The Ten Best Children’s Books of 2021

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Drum roll, please. Illustration by Valerie Ruland-Schwartz

It’s hard to describe the joy I get reading a children’s book. It’s akin to the feeling when you “dive into the cool, clear water of a lake,” to borrow from Alison McGhee’s Someday, a picture book about a mother’s wish for her child to live life to its fullest, and a personal favorite.

Luckily, as a mother to two young daughters, ages 4 and 7, I’m fully immersed in the world of children’s literature. They are little chain readers, my preschooler handing book after book over for me to read aloud, which I do gladly. It’s like jumping time and time again off a dock—a dive here, a cannonball or a can-opener there. Splash, splash, splash!

As an adult (and an editor) reading children’s books, I can separate the big, fat, belly flops from the swan dives. I know a clumsy narrative when I see one. Of all the new releases in 2021, I find these ten to be the most graceful.

Room for Everyone

When Naaz Khan was working for a refugee resettlement agency in Africa, she took a trip to Zanzibar, Tanzania, to celebrate Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. It was on this trip that she found herself on a raucous, jam-packed, hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to Nungwi Beach. “I literally remember wiggling, giggling and thinking to myself—gosh, someone has to turn this into a children’s book,” Khan told School Library Journal.

Khan pitched the idea to her Swahili-speaking friends, but ultimately they encouraged her to do the writing. “As a Muslim, who was born in India and grew up in the Middle East, it was exciting to see how Zanzibari culture—music, food, language, architecture, clothing, etc, reflected a mix of several worlds I already felt connected to,” said the author of Room for Everyone. Khan and illustrator Mercè López did their research to tell the story in English of siblings Musa and Dada riding the daladala to the beach in an authentic way. As farmers, goats, street vendors, chickens, scuba divers and more cram onto the bus, Khan squeezes in Swahili and Arabic words, and López loads head scarves and umbrellas with African patterns. The “bighearted,” “irrepressible” and “energetic” counting book is as bouncy as you’d imagine the bus to be. (Recommended ages: 4 to 8)

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Room for Everyone

A young boy on a crowded bus discovers that, after some wiggles and giggles, there’s room for everyone in this lighthearted rhyming picture book set in Zanzibar.

The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection

In the first few pages, Chuck Whipplethorp, the elementary school-aged protagonist in Ben Brashares’ latest picture book The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection, gives off an “Alexander” attitude. (Alexander of Judith Vorst’s classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, of course.) Bored, and convinced nothing interesting happens around his new house on Normal Street, he bellyaches to his dad, who is hunched over a laptop. It’s a brutally honest scene that, let’s face it, many parents working from home during the pandemic can relate to: “Am I going to be as boring as you when I grow up?” Chuck asks.

To while away the time, Chuck takes up his dad’s suggestion and starts unpacking their moving boxes. He discovers his grandpa’s very first bug collection (depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Bergeland as a menagerie of colors and legs), and that later in life he actually identified a new species. This leads to Chuck’s dad telling him “all about the great Whipplethorp men before him.” With some subtle humor, Bergeland presents these predecessors in a spread of portraits, from Chuck’s great-great grandfather, decorated soldier and mountain climber Charles Van Velsor Whipplethorp I, on down to his data-analyst dad. As the valiant “Van Velsor” gets dropped, and Charles relaxes to Charlie, the portraits’ frames fittingly go from ornate to downright plain. Over the course of the story, Chuck comes to terms with the changes happening over the generations, deciding that the Whipplethorps aren’t “less great,” just “different.”

“There’s a lot to this story, which champions maker culture, charting one’s own path, and changing gender roles,” writes Publisher’s Weekly. But it is sweet in its simplicity, too. Chuck will definitely make you chuckle. (Recommended ages: 4 to 8)

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The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection

Enjoy this witty, heartwarming exploration of father-son relationships and growing up male in today’s culture through the lens of a boy yearning to forge his own identity.

Listified! Britannica’s 300 Lists That Will Blow Your Mind

I am a list person, but I don’t think it’s my bias talking here—this encyclopedia of facts is first-rate. I will be giving this to my 7-year-old at Christmas, who will, no doubt, devour it with the same speed and intensity as she does a bowl of ooey, gooey macaroni and cheese.

The 300 lists contained in Andrew Pettie’s Listified! are wide-ranging, and organized in eight themed chapters: space, nature, dinosaur times, animals, the body, being human, inventions and game changers. Readers can learn about 35 different types of snowflake, 11 endangered languages that are now spoken by only one person, eight amazing lost treasures that no one can find, and even how high a human being could jump on nine different planets and moons. At Smithsonian, we pride ourselves on serving up amazing facts in our stories, and this book is chock-full of “some downright bonkers pieces of information,” as GeekDad puts it. “It’s 400 pages of glorious knowledge, engagingly illustrated, and very addictive.” (Recommeded ages: 8+)

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Change Sings

When Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, she transfixed her audiences at the Capitol and at home. The then-22-year-old poet had herself been inaugurated four years prior as the first National Youth Poet Laureate, yet many were hearing her “tightrope-taut verse” delivered with “impossible poise,” as Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has described it, for the very first time. When Miranda honored her earlier this year as a “Phenom” on Time magazine’s 100 Next list, he wrote, “Now the world knows the poet’s name.”

As the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Gorman is in a spot to appeal to both young and old. Her new collection of poems Call Us What We Carry followed closely on the heels of her “children’s anthem,” Change Sings. Called a “rallying cry” and an “uplifting serenade,” Gorman’s lyrical verse in Change Sings is paired with Loren Long’s vibrant illustrations, which provide the narrative: a young Black girl and other children she meets work to serve their community—cleaning up a park, delivering groceries, building a ramp for a friend in a wheelchair—and pick up instruments along the way to join in the song.

“My hope was to craft a poem that would take young readers on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately empower them to see how they could become change-makers,” Gorman told the Guardian. “Long took my abstract vision and gave it texture and light. I’m so proud of the mosaic of language and images that we made together.” (Recommended ages: 4 to 8)

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Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem

In this stirring, much-anticipated picture book by presidential inaugural poet and activist Amanda Gorman, anything is possible when our voices join together.

Making a Great Exhibition

At Smithsonian magazine, we have a front row seat to the making of exhibitions. From conception and planning to construction and staging, bringing an exhibit to life is a monumental effort, involving artists, curators, lighting designers, catalog editors, and many, many more.

In Making a Great Exhibition, author Doro Globus (daughter of a curator) and illustrator Rose Blake (daughter of an artist) capture the whole process in an accessible way. Blake’s bright illustrations are labeled, as if the book itself is on display, and Globus deftly handles giant questions about art and the making of it. “Being an artist means seeing the everyday world a bit differently,” she writes, before explaining how Viola, one of two artists in the story, “finds forms like circles, swirls, and lines in nature and makes them into something brand new.” I absolutely love the spread where random objects—fossils, a flute, Brutalist buildings, sneakers, chocolate milk—float around the heads of Viola and fellow artist Sebastian in thought bubbles, all sources of inspiration for their work.

Globus achieves her goal to make museums and galleries more approachable. “A lot of people still find these spaces intimidating, and I think if we start with children, and we show how things work,” the author says in an interview with Monocle, “it felt like good thing to do.” (Recommended ages: 3 to 7)

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Making a Great Exhibition

How does an artist make a sculpture or a painting? What tools do they use? What happens to the artwork next? This fun, inside look at the life of an artwork shows the journey of two artists’ work from studio to exhibition.

Circle Under Berry

Carter Higgins’ board book Circle Under Berry is a delightful study in color, shape and position for toddlers. The author-illustrator uses simple shapes and figures made from hand-painted paper, much like Eric Carle did in his beloved books, and arranges them in lines and columns. With staccato phrases like “berry over square” and “yellow over diamond under guppy over green,” Higgins describes each arrangement. As the pages turn, yellow circles transform into lions, green squares into frogs, and sometimes red is scarlet and yellow is goldenrod. “Higgins offers seeds of conversations about naming and classification,” explains Publisher’s Weekly, in what the Wall Street Journal suspects will become a “nursery staple.” Booklist notes that all the prepositions could be helpful to English language learners of all ages. (Recommended ages: 2 to 4)

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Circle Under Berry

With an elegant and simple approach, this thought-provoking concept book shows young readers that everything in the world can be seen from infinite perspectives.

Milo Imagines the World

In January 2018, Time magazine published a powerful essay by author Matt de la Peña titled “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children From Darkness.” In it, de la Peña writes, “We are currently in a golden age of pictures books, with a tremendous range to choose from. Some of the best are funny. Or silly. Or informative. Or socially aware. Or just plain reassuring. But I’d like to think there’s a place for the emotionally complex picture book, too.”

First with Last Stop on Market Street dealing with hunger, then with Carmela Full of Wishes grappling with deportation, and now with Milo Imagines the World addressing childhood with an incarcerated parent, the Newbery Award-winning author is certainly carving a spot for heavy topics. “One of the ways I approach heavier subject matters with young readers is to put it in the margins, where it’s kind of quiet,” de la Peña told PACIFIC in February. “Think of it like turning up or down the volume on a stereo—I turn the volume down on the heavy, so it’s there to be explored but it’s not the only thing to explore.”

At its core, Milo Imagines the World is about breaking down stereotypes. Milo boards a subway train with his sister and, to pass the time, draws pictures of the strangers around him and the lives he imagines they lead. Through Milo, de la Peña describes people—a businessman with a “blank, lonely face” and a bride with a “face made out of light”—in the refreshingly intuitive ways usually only kids can. He also describes feelings in a way relatable to kids. Readers don’t yet know why Milo is anxious and excited, when de la Peña describes him as a “shook-up soda.” When Milo realizes that a young boy he imagined lived like a prince in a castle is headed, like him, to a correctional facility to visit someone, he begins to imagine his drawings differently.

“I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion,” the book’s illustrator Christian Robinson told NPR. The story is, in a way, his, as his own mother was in and out of prison most of his childhood. (Recommended ages: 4 to 8)

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Milo Imagines the World

In their third collaboration, the author and the illustrator of the Newbery Medal winner and Caldecott Honor book once again bring us a moving ode to bustling city life and the love that binds a family.

Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat

Frieda Caplan isn’t a household name, and yet for all the produce that might be in your house thanks to her—kiwi, spaghetti squash, baby carrots, sugar snap peas—it should be! The food innovator who worked at L.A.’s Seventh Street Produce Market in the 1950s before launching her own business in the ’60s is the subject of Mara Rockliff’s latest picture book biography, Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat.

While many titles that fall in this subgenre of children’s books can be overburdened with facts, this one stays light and lively, as Rockliff tells the story of how Caplan introduced grocers—and therefore, consumers—to offerings more exotic than the usual apples, bananas, potatoes and tomatoes. From a life full of details, the biographer chooses Caplan’s quirks, like how she “got a funny feeling in her elbows when she tasted something new and special,” to make her subject relatable. Kirkus Reviews adds, “Rockliff’s snappy sentences and rollicking alliteration make this a fun read-aloud: ‘Farmers dug for tips on what to grow. Cooks peppered her with questions’; ‘mounds of mangosteen, heaps of jicama, and quantities of quince.’”

Caplan’s daughter, Karen, who is now the president and CEO of Frieda’s, Inc., told the Los Angeles Times, “[The book] makes fruits and vegetables approachable to a young person and that makes all the difference in the world. Diversity is super important—whether it’s diversity in what we eat or who we speak with, which was very important to my mom.” Frieda Caplan died in 2020 at the age of 96, having worked four days a week into her 90s. (Recommended ages: 3 to 8)

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Try It!: How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat

Meet fearless Frieda Caplan—the produce pioneer who changed the way Americans eat by introducing exciting new fruits and vegetables, from baby carrots to blood oranges to kiwis—in this brightly illustrated nonfiction picture book!

It Fell From the Sky

What readers will immediately identify as a marble is instead a mystery to the critters that come across it in Terry and Eric Fan’s latest book, It Fell From the Sky. Frog licks it, thinking it’s a gumdrop. Grasshopper assumes it is something catapulted from the cosmos, and Luna Moth speculates it is a chrysalis not yet hatched. But Spider sees it as an opportunity. Claiming it as his own, the arachnid builds WonderVille and invites visitors to buy tickets to marvel at the “Wonder from the Sky.” Before long, a “five-legged creature” (aka a human hand) plucks the marble up, and Spider is left to reflect on the greediness of his endeavor. In the end, he develops a museum of curiosities—a thumb tack, a Lego, a bottle cap, a thimble, a safety pin, and others things that fell from the sky—for all to enjoy.

The Fan brothers cleverly use color as a narrative tool. Just about everything is in a muted graphite, while the objects “from the sky” pop with vibrant hues. “The restrained palette’s grayscale and color contrast recalls the film The Wizard of Oz,” writes Shelf Awareness. If you ask me, though, the book gives off a serious Honey, I Shrunk the Kids vibe. (Recommended ages: 4 to 8)

Preview thumbnail for 'It Fell from the Sky

It Fell from the Sky

From the creators of the critically acclaimed The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets Sky comes a whimsical and elegantly illustrated picture book about community, art, the importance of giving back—and the wonder that fell from the sky.

Inside In: X-Rays of Nature’s Hidden World

When Dutch children’s book author Jan Paul Schutten saw Arie van ‘t Riet’s photography, he knew he had stumbled upon something, and someone, special. In the introduction to the pair’s collaboration, Inside In, Schutten puts it this way: “He’s one of the very few people who are delighted to receive a dead animal as a gift.”

That’s right. A former medical physicist, van ‘t Riet collects roadkill and deceased pets, hunts for insects, buys fish and picks up specimens from taxidermists, and then X-rays them. From a bat, buzzard and barn owl, to a scorpion, seahorse and squirrel monkey, Inside In is a collection of more than 50 arthropods, mollusks, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Schutten provides information about each animal, but van ‘t Riet’s beautiful bioramas—fauna placed within the flora of their real-life habitats—will be what draw curious readers in. (Recommended ages: 7 to 12)

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