The 25 Best Children’s Books of 2021
The most notable picture, middle grade and young adult books of the year, selected by The Times’s children’s books editor.
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BLANCAFLOR, THE HERO WITH SECRET POWERS A Folktale From Latin America Written by Nadja Spiegelman Illustrated by Sergio García Sánchez With an introduction by F. Isabel Campoy (Toon Graphics, $16.95)
The magically powered Blancaflor is clever and brave, her prince a delightful idiot, in this gorgeously illustrated comics version of the familiar “girl as helper” tale.
BRIGHT STAR Written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Neal Porter/Holiday House, $18.99)
Morales dares us to look away as a fawn blocked by a menacing wall is replaced by a young girl staring soulfully into our eyes.
DREAM STREET Written by Tricia Elam Walker Illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Anne Schwartz, $17.99)
Walker’s poetic text and Holmes’s striking collaged art paint a joyous portrait of a single avenue’s dynamic Black community.
THE HAPPINESS OF A DOG WITH A BALL IN ITS MOUTH Written by Bruce Handy Illustrated by Hyewon Yum (Enchanted Lion, $18.95)
By turns wistful and whimsical, this antidote to Charles Schulz’s “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy” is as much about the buildup to its title as it is about its payoff.
THE LONGEST STORM Written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino (Maria Russo/Minedition, $18.99)
This plain-spoken, visually emotive book about the grind of being housebound ends with a door opening onto an outside world that is both exhilarating and humbling.
MILO IMAGINES THE WORLD Written by Matt de la Peña Illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam, $18.99)
At his subway stop, a boy who’s been drawing assumptions about other riders’ lives rethinks his sketches. Is the kid he put in a castle visiting his mother in prison, too?
NICKY & VERA A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued Written and illustrated by Peter Sís (Norton, $19.95)
This child’s-eye tribute explores the fates that led Nicholas Winton to cross paths with a young girl he saved from the Nazis.
THE ROCK FROM THE SKY Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, $18.99)
Hilariously dark, this beautiful, spare, deadpan book featuring three hat-wearing animals recalls “Waiting for Godot.”
SOUL FOOD SUNDAY Written by Winsome Bingham Illustrated by C.G. Esperanza (Abrams, $17.99)
Bingham’s richly real conversational poetry and Esperanza’s vibrant, kinetic oil-paint illustrations bring a sprawling, high-energy extended family gathering to life.
UNSPEAKABLE The Tulsa Race Massacre Written by Carole Boston Weatherford Illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Carolrhoda, $17.99)
This elegy to a flourishing African American enclave in Tulsa, Okla., where the late Cooper was raised, offers a haunting peek behind the Jim Crow curtain.
WATERCRESS Written by Andrea Wang Illustrated by Jason Chin (Neal Porter/Holiday House, $18.99)
Combining gut-wrenching realism with dreamlike panoramas, Chin’s art perfectly illustrates Wang’s movingly dichotomous tale of Chinese American identity.
WE ALL PLAY Written and illustrated by Julie Flett (Greystone Kids, $17.95)
The Cree-Métis Flett pairs rhythmic alliterative verse about animals at play with repeating silhouettes of frolicking children to celebrate our interconnectedness.
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY Written by Kate DiCamillo Illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick, $19.99)
DiCamillo’s novel, about a young girl hunted by a medieval king because of a prophecy that she will unseat him, eloquently champions the power to love and be loved.
FRANKIE & BUG By Gayle Forman (Aladdin, $17.99)
Bug (short for Beatrice) and the visiting trans nephew of an upstairs neighbor bond over their fascination with a serial murder case in this coming-of-age story set in late-1980s Venice Beach, Calif.
THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain Written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Candlewick, $16.99)
In Yelchin’s poignant memoir of his Soviet boyhood, young Yevgeny steals the family pencil every night and covers the underside of the dining table with secret drawings, his escape from an unfriendly world.
GONE TO THE WOODS Surviving a Lost Childhood By Gary Paulsen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.99)
The late Paulsen’s memoir is so rife with trauma he calls himself “the boy,” but thanks to relatives in Minnesota’s North Woods with whom he briefly took refuge, it’s a survival tale.
KALEIDOSCOPE Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, $19.99)
Each of these weirdly wondrous stories gets two pieces of stunning art: an image of shapes broken into crystalline forms plus the scene that’s being refracted.
LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS Written by Betsy Bird Illustrated by David Small (Knopf, $16.99)
A 1920s farm girl sets her sights on ostrich-riding as her ticket out of small-town U.S.A. in this charming, wacky novel.
THE MANY MEANINGS OF MEILAN By Andrea Wang (Kokila, $17.99)
When the principal calls her Melanie, Wang’s heroine adopts three of her Mandarin name’s homophones: Mist, who can be invisible; Basket, carrier of her parents’ dreams; and Blue, her truest self.
NEVERFORGOTTEN Written by Alejandra Algorta Illustrated by Iván Rickenmann Translated by Aida Salazar (Levine Querido, $17.99)
This novella, about a Colombian boy with a near-mythical cycling talent who one day forgets how to pedal, is transformative.
GILDED By Marissa Meyer (Feiwel & Friends, $19.99)
Meyer recasts the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” as a dark fantasy in which “the miller’s daughter” finally gets a name and the power that comes with it.
HIMAWARI HOUSE By Harmony Becker (First Second, $24.99)
Becker blends intricate illustrations and playful sketches in this warmhearted graphic novel about three young women studying abroad together in Japan.
IN THE WILD LIGHT By Jeff Zentner (Crown, $17.99)
A girl science star and a boy poet leave fraught home lives in Tennessee for a Connecticut prep school in this novel of friendship, loss, kind strangers and blind love.
RUN Book One Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin Illustrated by L. Fury with Nate Powell (Abrams ComicArts, $24.99)
This timely, arresting graphic memoir series, mostly completed before the congressman and civil rights leader’s death, picks up where the trilogy “March” left off.
THE TRUE STORY OF A MOUSE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR IT Written by Ana Cristina Herreros Illustrated by Violeta Lópiz Translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts (Unruly/Enchanted Lion, $22.95)
With spare prose and evocative illustrations, a traditional Spanish folk tale about the marriage of a mouse to a kitten who becomes a monstrous cat is transformed into a powerful parable of domestic abuse.
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