggie is struggling with anxiety and wants to keep to himself during his staycation, but his introversion won’t deter exuberant, bursting-at-the-seams Emily. Emily doesn’t worry about rejection like Reggie does, and her persistence in making friends with him pulls him into her orbit. Perhaps they have a few things to teach each other? The atmosphere here is sensitive and supportive, and Reggie and Emily develop a lovely friendship. There’s a sweet moment when Emily coaxes reluctant Reggie into making friends with a crab. As she says, “I think it can be hard to meet big friends sometimes. So you can start with small friends!” It turns out Reggie will make big and small friends in this book, and learn to be more comfortable with who he is, but it’s a good piece of advice for anxiety: start small (and you might be surprised where you end up!).
Cat & Cat, The Quest for Snacks, Susie Yi [Amazon | Bookshop]
A silly, bubbly romp for kids who love all things cute
In this quick-reading and cheerful graphic novel for young readers, cats Ginny and Squash go on a quest to find the ingredients for the Potion of Unlimited Snacks. Portals take them to new lands, where they complete challenges and answer riddles, but when they meet someone who desperately needs their ingredients, will they be able to let go of their dream of unlimited snacks? And will they be able to get home? It’s another odd-couple pairing here: Ginny is excitable and impulsive, while Squash likes to plan and prepare, but these two make a great team. Fast readers will zip through this book in twenty minutes or so, but its adorable art and touches of magic and fantasy will make it a huge hit for fans of Pusheen and cat lovers, too.
The Sprite and the Gardener, Rii Abrego and Joe Whitt [Amazon | Bookshop]
A pure-hearted and gentle story about nature and the pleasures of caretaking
In the world of this gentle graphic novel, humans have taken over from sprites as the caretakers of nature, and although sprites are still around, they no longer help anything to grow. But one curious sprite, Wisteria, is enchanted by a young gardener and longs to help her with her struggling plants. This is a pure-hearted, warm, beautifully sweet tale of vulnerability and collaboration, of the joy to be found in caring for nature (and each other). It’s suitable for a child of any age who wants to read it (though some panels take a bit of interpretation), and it features a truly diverse set of characters.
Otto: A Palindrama, Jon Agee [Amazon | Bookshop]
A very funny and absurd tale told entirely in palindromes
I think it’s safe to say you won’t have read anything like this before: a graphic novel written entirely in palindromes. If you know a thing or two about palindromes, you’ll know that the longer ones often sound absurd, and so this book goes in absurd — and profoundly delightful — directions. It’s hallucinatory, silly, and clever, a quick read that made me laugh out loud on just about every other page. It’s beautifully constructed — a ridiculous idea taken to sublime heights (one of the best things in the world). I love it unreservedly.
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