The 20 Best Picture Books of 2021
As someone who reads A LOT of picture books each year, there’s something that happens to me as soon as fall hits. It is the painstaking reality that I haven’t shared every single book that I’ve loved throughout the year.
Because I think good books, especially good picture books, deserve to be read. They deserve to be savored and have dust jackets lost. Maybe even a page torn out or spaghetti sauce dripped on the cover.
Books should get used up, inhaled, possibly passed on when your child or children have outgrown them, purchased for loved ones, and many other things. Heck, they can even be conversation starters: Read any good books lately?
So while my review pile has long outgrown our bookshelves, the stacks continue to mount, forming uniform columns along the piano. Consider this annual post my effort to absolve myself of the guilt I often feel for not showcasing every outstanding picture book published in the United States throughout the year.
Narrowing the final selections is always a difficult task, and these books are presented in no particular order. My hope, however, is that some of these brilliant picture books will find a permanent place in your home library.
Paletero Man by Lucky Diaz
It’s the hottest day in Los Angeles, and a young boy grabs his dinero (money) and dashes out the door to find the ice cream cart. Along his way, he passes the tamale man and a flower stand. Korean BBQ wafts through the air, and he passes his friend at the bicycle repair shop, but the boy is bent on finding his beloved Paletero Man.
As he runs, he unknowingly loses his money. Still, he continues on his quest following the sounds of the ringing bell and sing-song Paletero call. What flavor will he get? What about when he discovers his missing money?
This book is a vibrant ode to the Mexican American experience and one that will leave you longing for a delicious frozen treat.
Dear Librarian by Lydia M. Sigwarth
A five-year-old girl leaves her Colorado home and moves with her large family to the Midwest. In Iowa, the family is shuttled from Grandma’s house to Aunt Linda’s to Cousin Alice’s, but none of those places feel like home.
When the little girl goes to the public library with her mom, she discovers a place with books and puppets, games, and plenty of space. And a new friend—the kind librarian.
Originally told as part of a This American Life episode, this picture book is an ode to books, libraries, and the homes we create for ourselves. As a former librarian, I couldn’t leave this heartwarming book off this list.
Bodies are Cool by Tyler Feder
Big bodies, small bodies, hairy bodies, and hairless too. Black, brown, olive, and white skin. Bodies with stretch marks and moles, some with freckles and splotches and scars. Bodies missing limbs and bodies that use chairs; all bodies are cool.
Page after page of this body-positive book joyfully declares the important message for kids of all ages: All bodies are good bodies. A staple for any home library!
Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott
Joyce and Judy are twins. They sleep like spoons together, and their lives are intertwined. Until Joyce starts kindergarten and Judy (who is later diagnosed with Down syndrome) is sent away to a special school for those with learning disabilities.
As the years pass and the visits become harder, Judy finally goes to live with her sister (now grown with a family of her own). In California, Judy finds a new home among fellow artists at Creative Growth Art Center. Here Judy uses natural materials (twigs and twine, yarn and fiber) to create art pieces. She weaves objects into her work and gives it a pat and thumbs-up when it is complete.
Judith Scott outlived her life expectancy by 50 years, and this nonfiction biography comes to life through Melissa Sweet’s signature collage and textured illustrations.
Jenny Mei is Sad by Tracy Subisak
“My friend Jenny Mei is sad. But you might not be able to tell.”
Because even when she’s sad, she shares her orange and makes her classmates laugh. However, other times Jenny Mei rips a classmate’s schoolwork and takes an extended break to talk one-on-one with a listening adult.
On the especially rough days, the girls get popsicles on the way home from school. They kick a rock down the street and spend time together in silence. This sparsely worded book is one for raising more empathic and kind kids.
This Very Tree by Sean Rubin
A tree’s home is in the plaza of two New York buildings. As a city tree, it offers shade and the first signs of spring. The tree did its job well and was in the plaza on the day of the tragedy.
Alone in the dark and hot, the tree waited until finally, they found it. Everything had changed. The noise and smell of the city were different, and so was the limbless tree that was uprooted and sent to a faraway nursery.
As the years passed and the city rebuilt, the tree grew and became strong enough to return to the plaza where it had once lived. And so, the survivor tree still lives as a tribute to hope and peace and the events of September 11th. A true standout of 2021.
It Began With Lemonade by Gideon Sterer
A young entrepreneur, on the first day of summer, assembles a killer lemonade stand. The only problem is the entire block, and her grandma’s block is brimming with kids who already had the exact same idea. So she pushes her lemonade cart out of town.
When the lemonade stand careens down a hill, through the forest, and down to the riverbank, thirsty creatures from the water stop for a drink. Soon the girl’s business is booming. A summertime book that feels fresh year round.
What I Am by Divya Srinivasan
A young girl is questioned: “What are you?” She ruminates on what to say but eventually says nothing. She is a multitude. A girl and a daughter, an Amma (mother) to her stuffed animals, a vegetarian, and an artist. At times she wants the company of friends, and other times she prefers to be alone.
Each page juxtaposes the mix of human emotions that coexist within all of us and that we are more than a simple expression of our race and/or ethnicity. Not only an ode to the Indian American experience (with a thoughtful author’s note) but also a story that resonates with children of all ages. We gave this to my daughter’s elementary school classroom because it’s that good.
How to Apologize by David LaRochelle
“Everyone makes mistakes. Whether you are big or small.”
From falling through a roof or breaking a priceless heirloom to running an unfair campaign, it’s important to recognize when you need to extend an apology. Even when it’s hard.
Apologies can be simple, yet they should always be sincere. Whenever possible, try to fix the mistake and know that it’s never too late to offer a heartfelt apology, because ultimately it will make you, and more importantly, the other person, feel better.
This 2021 publication is such a family-friendly, step-by-step teaching tool for fostering apologizing and forgiveness as a way of life.
How Big is Baby? by Kirsten Hall
Do you (or someone you know) have a bun in the oven? A young girl is excited by the news that her mother is having a baby! Watch a tiny baby grow from the size of a poppy seed to a blueberry, then a pineapple in this new interactive lift-the-flap book.
With nuggets of facts woven into the text, this is a must-have for growing families. We often skip the fact portions with my three-year-old, but those with a broader attention span will appreciate both the story and the marvel of what it takes to grow a baby.
More Than Sunny by Shelley Johannes
A sister and brother wake to a sunny day. Outside they venture to find ducks and muck. Another day and the siblings traipse into the muggy summer, catching bugs and fishing. On a dark rainy day, the duo put on wellies and raincoats undeterred by a little wet. In the autumn, the pair frolic in leaves, and when winter finally arrives, the pair catch ice crystals on their tongues and sled through the cold.
Known for her phenomenal middle-grade series Beatrice Zinker, Johannes’s debut rhyming picture book is equally charming.
A Sled for Gabo by Emma Otheguy
Gabo wants to play in the snow, but his pom-pom hat is too small, and he lacks waterproof boots. But plastic bags over boots and his papa’s yellow hat will do for now.
Once outside, Gabo begins inquiring if any of his adult neighbors have a sled he can borrow; sadly, none of them do. Soon Gabo receives an unexpected gift of a plastic cafeteria tray, but the tray is not a sled, and he feels sad.
When his neighbor’s granddaughter appears, everything seems to shift as she grabs the “sled” and sails down the snowy hill. A marvelous tale of making the most of what we have, changing our perspective, and sharing those precious items we do have with others.
Hurricane by John Rocco
A boy’s dock, out over the lake where the water comes from the sea, is his favorite spot. He can fish or watch minnows, swim, and just be.
One afternoon, as he heads home, he notices the neighbors are boarding their windows, and his parents are quiet at dinner. In bed that night, the wind rages, and rain slashes sideways as a hurricane pummels through his street.
In the morning, storm debris is strewn in the street, and cleanup begins throughout the community. The boy’s beloved dock is gone, and he is determined to rebuild it on his own. However, it turns out that when he gets help from those he had helped earlier, the dock becomes a community place and one that demonstrates strength after a storm.
Don’t miss the informative endpapers and John Rocco’s two other phenomenal books, Blackout, and Blizzard.
Watercress by andrea Wang
As the rusted red car clangs down the road, a Chinese-American family pulls off to the side to gather watercress from a nearby ditch. Together the family collects stringy stems with rounded leaves and muddy roots, gathering them into brown paper bags.
At dinner that night, the watercress is reborn into a garlicky side dish, but the young girl refuses to eat them. The mother then recounts a story of her family’s survival through the great famine, where her brother did not make it.
A story of hardship and family and new memories all woven into one. If there is one book you’re likely to see on list after list this year, this title is it and is absolutely worthy of every accolade.
Sunrise Summer by Matthew SWanson
Doorknobs, batteries, and spark plugs packed, a family fills boxes and coolers ready for their annual summer expedition to Alaska. At the beach, they find pebbles and mud, and the boys chase lemmings on the hill. And this year is the year that the protagonist, a growing girl, gets to help her family anchor poles and drag ropes through the mud.
Being part of the fishing crew means watching the tide and waking at 4:00am to fill nets with salmon. With a note from the entire family, you can bet this book will have you planning a trip to Alaska in no time.
The Smile Shop by Satoshi Kitamura
A small boy jangles his pocket money in his hands. Today is the day that he gets to spend the money he’s saved. But what to buy? The market brims with options. From sweet-smelling pies to a toy boat.
When a skateboarder runs into the boy, his money clinks down the storm drain. Oh no! Dejected and with only one coin left, the boy trudges on. When he spots a SMILE shop, he steps in the door. When he asks to buy a smile, the propriety explains how smiles can really only be exchanged, not bought. Restored to better spirits, the boy shares his smile along his journey home.
A heartfelt message about human connection.
Ten Beautiful Things by Molly Beth Griffin
With a heavy feeling in her stomach and an ache in her heart, a young girl climbs into the back of her grandmother’s car and settles in for a long drive. Grandma offers a solution to break up the monotony of the flat Midwest expanse and ease the burden of a life-changing moment (the girl going to live permanently with her grandma). Let’s find ten beautiful things along our drive.
The two keep a keen eye out for unexpected beauty along the way, from the whirl of a prairie windmill to a broken-down barn. A genuinely heartwarming book about change and finding beauty in difficult circumstances.
House Mouse by Michael Hall
A young mouse, minding her own business and content to live off asparagus, comes across an unattended fire in the flat landscape. So she builds a stove to house the fire. On another morning, she finds a safe place from the fox, where she commences to build a floor to mark the spot where the fox won’t go.
And so the story goes, building and working on creating a home for herself, which she then shares with the company of others. My three-year-old has been obsessed with this seemingly simple tale for the last several months.
The Tree in Me by Corrina Luyken
A young child reaches for an apple, takes a bite, and relishes all the parts that came from that tree. The shade and sun and roots reaching deep, the bark made for climbing, and the crown of leaves and flowers perfect for wearing. The tree inside the child is strong and reaches towards the light. And with the insight of youth, the child notices a tree in its mother too.
Filled with exuberant hues of pink, mustard, cobalt, and black, this metaphorical tale scarce in text still brims with meaning.
A Kid is a Kid is a Kid by Sara O’Leary
A new kid approaches the playground with trepidation, thinking that there are more important things to ask than whether they are a girl/boy. Another kid gets asked why he is small; another why she’s always reading. Twins get asked if they are identical, and another kid gets asked about his daily fashion choices.
Uninspired questions (likely from adults) swirl around the children. Meanwhile, they offer alternative inquiries that they would instead be asked.
And the question that all children love? Well, you’ll have to seek out this thoughtful and wonderfully inclusive book to find out.
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