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Favorite Children's Books of 2021

As I started to put together lists of my favorite books this year, I realized that I hadn’t put together a Children’s Book list in 2020. I suppose there are quite a few reasons for that, the most prescient being that we were in the throes of a pandemic, I was running a bookstore out of my basement, and I had two small children running around.

This year, all of those things are still true, but I’m prioritizing this list in a different way. Whether you have children in your life or not, I firmly believe that we should all be reading children’s books. Not only is it magical to sit down and page through beautifully illustrated children’s books, but chapter books for children are just as full of treasures. They distill down the important things we should have learned by now: kindness, empathy, patience, among others, and present them as a story; a perfect example of why we all love stories and why we often learn the most when we slow down and listen.

Thank goodness for children’s books.


Picture Books

Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson come together with yet another picture book masterpiece. This is my favorite of theirs so far. Milo and his sister board the subway. As a reader, it’s not clear where they are going, but it is clear that Milo feels nervous, anxious to get to where they are going. To keep his mind off of their destination, he begins to draw. He looks at the people around him on the train and draws their lives. I won’t spoil the end of this book for you, but it’s a masterclass in upending stereotypes and working against expectation. 

 

Making a Baby by Rachel Greener, illustrated by Clare Owen

As promised on the sticker, this is “An INCLUSIVE Guide to How Every Family Begins.” 

My daughter is five, and we have a relatively “open door” policy when it comes to books. She grabbed this book off of the stack, so we sat down together and read it. I’m so glad we did. This is an honest book about how babies are made, how families are made, and I love it so much. The illustrations are lovely and informative and I’m always thankful when a book gives me language for talking through challenging subjects. I would 100% recommend this for curious kids and sort of nervous parents who want to ensure that their children are given an inclusive and realistic portrait of what makes a family.

 

Sunday Funday in Koreatown written and illustrated by Aram Kim

I’ve loved Aram Kim’s Yoomi the Kitty series since No Kimchi for Me! and Sunday Funday in Koreatown is the most wonderful addition to Yoomi’s story. It’s all about expectations and trying to enjoy the thing that’s right in front of you - a great reminder for all of us. 

Plus, I love a book with great food writing and Sunday Funday in Koreatown is just that. I’m eager to try kimbap and patbingsoo!

 

The Rock from the Sky written and illustrated by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen’s newest picture book proves that he never disappoints. His beautiful, spare, and engaging illustrations are perfectly paired with the story of some animals waiting for a rock to fall from the sky. And while the plot may sound familiar, Klassen injects so much humor into the story that it never feels well-run. Klassen isn’t afraid to fill his stories with tough questions about ethics, acknowledging that children are working through the ways they see the world around them just as much as we are. How do we reconcile the dueling impulses to keep our friends close while still yearning for solitude and self-sufficiency? Love this one!

 

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson

It’s no surprise that Christian Robinson’s vibrant artwork is featured on this list twice. When I saw Nina, I was immediately drawn to the colors and shapes - the life - that makes Robinson’s artwork so special and distinctive. But Traci N. Todd’s words blew me away and left me in tears the first time I read this with my kids. She tells Nina Simone’s story in a raw and honest way that is still accessible for children. This book is a must-read.

 

From the Tops of the Trees by Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She spent the first seven years of her life within its fences. In her memoir, The Latehomecomer, she tells the story of her father taking her up into a tree in order to see the world outside the boundaries of the camp she calls home. In From the Tops of the Trees she tells this story. 

I took my daughter to see Kao Kalia Yang at Owen Park this fall, during the Chippewa Valley Book Festival. It was cold and there wasn’t a large crowd. When Yang got onto the stage, she read this book with such emotion and feeling that I found myself in tears. She is such a generous and special storyteller. She is connected to the people around her whether she’s in an auditorium full of engaged people, or in a small group of children in a park on a cold and windy fall day. The respect she shows all around her is humbling and I’m so grateful to her for sharing her life and stories. 

 

Middle Grade

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

I read this book very early in 2021 and I have been respectfully screaming about it ever since. If there are young readers in your life who love Harry Potter - or, if recent statements from J.K. Rowling make you want to skip her series altogether (I’m pretty squarely in this camp), Amari is exactly the strong, Black, female protagonist you’ve been waiting for. Not only is this an exciting story full of magic and fantasy, but B.B. Alston elegantly and succinctly takes on racial profiling in policing and the way those outdated and violent attitudes infect the rest of our society. I honestly could not put this book down and I am so eagerly awaiting the sequel in May that I just may not make it.

 

The Sea in Winter by Christine Day

The Sea in Winter by Christine Day is such a special and important book. Maisie Cannon is a Makah/Piscataway girl who loves to dance. When she hurts her knee and is unable to participate in her classes and performances, she begins to feel a deep hurt that goes much deeper than her physical pain. Day beautifully and sensitively tells Maisie’s story of subconscious and generational trauma. Her resilience in the face of terrible circumstances is inspiring. The support Maisie receives from her loving family works against the stigmatization of mental health care. This is a must-read for all middle schoolers and the people who care for them.

 

Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley

This year has been really special for me because my daughter and I have started reading chapter books together. She’s five, so I’ve been reading to her, but she’s starting her reading journey and it’s been so exciting to know that she’ll soon be able to read all of these books on her own. Jo Jo Makoons is a wonderful early reader about a spirited and kind Ojibwe girl navigating the ups and downs of school and friendship. Jo Jo is sweet and fun and she loves her kitty and I highly recommend introducing her to the early readers in your life. 

 

Room to Dream by Kelly Yang

Have you been reading along with Mia Tang’s journey? What in the world are you waiting for? Room to Dream is the third book in the Front Desk series and it may or may not be my favorite; I’m not sure it’s possible to choose. After years of hard work at the Calivista Motel, Mia and her parents go back to China to visit family. So much has changed - both for Mia and for her family in China, and Mia has a hard time fitting back into the life that she knew with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Back in the United States, Mia is also having a hard time recognizing the life she’s built. Jason is acting strange and Lupe is too busy with school to help at the motel. Plus, a huge hotel chain is purchasing all of the hotels surrounding Calivista. Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series is so empowering. She has a deep respect for the children she writes for, always presenting the challenges that face her characters with honesty and hope. I love these books so much.

 

Young Adult

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

I just finished this book last week, and honestly, it’s one of my favorite books I’ve read all year. Period. Oh my goodness, it is so good. Firekeeper’s Daughter is such a complex portrait of modern Indigenous life. Daunis, our narrator, is part Ojibwe. She is deeply connected to her tribal roots and family, but that connection is not always honored as her white mother is from the wealthiest family in town, a family who did not approve of her Ojibwe father, and holds racist ideas that deeply wound Daunis. After the death of her uncle - an apparent overdose - it becomes clear that there is deep-seated corruption in her community, as well as a huge influx of methamphetamine infecting her peers. 

I’m still at a loss for how to express the absolute beauty and reverence of this book. The way that Angeline Boulley honors her tribal rituals and traditions while also writing a thriller that takes on the complex relationship between law enforcement and the Indigenous community, the opioid epidemic, plus a love story is mind-blowing at every turn. Firekeeper’s Daughter is just so good.