Truly good children’s books engage and entertain while also helping young readers come to understand themselves and the complicated world they live in. The best picture, middle grade and young adult books of 2021 deftly rise to that challenge, telling stories about identity, allyship and more. Amber McBride’s Me (Moth) confronts the thorny history of racism and oppression in the United States. Donna Barba Higuera’s The Last Cuentista asks kids to consider the danger of adopting dogmatic beliefs without questioning authority figures. Jon Klassen’s The Rock From the Sky places his characters in imminent danger and dares them to find their way out of it.
Here, TIME and TIME for Kids select the best children’s and young adult books published this year, listed in order of publisher recommended age, from youngest to oldest.
Have You Seen Gordon?, Adam Jay Epstein, Illustrated by Ruth Chan
Have You Seen Gordon? at first appears to be a classic search-and-find book, with intricate illustrations of a busy city street and a crowded beach. Within them, young readers are asked to locate a purple tapir named Gordon, but the plot soon diverges from the activity-book formula. At the amusement park, rather than hiding in the crowd, Gordon stands in an open expanse of grass. Turn the page, and he’s donned a pink, polka-dotted hat with a propeller on top. It turns out Gordon doesn’t want to hide—he wants to stand out! The narrator agrees to find someone new to search for and settles on a rhinoceros named Jane. But Jane is shy and flees each spread. Finally, Gordon has an idea: What if we only find those who want to be found? This book will keep kids engaged and entertained—but it also offers valuable lessons about boundaries and consent.
The Rock From the Sky, Jon Klassen
The Rock From the Sky, the latest from beloved children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen, is a collection of stories for early readers set in a minimalist gray-green watercolor landscape, featuring a turtle, a snake and a sort of armadillo-mole hybrid. In the first story, a giant rock is falling from the sky, barreling toward the unknowing creatures. On the ground, they have a feeling that something might be wrong, but are too preoccupied with petty interpersonal dramas to do much about it. The real-world implications of this tale are too numerous to list—suffice it to say, it’s a perfect story for our times.
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, Illustrated by Nikkolas Smith
A Black American child is asked to create a family tree at school but can’t finish the assignment—she’s ashamed that she can only trace three generations who lived in the U.S. To reassure the child, her grandmother shares the story of their ancestors: “They say our people were born on the water, but our people had a home, a place, a land before they were sold.” They had happy lives in Africa, she says. The book goes on to describe the Middle Passage in frank—but never graphic—detail, and explains that those who survived the dangerous journey on slave ships resisted their captors in ways big and small: “For 250 years, the biggest resistance of all was that the people kept living.” This collection of poems written by Newbery honoree Renée Watson and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of the 1619 Project, tells an origin story for Black Americans rooted in perseverance and hope.
Too Bright to See, Kyle Lukoff
It’s the summer before middle school, and Bug is mourning the death of a beloved uncle, a former New York City drag queen who may now be haunting the family’s house in rural Vermont. This summer, Bug also has to contend with a friend named Moira, who is determined to give Bug a girly makeover before they go to their new school in the fall. As Bug deals with the ghost and Moira’s vanity project, something starts to click: Bug is trans, and he starts using male pronouns. This coming-of-age story, a finalist for the National Book Award, is a tender portrayal of a kid who is just coming to understand who he is.
The Legend of Auntie Po, Shing Yin Khor
In a late 19th-century logging camp in the Sierra Nevada, a 13-year-old girl named Mei, the daughter of the man who runs the camp’s kitchen, spins tall tales to entertain the workers. The heroine of her stories is Po Pan Yin, a Chinese matriarch who is clearly inspired by Paul Bunyan. Meanwhile, in the real world, Mei and her family live in the shadow of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers. This graphic novel, a National Book Award finalist, addresses timeless issues surrounding discrimination and allyship through historical fiction. Simple illustrations are colored with watercolor, giving the book a homespun feel.
The Last Cuentista, Donna Barba Higuera
It’s the year 2061 and a comet is headed for earth. A select few, including Petra, her brother and their scientist parents, have the opportunity to travel to Sagan, a planet that can support life. The catch: the trip will take 380 years. To get there, they will be put into stasis and tended to by several generations of people called Monitors. But when Petra finally wakes, she learns that in the intervening centuries the Monitors have formed a menacing group called the Collective and erased the memories of the sleeping passengers. Due to a glitch, Petra’s memory is still intact, and she works to spark the minds of her fellow passengers by telling them her grandmother’s Mexican folk tales. This science-fiction story from author Donna Barba Higuera, whose first novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, was a Pura Belpré honoree, teaches young readers about the danger of dogma and the power of storytelling.
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood, Gary Paulsen
Literary legend Gary Paulsen has inspired generations of adventurers with his stories about survival and exploration in the wilderness. In Gone to the Woods, published 10 months before Paulsen’s death in October, he tells his own boyhood survival story. The memoir details a lone train journey, when he was 5 years old, to his aunt and uncle’s Minnesota farm; a trip to the Philippines to visit his father in the wake of World War II, where Paulsen witnessed brutal killings; and his teenage enlistment in the military. The raw story of grit and determination will inspire both established Paulsen fans and those new to his work.
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry, Paula Yoo
It’s 1982, and the auto industry is reeling because of competition from Japanese car manufacturers. Anti-Asian-American sentiment simmers across the country, but especially in Detroit. It’s there that, one night, autoworker Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz get into a bar fight with 27-year-old Chinese American Vincent Chin and beat the young man to death with a baseball bat. They eventually plead guilty to manslaughter charges, but their lenient sentence—a $3,000 fine and three years’ probation—sparks outrage in the AAPI community and inspires an outpouring of activism that eventually leads to a federal civil rights trial. Paula Yoo’s searing account, which was longlisted for a National Book Award, reexamines this famous case using court transcripts, news accounts and interviews with key participants, many of whom spoke on the record for the first time.
Me (Moth), Amber McBride
Moth was a Juilliard-bound dancer with loving parents, until a car accident took their lives. Now, she’s living in the suburbs with survivor’s guilt and her grieving aunt, who has developed a reliance on alcohol. When Moth meets Sani, a Navajo musician who is dealing with depression, the two instantly connect, and the teenagers embark on a road trip to visit Sani’s father in Navajo Nation. As they travel across the South, they stop at national monuments to pay respects to the ghosts of their ancestors, who suffered many cruelties as Native and Black Americans. This book-in-verse, a National Book Award finalist, is part road-trip love story, part history lesson and part land acknowledgment.
Firekeeper’s Daughter, Angeline Boulley
Daunis, a biracial 18-year-old, doesn’t quite feel like she belongs with the family of her Anishinaabe father or with her mother’s wealthy white relatives. She’s determined to escape her hometown and start fresh, but she soon finds herself wrapped up in something she never expected: Daunis witnesses a murder and is called to assist the police with their investigation. This firecracker of a novel, which debuted on the bestseller list and has been optioned for television by the Obamas’ production company, reads like a crime thriller while also upending many of the assumptions about policing that form the backbone of that genre. Author Angeline Boulley, a registered member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, carefully explores some of the darker traumas that have plagued Native communities to tell a story rooted in her respect for their culture.
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