- Our Home, City, Place
- Our Wondrous Natural World
- Seeking an Aurora
- The Night Walk
- It Fell From The Sky
- Almost Nothing Yet Everything: A book About Water
- One Little Bag
- Creativity and imagination
- The Boy Whose Head Was Filled wtih Stars. A life of Edwin Hubble
- On the Wings of Words. The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson
- The Lady with The Books. A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lapman
- Nicky & Vera. A Quiet Hero of The Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
- Challenging Themes
- I Get Loud (on Displacement)
- Anisa's Alphabet (on Refugee Experience)
- Coffee, Rabbit, Snowdrop, Lost (on Dementia)
- The True Story of a mouse Who Never Asked for It (on Domestic Violence)
- Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (on Racism)
- Other Picture Books
- Strangers on Country
- One of a Kind
- Africa, Amazing Africa
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dangerous Animals
- The Genius Under The Table. Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
- The End of The World is Bigger Than Love
- Music for Tigers
- The Deep Blue Between
As we close in on the end of another year, I find it a cathartic experience to reflect on the year that was. And whilst 2021 will historically be marked by upheaval and global uncertainty, in my little world at least, it’s comforting to know that one thing remains certain, and that is the beauty, optimism and healing power of children’s books.
Books can inspire, inform and challenge our beliefs. They are also a welcome distraction from the harsh reality of everyday life. Every book presented here seems to reflect back to us as the mirror does, a certain facet of our existence, of the human condition or the predicament we find ourselves in individually or as a society at large.
How I arrive at which books to include in my best children’s books of 2021 list is a process that goes something like this:
- I scour bookstores (when they were open).
- I canvas recommendations from my bookish friends on social media.
- I check out what’s new from the publishers, authors or illustrators whose work I admire.
- I go through the winners and honourable mention books in a variety of children’s books awards like CBCA Book of the Year Awards, Kate Greenaway Award, Bologna Ragazzi Awards, White Raven List, IBBY Outstanding Children’s Books selection, New York Public Library, New York Times and The Guardian Best Children’s Books of the Year picks.
My final list of home library must-haves is based on each book’s literary and artistic merits, as well as design and production.
This list is an overview of children’s books published in 2020 and 2021. It is of course, subjective and what resonates with me, but as much as it is a reflection of my personal preferences, I hope it will serve as a helpful resource for those seeking to add recent titles to their home libraries or extend their book lists for holiday reading with children or without children.
The best picture books defy age categorisation. Whilst individual take-outs will inevitably vary depending on age, experiences and circumstances of the reader books presented below could be and should be enjoyed by young as well as those no longer young.
The below selection suggests some notable 2021 books published in English. Of interest to the bi-lingual families maybe my recent research on the best recently published books in languages other than English, commissioned by the “Lost in Books” multilingual bookstore in Sydney. Check out this overview of the recently published Iranian children’s books and watch out for the overviews of books in other languages which I will share later.
To assist easy browsing, I have grouped this overview into broader categories. I called the first category “Our Home, City, Place”, which is perhaps reflecting some of the challenges we’ve lived through during 2021 – lockdowns, restrictions and travel bans. While our free movements have been restricted and while we spent time in prolonged isolation most of us reflected upon and re-evaluated priorities and values concerning family, home and our connectedness to the community and the world at large. Such reflections have brought about some wonderful almost meditative picture books exploring the themes of home, place and sense of belonging, of which you will find a few examples below.
Other categories in this overview include books on the wonders of the natural world that we inhabit, on creativity and imagination, some beautifully illustrated biographies of interesting people, books on challenging subjects, for example on dealing with difficult emotions and caring for a loved one with dementia, books on displacement, the refugee experience and racism. There is also a section on illustrated non-fiction titles and novels for teenagers and young adults.
My Russian-speaking readers can also listen to the podcast of my interview with Svetlana Printceva of SBS Russia Radio – talking about some of the books shown below in more detail. The interview was broadcast at 12.00 (AEDT) on Friday, 24 December 2021.
Illustrated Fiction and Picture Books
Our Home, City, Place
This book has won one of the most prestigious international prizes that exist today – 2021 Bologna Ragazzi Award for the Fiction category.
How do we define home? In this sparsely worded picture book, readers are introduced to one Taiwanese community with all its sights, sounds, and people – the place its residents call home.
The pandemic has highlighted that home – whether we have one or not – is the most important place on earth. Lin Lian-En’s much-needed book “Home” is an exquisitely produced poetic consideration of space. From the rounded corners of the book to the cardboard covers and thoughtful understated use of endpapers, the book makes full use of material elements to create an inviting rich space that can be revisited endlessly… just like home… The book subtly speaks volumes on the relationship between the non-living and living entities that make up a city, as well as the welcoming spaces and potential tensions between them. The sparse lyrical text is framed by Lin Lian-En’s words to the reader: “No matter where we return from, in the end we always come back to where it all started”. [Bologna Ragazzi Award jury’s statement]
Author and illustrator: Lien En Lin Publisher: Reycraft Books ISBN:9781478875444 Year: 2021 Pages: 40 Age: 4-7 yrs
This book has won the 2021 Bologna Ragazzi Award in the ‘Opera Prima’ category which awards a debut work, which “Neigbors” is for its author and illustrator Kasya Denisevich.
It is a contemplative picture book about the lives of our ever-present, yet somehow surprisingly elusive neighbors. They’re everywhere: next door, above, and even below. But more often than not, they are a mystery, a presence suggested by low hums, footfalls, or perhaps a slammed door. This book prompts an exploration of the ways that we think about those we exist among, but who remain strangers until we make the brave and affirming decision to connect.
Neighbors shows the tensions, moments of compassion, hesitation, and sincere curiosity about the Other that come with having neighbors. The pandemic has made the use of a building as a metaphor for the world, and an appropriate one to bridge the gulf of ideas of differences between people who live in close physical proximity. The book uses black ink in a novel way, to conjure thoughtfulness rather than darkness, as its gradations allow for the light to come through. The artfulness of the book involves the use of symmetry, symbols, and fantastical elements that are produced in the child’s imagination. These overturn the extreme realism of the city setting and remind the reader that utopian thinking is always possible. [Bologna Ragazzi Award jury’s statement]
Author and illustrator: Kasya Denisevich Publisher: Chronicle Books ISBN: 9781452177755 Year: 2020 Pages: 44 Age: 5+
Keeping the City Going
Floca’s images of New York City and the essential workers who have kept the city alive throughout the Covid-19 pandemic are conjured in delicate lines and subdued watercolour hues, beautifully echoing the quiet, often unsung nature of their heroism. Refreshingly, there are no clichéd street scenes of the Big Apple here. Floca has captured an insider’s view of the transformed city with love and tenderness. [Catherine Hong, jury panellist of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards]
Brian Floca reflected on the creation of this book, which was prompted by his long walks around his neighbourhood in Brooklyn in the early days of the pandemic and making small drawings of what he saw:
It was a way of trying to stay oriented in a new, uncertain and shifting situation. I drew some maybe mildly depressing things at first — discarded masks, discarded gloves — littering the sidewalks. Then one day, turning a corner on one quiet and shuttered block, I noticed a driver and delivery truck making the rounds, and it struck me how glad I was to see them…(read more)
Auhtor and illustrator: Brian Floca Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books ISBN: 9781534493773 Year: 2021 Pages: 40 Age: 4-8 yrs
While you’re Sleeping
In one of the year’s most unusual-looking books, Broadley has turned a quiet meditation on nighttime, both sleepy and sleepless, into a manically pulsating graphic experience that is as rewarding as it is unexpected. With the look of elaborate coloured woodcuts, the highly stylized pictures transport us to a world of their own. [Paul O. Zelinsky, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and the jury panellist of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards]
John Broadley noted the following regarding illustrating this book:
I tend to either have music, radio or a film or TV show on while working. I do remember sitting through the first two seasons of ‘Twin Peaks’ while working on this! I’m surrounded by lots of books and records and would probably find it uncomfortable to move into a designated work studio, especially as I’m used to working at different times of the day and night…(read more)
Author: Mick Jackson Illustrator: John Broadley Publisher: Pavilion Books ISBN: 9781843654650 Year: 2021 Pages: 40 Age: 4-8 yrs
On The Other Side of the Forest
With its anthropomorphized characters dressed in knickers and its murky, moody palette, this book — about a young bunny and his father who long to know what’s on the other side of a forbidding forest — feels like a vintage gem. While the images channel some of the comforting qualities of Beatrix Potter’s, they also have unsettling and surreal qualities that recall artists like Henry Darger and Amy Cutler, lending this fable-like story a tantalizing undercurrent of darkness. [Catherine Hong, jury panellist of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards]. Here is what the artist, Gérard DuBois tells about his work on this book:
I work from home, always have, and my studio is literally four steps down from the main floor of the house, which makes it private enough so I feel outside the house, and inside enough so I can enjoy a family life while my kids are young…(read more)
Author: Nadine Robert Illustrator: Gérard DuBois ISBN: 9781771647960 Publisher: Greystone Books Year: 2021 Pages: 72 Age: 3+ yrs
Our Wondrous Natural World
Seeking an Aurora
A father wakes his child from sleep to beckon, “Come—we’re off to find an Aurora.” Through the silent frost, across fields, and up hills they climb… And then they wait. Together they share an unforgettable moment and the majestic splendour of an Aurora.
This moving and lyrical story is paired with scientific information about the awe-inspiring Northern and Southern Lights to further inspire readers to seek their own natural wonders. [Blue Dot Kids Press]
Experiencing life beyond the Arctic circle and feeling awestruck at the sight of an Aurora is one of my biggest dreams. I was so happy to come across this beautiful book with its heartfelt story about a beautiful father and daughter bond and the unique experience they share together. These mesmerising illustrations are the fuel that has set the flames of my Aurora dream ablaze once more.
Author: Elizabeth Pulford Illustrator: Anne Bannock Publisher: Blue Dot Kids Press ISBN: 9781733121279 Year: 2021 Page: 32 pages Age: 3-7 yrs
The Night Walk
Awash in nocturnal blue, Dorléans’s graphite pencil illustrations of a family of nighttime explorers evoke a luminous sense of wonder. From bedside lamps to the delicate beam of stars, hints of light punctuate each spread, cleverly directing the reader’s attention to hidden details — an owl atop a tree, a badger skulking in the grass, a pair of mice among the rocks — and reflecting the warm bond of a family. [Jessica Agudelo, jury panellist of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards]. Here is what the artist, Marie Dorléans said about her work on this book:
There is always intense emotion at dawn on a night walk. I really wanted to share this experience with young readers — in making ‘The Night Walk,’ my vibrant desire was for my readers to feel this excitement, and want to try it themselves…(read more)
Author and illustrator: Marie Dorléans Pulblisher: Floris Books ISBN:9781782506393 Year: 2021 Pages: 32 Age: 3-7 yrs
It Fell From The Sky
Step right up and gaze upon the Fan brothers’ latest surreal world, featuring a cast of stylish insects, fitted with fanciful hats, as they marvel at the sight of an unfamiliar orb. Black-and-white graphite drawings, brilliant pops of colour and a fiendishly expressive spider, all scrupulously rendered, convey the feel of a silent film. [Jessica Agudelo, jury panellist of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards]. Here is what the creator of this book Eric Fan said about the work on this book:
Like most of our books, the initial idea came from a stand-alone illustration we had drawn about 10 years ago showing a group of insects — all wearing top hats — surrounding a marble in the garden…(read more)
Author and illustrator: Terry Fan and Eric Fan Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers ISBN: 9781534457621 Year: 2021 Pages: 56 Age: 4-8 yrs
Almost Nothing Yet Everything: A book About Water
Artist Ryōji Arai and poet Hiroshi Osada, the Japanese team behind critically acclaimed Every Color of Light, offer up another meditation on the natural world in this ode to water. A lyrical moment between parent and child in a boat on a river unfolds into an examination of the water that surrounds them, and the nature and life sustained by it: “It’s only oxygen and hydrogen. Simple as could be, and yet nothing means more to life as we know it.”
Arai’s lush art and Osada’s evocative poetry, beautifully translated from Japanese by David Boyd, work together to enchant readers and refresh their spirit, opening their eyes to the wonders of water, the universe, and life. [Enchanted Lion Books]
Author: Hiroshi Osada Illustrator: Ryōji Arai Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books ISBN: 978-1-59270-357-9 Year: 2021 Pages: 44 Age: 4-8 yrs
One Little Bag
Between the covers of this wordless book, readers will encounter two interconnected stories. On the first ten pages, illustrations in different sizes chronicle a special tree’s kind-of-factual journey – story number
one – from tree to paper bag, from the forest to a shop via sawmill and paper factory. And then: Oops, comes the book’s title page – and the beginning of the second story. A boy receives this very same brown paper bag at a shop. On his very first school day, he uses it to carry
his lunch. Rather than just throwing it away, he reuses the bag day after day. Over the years, it serves as a container for tools, sheet music, treats, etc,… and is even passed on to the next generation.
The atmospheric black-and-white ink illustrations, with lots of hatching for depth and texture, have the tree-turned-bag stand out as the only object coloured light brown. Inspired by his own memories of the first Earth Day in the 1970s, Henry Cole has crafted a thoughtful and touching story about family, love, and environmental awareness. [2021 White Ravens Catalogue]
Author and illustrator: Henry Coles Pubsliher: Scholastic Press, New York ISBN: 978-1-338-35997-8 Year: 2020 Pages: 43 Age: 3+
Creativity and imagination
How To Make a Bird
From award-winning author, Meg McKinlay and celebrated artist Matt Ottley comes a moving and visually stunning picture book that celebrates the transformative power of the creative process from inception through recognition to celebration and releasing into the world. We shadow the protagonist as she contemplates the blueprint of an idea, collects the things that inspire from the natural world to shape a bird. And breathes life into it before letting it fly free. It shows how small things, combined with a little imagination and a steady heart, can transform into works of magic. [Walker Books Australia]
Check out my review of “How to Make a Bird” here.
Detailed, delicate and gently philosophical; in its movement from the practical to the universal, this book suggests that there is more to life than replicated parts. McKinley and Ottley expand poignantly on the wonder of migratory birds while alluding to all-encompassing issues such as climate change in the illustrative reference to a house built high above the tide. There is a subtle but definite suggestion to take chances and breathe life into new ideas — perhaps the house so high is a reference to the child living with her head in the clouds, perhaps it is simply the place she goes to explore her ideas. [CBCA Book of the Year Award judges comments]
This book has won many prestigious awards:
- Winner, 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Children’s Literature
- Winner, 2021 CBCA Book of the Year Awards: Picture Book category
- Winner, 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards, Australia & New Zealand Region
- Winner, 2020 WA Premier’s Book Awards: Writing for Children category
- Shortlisted, 2021 Queensland Literary Awards: Children’s Book category
Author: Meg McKinlay Illustrator: Matt Ottley ISBN: Walker Books Australia Year: 2020 Pages: 32 Age: 5+
In The Meadow of Fantasies
“In the Meadow of Fantasies” is a translation from Persian of the original title “Seven Horses Seven Colours” written by the Hans Christian Andersen Award nominee, a prolific and celebrated Iranian author Hadi Mohhamadi and illustrated by the Iranian artist Nooshin Safakhoo. This book was included in the IBBY 2021 list of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities.
A young girl with a physical handicap gazes up at a mobile of spinning horses from her little pink bed in her room filled with leafy plants. As she watches them prance about, the tufted snout of a real live horse peeks through her bedroom door. Soon enough, our bright protagonist is off and cantering on an adventure with seven majestic horses.
The first six are easily understood- their colours, dreams, families, and origins are described and accompanied with exquisite drawings. The seventh horse, however, is an enigmatic creature with no clear hue or history, a lack that is soon filled in by the loving offerings of the other ponies. A story about dreaming and about caring for others, In the Meadow of Fantasies, will remind young readers of their own reveries and conjure new fantasies of friendly creatures in far off lands. [Penguin Random House].
For a more detailed review of “In The Meadow of Fantasies” check out my overview of the best recently published Iranian children’s books.
Author: Mohammad-Hadi Mohammadi Illustrator: Nooshin Safakhoo Publisher: Random House ISBN: 9781939810908 Year: 2021 Pages: 42 Age: 3-7 yrs
The Boy Whose Head Was Filled wtih Stars. A life of Edwin Hubble
“We do now know why we are born into the world,” said Edwin Hubble, “but we can try to find out what sort of world it is.”
How many stars are in the sky? How did the universe begin? Where did it come from?
This is the true story of a boy fascinated by the stars who surmounted many hurdles to follow his dreams of becoming an astronomer. Using the insights of great mathematicians and endlessly observing the sky, he succeeded in confirming two things that altered human life forever: that there are more galaxies than our own, and that the universe is always expanding. Hubble’s message to us is to find peace in the vastness of the mystery surrounding us and to be curious. [Enchanted Lion Books]
This book has been recognised with a few prestigious awards and honourable mentions:
- Included in the New York Public Library Best Books for Kids of 2021
- Winner of EUREKA! Nonfiction Children’s Book Honor Award (California Reading Association)
- Air & Space Magazine Best Children’s Book of 2021.
Auhtor: Isabelle Marinov Illustrator: Deborah Marcero Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books ISBN: 978-1-59270-317-3 Year: 2021 Pages: 52 Age: 6+
On the Wings of Words. The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, born in 1830, was a highly curious, intelligent, and sensitive girl, but she was also a little strange – or so the people in her hometown thought. Keenly interested in the world around her, Emily loved to explore and felt a deep connection to nature. Although, as an adult, she led a quiet reclusive life and seldom left her home, she pondered complex issues and expressed her thoughts and feelings in hundreds of letters
and about 1800 poems – almost all of which were published posthumously.
This evocative picture book biography provides snapshots of her life while introducing young readers to her magnificent oeuvre. The short text, itself written in a simple, associative style emulating Emily’s poetry, is interspersed with hand-lettered snippets of the famous American poet’s contemplative verses. The gouache-and-watercolour illustrations in warm, matt shades are reminiscent of naïve style paintings, but also veer into the field of surrealism to allude to Emily’s vivid imagination. [2021 White Ravens Catalogue]
Author: Jennifer Berne Illustrator: Becca Stadtlander Publisher: Chronicle Books, San Francisco ISBN: 978-1-4521-4297-5 Year: 2020 Pages: 46 Age: 6+ yrs
The Lady with The Books. A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lapman
Jella Lepman (1891-1970) was a remarkable woman. The Jewish-German journalist and author firmly believed that high-quality literature would help children from different countries feel connected to each other, and might even prevent another war.
Inspired by her story, renowned author Kathy Stinson has invented a touching tale of two German children trudging through the rubble in war-torn Munich in 1946. As they are searching for something to eat, they stumble across food of a different kind. Entering a huge hall, Anneliese and Peter find themselves standing amongst shelves upon shelves of children’s books; books in various languages with fascinating stories from around the world – and they meet Jella Lepman herself.
Drawn with delicate lines in soft, subdued colours, Marie Lafrance’s pictures with slightly stylized characters create a warm, dreamlike atmosphere. An informative appendix offers some background information on Lepman’s life, the Traveling Book Exhibit she initiated, and the International Youth Library. [2021 White Ravents Catalogue]
Author: Kathy Stinson Illustrator: Marie Lafrance Publisher: Kids Can Press, Toronto ISBN: ISBN 978-1-5253-0154-4 Pages: 32 Age: 5+ yrs
Nicky & Vera. A Quiet Hero of The Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
In “Nicky & Vera” Peter Sís weaves Nicholas Winton’s experiences and the story of one of the children, Vera Gissing, whom he saved from The Nazis. It is a story of decency, action, and courage told in luminous, poetic images by an internationally renowned artist.
In December 1938, a young Englishman cancelled a ski vacation and went instead to Prague to help hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Nazis who were crowded into the city. Setting up a makeshift headquarters in his hotel room, Nicholas Winton took names and photographs from parents desperate to get their children out of danger. He raised money, found foster families in England, arranged travel and visas, and, when necessary, bribed officials and forged documents.
In the frantic spring and summer of 1939, as the Nazi shadow fell over Europe, he organized the transportation of almost 700 children to safety. Then, when the war began and no more children could be rescued, he put away his records and told no one. It was only fifty years later that a chance discovery and a famous television appearance brought Winton’s actions to light. [WW Norton]
This book has been included in the New York Times 25 Best Children’s Books of 2021 as well as the Best Books of 2012 selections by Washington , Horn Book Fanfare and National Public Radio (NRP).
Author and illustrator: Peter Sís Publisher: W W Norton & Company ISBN: 9781324015741 Year: 2012 Pages: 64 Age: 6+
I Get Loud (on Displacement)
The gorgeously illustrated sequel to the acclaimed “I Got Quiet”, shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal and which Neil Gaiman called ‘astonishingly beautiful’ is about discovering friendship for the first time.
“I Get Loud” sees the introverted heroine go out into the world as she gains confidence in her voice and makes a friend for the first time. It is a tale of the emboldening nature of the imagination, the redemptive power of friendship and why we should all embrace our own beautiful, singular weirdness. [Canongate Books]
Check our my review of “I Get Loud” here.
Author and illustrator: David Ouimet Publisher: Canongate ISBN: 9781786897770 Year: 2021 Pages: 48
Anisa’s Alphabet (on Refugee Experience)
When war comes to their hometown, Anisa and her family have no choice but to grab everything they can carry and flee. Their perilous journey and hardships are presented in the form of an alphabet book.
Much like in classic alphabet books, Anisa’s travels unfold from A to Z in a sparse, rhythmical poem; yet unlike in those books, the events portrayed here are definitely not comical, but heart-breaking.
Subdued shades of blue, grey, and brown dominate the enthralling watercolour illustrations. The artist tells the visual story partly through sequences of small pictures in graphic-novel style, and partly by focusing on a single moment captured in an oppressive double-spread image, such as the one showing Anisa and her mum lying squashed together in the bottom of a boat with dozens of other people. The corresponding text reads: “R is for ragged refugee, something I never wanted to be.” Even though this moving book makes readers feel the terror of war and flight, it ends on a hopeful note. [2021 The White Ravens Catalogue]
Author: Mike Dumbleton Illustrator: Hannah Sommerville Publisher: MidnightSun Publishing ISBN: 978-1-925227-57-4 Year: 2020 Pages: 32 Age: 6+
Coffee, Rabbit, Snowdrop, Lost (on Dementia)
Stump always has a fantastic time with his grandparents, filled with flowers, puzzles, crosswords, and endless love. But one day, Stump’s grandfather starts to lose his memory and his words, which literally fall from him. Stump tries his best to keep the lost words safe, collecting them in a special box. But Grandpa seems to forget more and more every day, and the situation comes to a head one snowy night when Stump wakes up to find Grandpa missing.
Together, Stump and Grandma must find new ways to connect with Grandpa and show him that he’s not alone. This poignant, tender picture book depicts the struggle of coping with a loved one’s dementia with honesty and sensitivity, with a message of hope that affirms the deep bonds of love between grandchild and grandparent.
This book includes an afterword to the adult reader about dementia and recollection, written by Ove Dahl, a historian and head of the Danish Center for Reminiscence. He provides some practical tips, as illustrated in the story with Stump, for establishing a meaningful way of being together when caring for a loved one with dementia. [Enchanted Lion Books]
Author: Betina Birkjær Illustrator: Anna Margrethe Kjærgaard ISBN: 978-1-59270-373-9 Year: 2021 Pages: 44 Age: 6-10 yrs
The True Story of a mouse Who Never Asked for It (on Domestic Violence)
Folklorist Ana Cristina Herreros and visionary illustrator Violeta Lopiz spin a deeply feminist retelling of an old Spanish folktale in The True Story of a Mouse Who Never Asked for It. Through rhythmic text, highly conceptual illustrations, and a final visual narrative that is silent but revelatory, this YA picture book builds from deceptive simplicity.
The story begins with a mouse, very neat and hard-working, who makes herself a home. In disbelief that she has a house but isn’t a wife, suitors show up uninvited, each asking for her hand. She turns everyone down… until a pack of tiny kittens arrive, and she agrees to marry the smallest and most defenceless of the bunch. But it does every mouse well to remember that a kitten always grows up to be a cat.
Today, the most commonly told version of this popular folktale serves as a warning, scaring girls to choose good men to marry by reminding them that the cat will always devour the mouse. But this story is rooted in the non-normative, non-performative original version before it became a cautionary tale.
Here, by contrast, the story tells of the pain and harm that come from falling prey to situations beyond one’s control. It is also a powerful story of reclaiming one’s selfhood. [Enchanted Lion Books]
This book was included in the New York Times 25 Best Children’s Books of 2021.
Author: Ana Cristina Herreros Illustrator: Violeta Lópiz Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books ISBN: 9781592703203 Year: 2021 Page: 13+ yrs
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (on Racism)
“Unspeakable” tells the story of the thriving Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its destruction at the hands of racist mobs on one terrible day in 1921. To know that Cooper’s own grandfather was a member of that community, and passed down stories about the day, adds yet more dimension to the profound emotion this book elicits. Small wonder that Cooper’s exquisitely rendered faces are masterpieces of empathy.
Bold in design, subtle in colour, “Unspeakable” is Cooper’s last book; he died in July. [Paul O. Zelinsky, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and the jury panellist of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards] . In a moving reflection on creating this book late Floyd Cooper speaks about being compelled to draw some of the stories his grandfather has told him:
He’d tell us about life when he was a kid and life right now — what we kids needed to hear and know. He told it all. There was no censoring. But funny thing is, he told us in a way that we could get it…(read more)
Author: Carole Boston Weatherford Illustrator: Floyd Cooper Publisher: Walker Books ISBN: 9781541581203 Year: 2021 Age: 8-12 yrs
Other Picture Books
Every Little Kindness
Follow the trail of good deeds in this beautiful wordless picture book to learn how small acts of kindness can make all the difference!
When one act of kindness sparks another, anything is possible! As a girl searches for her lost dog, a simple act of generosity ripples into a wave of good deeds. In the course of a single day, each considerate action weaves lives together and transforms a neighbourhood for the better.
This wordless story, told in beautiful illustrations reminiscent of a graphic novel, demonstrates how every little kindness, shared from person to person, can turn a collection of strangers into a community, and—even though we might not always see it—make the world a more vibrant and compassionate place to be. [Chronicle Books]
Author and Illustrator: Marta Bartolj Publisher: Chronicle Books ISBN: 9781797207926 Year: 2021 Page: 72 Age: 0-5 yrs
Arthur The Always King
The retelling of the legends of King Arthur, from Carnegie Medal-winner Kevin Crossley-Holland and the three-time Kate Greenaway Medal-winner illustrator Chris Riddell.
Be enthralled by the world of Arthurian legend in this lavishly illustrated, masterful retelling. From King Arthur’s childhood to his final battle, the timeless tales of the sword in the stone, the quests of the Knights of the Round Table and the wizardry of Merlin are woven together into a breathtaking feat of storytelling. [Walker Books Australia]
This book was included in The Guardian’s The Best Children’s and YA books of 2021. Imogen Russel Williams, The Guardian’s children’s book critic and editorial consultant noted that Riddell’s intoxicating illustrations, full of golden light, glinting mail and memorable gore, elevate it to the sublime.
Author: Kevin Crossley-Holland Illustrator: Chris Riddell Publisher: Walker Books ISBN:9781406378436 Year: 2021 Pages: 240 Age: 8-14 yrs
The Story of Afiya
In addition to his poetry anthologies for adults, award-winning Jamaican poet James Berry (1924-2017) also created many books for young readers. His atmospheric 1991 poem, “A story about Afiya”, features a black girl who dances through her world
with grace and joy. Her white summer dress magically collects visual memories of her days’ adventures – red roses one day, petals and butterflies the next, and even two tigers from her trip to the zoo another day. During the night, the images always vanish to leave a clean slate for the next outing.
Brazilian illustrator Anna Cunha has transformed the surreal verses into dream-like double-spread pictures. In her entrancing matte illustrations, Afiya’s world glows in soft shades of rose pink, mustard yellow, and blue-green, mirroring the fantastical tone of the text and offering a visual wonderland for readers’ eyes. What a perfect celebration of childhood and imagination! [2021 White Ravens Catalogue]
Author:James Berry Illustrator: Anna Cunha Publisher: Lantana Publ., London ISBN: 978-1-911373-33-9 Year: 2020 Pages: 26 Age: 3+
Strangers on Country
Traditional history books mostly present past events from the dominant culture’s viewpoint. This carefully-researched book, however, pays heed to the common saying “There are always two sides to every story”. It provides a moving account of five Europeans, either shipwrecks or runaway convicts, who were taken in and cared for by indigenous Australians during the
Each of the five chapters consists of two fictionalised narrations of the same event: one from the point of view of the indigenous person, written by Dave Hartley, a descendant of the Barunggam people, and the second from the European’s perspective, penned by white Australian Kirsty Murray. The engaging texts and the evocative illustrations by Dub Leffler, a descendant of the Bigambul people, make the historical characters come alive for young readers. The third part of each chapter is a non-fiction section detailing the known facts of the stories accompanied by informative historical illustrations and photos. A fascinating read. [2021 The White Ravens Catalogue]
This book received an honourable mention in the 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Eve Pownall Award for the non-fiction category. CBCA jury remarked that this book was “skilfully derived from the National Library of Australia’s “Living with the Locals: Early Experience of Indigenous Life”, five stories feature young European castaways, escaped convicts and a shipwrecked girl and boy, all adopted by Indigenous communities along the North east coast of Australia. Supported by factual accounts of these stories, this well organised, thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated production presents nuanced readings of colonial history accessible to readers from primary school upwards”.
Author Dave Hartley / Kirsty Murray Illustrator: Dub Leffler Publisher: NLA Publishing, Canberra, A.C.T. ISBN: ISBN 978-0-642-27955-2 Year: 2020 Pages: 116
One of a Kind
This book has won the 2021 Bologna Ragazzi Award in the Non-fiction category.
Meet Arvo. Now, look at his family tree. Meet his cat, Malcolm, and check out Malcolm’s family tree, too. Whether people or cats, buildings or books, food or vehicles, there’s a category for everything. And in this mesmerizing narrative introduction to taxonomy, readers follow Arvo through his day to learn about the order of the animal kingdom, to his music lesson to help categorize instruments, and across town to classify cloud formations he sees along the way.
This book takes the child collector’s joy in sorting and classifying and brings it to life in this novel contribution to the non-fiction scene that can afford its readers years of pleasurable reading. This inventive take on taxonomies and sorting conventions can be read at many levels; from learning about the way things are classified, to the diverging and converging ways in which the decisions made to sort them are made.
For most of the book, the objects in the illustration take centre stage, then the text in the rich and beautifully laid out appendix encourages further exploration. Neil Packer’s illustrations that employ modified photographs and precise scientific drawings invite readers to pay attention to the fine nuances that give each object its uniqueness and character. The extraordinary production of this large-format book gives the reader a warm aged feel, and evokes the aesthetics of all sorts of curated collections, from museums to shoeboxes under children’s beds. [Bologna Ragazzi Award jury’s statement]
Author and illustrator: Neil Packer Publisher: Walker Books Australia ISBN:9781406379228 Year: 2020 Pages: 48 Age: 7-12 yrs
Africa, Amazing Africa
Africa is a most amazing continent with dozens of countries, lots of different cultures, languages, and landscapes, and more than a billion inhabitants. Unfortunately, non-Africans often see it as a unitised land defined by heat, poverty, and wild animals. Through her entertaining and informative short texts, Nigerian-British author Atinuke successfully challenges this notion as she highlights the diversity of the fifty-five African countries she introduces.
Mouni Feddag’s bright, quirky illustrations sparkle with vivacity. Even though the introductory map of Africa and some smaller pictures perpetuate existing clichés, the renditions of traffic jams in Lagos (Nigeria) and skyscrapers in Luanda (Angola) clearly dispute them by attesting to modern city life. Far from claiming to be a comprehensive encyclopaedia of Africa (if such a thing were even possible), this book offers a kaleidoscope of snapshots, curious details, and personal impressions that will arouse readers’ curiosity and inspire them to start searching for more. [2021 White Ravens Catalogue]
Author: Atinuke Illustrator: Mouni Feddag Publisher: Walker Books and Subsidiaries, London ISBN: ISBN 978-1-4063-7658-6 Year: 2020 Pages: 77 Age: 6+
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dangerous Animals
Dangerous animals get a bad rap, but this beautifully illustrated encyclopaedia helps us appreciate the incredible features of some of our more hair-raising animal species.
With more than sixty of the most deadly and dangerous animals from across the world to explore, every page of this beautifully illustrated volume is more eye-opening than the last. You will learn interesting facts about these fascinating species, (many of which you won’t have even known were deadly): how they have adapted to survive and whether we should be threatened by these animals or appreciate them for their incredible features. Children and adults alike will pore over the breathtaking scientific illustrations of unusual animals from the geography cone snail to the wolverine, the Irukandji jellyfish to the slow loris, debating their relative dangerous features, learning about science and nature along the way. [Hachette Australia / Lothian Children’s Books imprint]
“The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dangerous Animals” received an honourable mention in the 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Eve Pownall Award for the non-fiction category. CBCA jury remarked: “Bayly challenges the idea that certain animals are ‘too often seen as something to fear or kill instead of the fascinating creatures they are. Exquisitely detailed illustrations enhance clearly written, well researched text. Examples include the Crown of Thorns Starfish; toxic to humans and devastating to the marine environment. Through the inclusion in the book of Black legged tick that transmits Lyme disease, Bayly argues the importance of creatures, no matter how annoying, have evolved to serve a purpose within their ecosystem’. This beautifully produced book will fascinate many readers.”
This book is a brilliant companion to “The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals” published by Lothian Children’s books in 2019. The latest title in this series “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature” has been published in September 2021.
Author and illustrator: Sami Bayly Publisher: Lothian Children's Books ISBN: 9780734420015 Year: 2020 Age: 7-12 yrs
Young Adults Novels and Fiction
The Genius Under The Table. Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
With a masterful mix of comic timing and disarming poignancy, Newbery Honoree Eugene Yelchin offers a memoir of growing up in Cold War Russia.
Drama, family secrets, and a KGB spy in his own kitchen! How will Yevgeny ever fulfil his parents’ dream that he become a national hero when he doesn’t even have his own room? He’s not a star athlete or a legendary ballet dancer. In the tiny apartment he shares with his Baryshnikov-obsessed mother, poetry-loving father, continually outraged grandmother, and safely talented brother, all Yevgeny has is his little pencil, the underside of a massive table, and the doodles that could change everything. With equal amounts of charm and solemnity, award-winning author and artist Eugene Yelchin recounts in hilarious detail his childhood in Cold War Russia as a young boy desperate to understand his place in his family. [Walker Books]
This book was included in the New York Times 25 Best Children’s Books of 2021.
Author: Eugene Yelchin Publisher: Walker Books ISBN: 9781536215526 Year: 2021
The End of The World is Bigger Than Love
Identical twin sisters Summer and Winter live alone on a remote island, sheltered from a destroyed world. They survive on rations stockpiled by their father and spend their days deep in their mother’s collection of classic literature – until a mysterious stranger upends their carefully constructed reality. At first, Edward is a welcome distraction. But who is he really, and why has he come? As love blooms and the world stops spinning, the secrets of the girls’ past begin to unravel and escape becomes the only option. The End of the World Is Bigger than Love is a sumptuously written novel of love and grief, affection and sacrifice, of technological progress and climate catastrophe, of an enigmatic bear and a talking whale. It is unlike anything you’ve read before…[The Text Publishing Company]
This book has been awarded and widely recognised:
- Winner, Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature,
- Winner NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2021
- Winner, Book of the Year for Older Readers, 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia Award
- Shortlisted, Young Adult, Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, 2021
- Commended, Writing for Young Adults, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2021
- Shortlisted, Young Adult and Debut, Davitt Awards, Sisters in Crime, 2021
- Shortlisted, Readings Young Adult Book Prize, 2021
- Longlisted, Book of the Year for Older Children, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2021
- Shortlisted, Griffith University Young Adult Book Award, Queensland Literary Awards, 2021
Author: Davina Bell Publisher: The Text Publishing Company ISBN: 9781922268822 Year: 2020 Pages: 288 Age: 13-17 yrs
Music for Tigers
Australian-Indonesian writer Michelle Kadarusman, who is based in Canada, has a knack for crafting
stories with resourceful and courageous female protagonists. In her latest middle-grade novel, “Music for Tigers”, young Louisa is shipped from Canada to Tasmania to spend her summer holidays at a remote camp in the rainforest. Although the ambitious violinist is initially unenthusiastic about the prospect of battling creepy crawlies with only her weirdo maternal uncle as company, she soon becomes fascinated by her family’s history while reading parts of her great-grandmother Eleanor’s diary.
If there really is a Tasmanian tiger still alive and roaming around the sanctuary Eleanor started, Louisa is determined to save this supposedly extinct species. Conjuring up a lush rainforest-y world that radiates an almost magical atmosphere, the author successfully combines historical facts with an engaging tale about topical issues, such as the threat to the Australian flora and fauna by mining and logging companies. [2021 The White Ravens Catalogue]
Author: Michelle Kadarusman Publisher: Pajama Press, Toronto, Ontario ISBN: 978-1-77278-054-3 Year: 2020 Pages: 189 Age: 10+
The Deep Blue Between
In her highly praised adult novel “The hundred wells of Salaga”, set in Ghana at the end of the 19th century, Ghanaian author Ayesha Harruna Attah, who lives in Senegal, provides an unusual view of slavery through the experiences of two young women: Aminah and Wurche. “The deep blue between”, the author’s first teenage novel, focuses on the fate of Aminah’s little sisters, Hassana and Husseina. After being forcefully separated when they flee their destroyed home village, the ten-year-old twins are both sold as slaves, but lead very different lives, ending up in Accra and Lagos then Bahia, Brazil respectively. While Hassana feels the loss of her twin strongly and constantly searches for Husseina, the younger twin has conflicted feelings about a reunion. Nevertheless, they remain connected through their dreams for years.
This moving historical coming-of-age novel touches upon issues such as the slave trade, racism, traditional belief, and religion in West Africa and Brazil, seen through the eyes of two brave girls. [2021 White Ravens Catalogue].
Author: Ayesha Harruna Attah Publisher: Pushkin Press, London ISBN: ISBN 978-1-78269-266-9 Year: 2020 Pages: 252 Age: 13+
Links to Awards and Complete Winners Lists
1 Bologna Ragazzi Awards is a major international prize of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, operating since 1963. The Award recognises the finest illustrated children’s book (could be from anywhere in the world) in 4 categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, New Horizons (for the non-Western world) and Opera Prima (for first works). To check out the complete list of 2021 winners and honourable mention books, selected from 1,576 titles submitted from 41 countries worldwide check out the 2021 Bologna Ragazzi Awards All Winners.
2 “White Ravens” Catalogue, sub-titled A Selection of International Children’s and Youth Literature, is the most important annual publication of the International Youth Library [Internationale Jugendbibliothek], based in Munich, Germany. It is usually published in advance of the annual Frankfurt Book Fair and a dedicated booth displaying all hard copies of selected books is present at the Library’s booth at the annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair. The “White Ravens” catalogue aims to promote quality in children’s book publishing and has become an increasingly useful tool for anyone interested in looking beyond national borders. 2021 “White Ravens” catalogue contains a selection of 200 notable children’s and young adult books from 54 countries published in 38 languages. The judges on the jury include scholars, children’s books industry professionals and librarians with expertise in the fields of children’s literature and illustration.
3 CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded annually to a children’s book author whose writing creates an outstanding reading experience. A companion CILIP Carnegie Medal is awarded for an outstanding children’s book written in English. These are UK’s oldest and best-loved children’s literature awards. The Awards are judged by children’s librarians. The Carnegie was established in 1936 in memory of the Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). The Kate Greenaway Medal, established in 1955, is named after the popular nineteenth-century artist, known for her beautiful children’s illustrations and designs. Check out the complete shortlist and winners of the 2021 Kate Greenaware Medal here.
4 New York Times and New York Public Library Children’s Books Award Since 1952, New York Times convened a rotating annual panel of three expert judges who consider every illustrated children’s book published that year in the United States. In 2017, New York Times began partnering with the New York Public Library to administer the honour now called The New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award. The judges select the 10 winners purely on the basis of artistic merit. Check out the complete list of 2021 winners here. On the 2021 panel were Catherine Hong, a children’s literature critic; Jessica Agudelo, a youth collections librarian at the New York Public Library; and Paul O. Zelinsky, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator of many acclaimed picture books — most recently “Red and Green and Blue and White,” by Lee Wind — and a past winner of the award.
5 New York Times Best Children’s Books Selection includes the most notable picture, middle grade and young adult books of the year, selected by The New York Times’s children’s books editor.
6 The Guardian Best Children’s Books Selection is put together by The Guardian’s editors and children’s books critics.
What a mammoth review!!
When did you have time to write so much, and in so detailed a manner??
Incredible amount of work!
What a reference work for parents!!
Thaks for your encouraging feedback, as always! It would be great if other parents found this overview useful.
I was exploring your site for some ideas for a European Reading Challenge I want to try next year. This is a brilliant post. So many great books. Thank-you
Glad to hear that this was useful, Jocelyn! I’d love to learn more about that European Reading Challenge.
Wow!!! This is an incredible resource. Thank you for providing such a well researched and detailed review. Like you, I am dreaming of seeing the northern lights one day, so I have a soft spot for “Seeking an aurora”.
Thanks for your feedback, Richard! Let’s visualise it while reading “Seeking and Aurora” and we might bump into each other beyond the Arctic circle soon 🙂