A lot of excellent picture books are releasing in 2021, from books that celebrate identity to ones that address the COVID-19 pandemic to silly books about poop. There’s a picture book for every type of reader, and I had trouble picking only 25. I’m especially happy to see the number of #OwnVoices children’s books being released this year that celebrate identity. However, there could still be more, especially books with disabled characters and Native American characters.
As a parent, I know how boring it can get to read the same books again and again, and I crave new picture books to share and enjoy with my daughter. While rereading is developmentally important, there’s no reason not to freshen up the bookshelves with new, inclusive books that tell fun stories, and these 25 picture books from 2021 are my favorites. I’ve listed them in order of publication.
25 Picture Books From 2021
The Boy Who Loved Everyone by Jane Porter and Maisie Paradise Shearring
It’s the first day of preschool, and excited little Dimitri can’t wait to hug everyone and tell them how much he loves them. But when the other classmates in pre-k don’t return his affections, he becomes sad and doesn’t want to return to pre-K. His mother tells him that everyone shows their love differently, and on their walk to school that morning, she shows him how feeding the cats and birds is an act of love and waving hello and smiling at a friend. Not everyone wants a hug, and people show their love differently. At school that day, Dimitri sees love everywhere. This is such a tender and sweet picture book.
Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham
This stunning picture book captures the moment the world went from outside (pre-pandemic) to inside (post-pandemic). The illustrations follow a black cat as it explores the world after the pandemic, from empty streets to busy hospital staff to zoom classes and phone calls with family. It’s about waiting, and growing while we wait, and eventually reuniting with loved ones. Of all the books published about the COVID-19 pandemic, this is my favorite. It will make you cry but also fill you with hope, and for my 3-year-old, there’s a cat, so she’s all over reading it.
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners is a gorgeous and lyrical statement of self-love that celebrates Asian-shaped eyes and family heritage. “I have eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea,” the child narrator says, just like her mama, amah, and little sister Mei-Mei. The expressiveness in the prose is matched in the illustrations, which depict the glowing happiness of the narrator and her family. The entire book is a work of art, from the vibrant and colorful illustrations to the joyous and poetic prose.
Off to See the Sea by Nikki Grimes and Elizabeth Zunon
The inimitable poet Nikki Grimes pairs up once more with the equally excellent illustrator Elizabeth Zunon in Off to See the Sea, which features the same child as Bedtime for Sweet Creatures. This time, instead of procrastinating about bedtime, the child hides from imminent bathtime, but once in the water, the child has a blast. This fun and whimsical picture book is an excellent read-aloud, and kids will enjoy it whether or not they enjoy bathtime.
Jump at the Sun by Alicia D. Williams and Jacqueline Alcántara
This picture book biography of Zora Neale Hurston depicts her life from childhood telling tall tales to her family to her adulthood writing them. Her mother encouraged her to jump for the sun, and author Alicia D. Williams uses that metaphor to show Zora jumping through the steps to becoming an author. The illustrations are vibrant and lovely, and this is one of the best picture book biographies I’ve read.
Don’t Hug Doug: (He Doesn’t Like It) by Carrie Finison and Daniel Wiseman
This is an adorable and essential picture book about consent. Doug doesn’t like hugs, but that doesn’t mean he dislikes you. Doug explains about consent in catchy, direct prose and the bright, simple illustrations are extremely kid friendly. It’s a fantastic book to read aloud and discuss. This picture book will probably be as helpful for adults as it is for children. Ask before hugging!
A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty and Wendy Leach
A classroom is transformed by small acts of kindness in this simple, sweet, and cleverly illustrated picture book. At the beginning of the book, Wendy Leach illustrates the school and its students in monochromatic shades, but as the book progresses and each student acts kindly toward another, she slowly transforms the students and the school by adding color. By the end of the book, all of the students and the school are in full color. This is such a striking way to capture how simple, kind gestures can spread.
The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer and Mariachiara Di Giorgio
This stunningly illustrated wordless picture book depicts a fair at night. Forest creatures sneak into the fair once the humans are away and ride the carousel, eat cotton candy, and go for a spin on a roller coaster. The dark and vivid illustrations create a hidden and magical world where animals intersect with the human world. Children will love the whimsical and imaginative story the illustrators create.
I am a Bird by Hope Lim and Hyewon Yum
A little girl takes a bike ride to school with her daddy every morning and pretends she’s a bird. Their path intersects with a stern older woman, who never smiles at the little girl. As the days pass, and the woman continues to never smile at the girl’s bird song, the girl begins to feel less like a bird and stops cawing. Then one morning, she and her daddy are running late, and they spot the woman in the park, feeding the birds and speaking to them. The little girl realizes they’re both birds, and she begins cawing again. This is a delightful read, from the simple and sweet story to the brightly detailed and beautiful color pencil illustrations.
Standing on Her Shoulders by Monica Clark-Robinson and Laura Freeman
Standing on Her Shoulders is a poetic ode to the women who have paved the way for other women, from our mothers and grandmothers to political leaders and artistic legends. The back of the book contains mini-biographies of the women from the story, and the vivid illustrations are beautiful. This is the kind of book readers will want to hang on to as a keepsake, as well as read and gift to all the young girls in their life.
Sam’s First Word by Bea Birdsong and Holly Hatam
Sam can do many things, but she has yet to say her first word. Friends and family encourage her to speak their name as her first word, but instead of “Nana” or “Mama” or “Mr. Theotopolous,” Sam says “Poop.” That’s right, poop. This book is HILARIOUS. It gets big belly laughs from my 3-year-old. The bright illustrations with a cute little pup and big-eyed characters are as playful and engaging as the text.
Arno and His Horse by Jane Godwin and Felicita Sala (Scribble; March 2)
Arno has a very special horse carved by his grandfather that he brings everywhere. When he loses the horse, all the children in the town help him look for it, but they can’t find it anywhere. That night, Arno dreams of his grandfather and how he used to ride horses before he became too ill, and the dream reminds him of where he’d lost the carved horse. This is such a sweet story about the special bond many children form with an object and the special bond between a grandfather and a grandchild. The rich illustrations are as lovely as the story.
Zonia’s Rain Forest by Juana Martinez-Neal (Candlewick; March 30)
This vibrant and gorgeously illustrated picture book by award-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal tells the story of Zonia’s — an Asháninka girl — joyful play in her Peruvian rain forest home. She greets a sloth family, says hello to an anteater, and chases a jaguar. But then she finds an area where the rain forest’s trees have all been cut down, and she runs home to her mama, scared. How can she help the rain forest?
Too Crowded by Lena Podesta (Sourcebooks; April 6)
This hilarious picture book is about a goldfish whose tank is too crowded, so the fish decides to find a more spacious home. A bird’s nest is too noisy, and the cat’s house is too dangerous. Then the goldfish meets a turtle who lets the fish know it has to live in the water. Suddenly, the fish realizes it can’t breathe! In the end, the fish realizes it didn’t need a bigger home but a friend to share it with. This is such a fun book to read to little ones. The art and illustrations are bold and colorful, and the text print is a great size for little readers.
What Happened to YOU? by James Catchpole and Karen George (Faber & Faber; April 6)
Joe is playing pirates. He’s also being bothered by all the other children, who keep asking him, “What happened to you?” because Joe has one leg. But Joe doesn’t want to tell that story, he wants to play, and once the children realize how much fun Joe’s game could be, they all join in and play pirates. This is an adorably illustrated picture book with such an important story. Disabled kids and adults don’t need to explain their disability to anyone, and non-disabled folk need to accept that, and in doing so, they may find a friend that’s a lot of fun to play with. This is an #OwnVoices story based on the author’s childhood.
Hello, Rain! by Kyo MacLear and Chris Turnham (Chronicle; April 13)
This picture book is a lyrical and playful ode to rain showers with rhythmic prose that drip drops from the tongue like raindrops. A little girl and her dog watch the rain from a window, then get ready to splash and play and get thoroughly soaked in the deluge outside. The bold illustrations perfectly capture the girl’s joy and the feeling of a rain shower and the wet natural wonders it leaves behind. This is a blast to read for every child and adult who sees a puddle and simply must splash in it.
We Are Still Here by Traci Sorell and Frane Lessac (Charlesbridge; April 20)
This companion book to We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga describes important moments in Native American history that are too often skipped in the classroom, from the Indian New Deal to forced assimilation and tribal activism. After each section, author Traci Sorrell writes, “We are still here,” a refrain that reminds readers that Native Americans have both an important history and an important present. While this book is a little denser than other books on this list, younger children will enjoy its colorful illustrations, and it’s an important book to read.
Wren by Katrina Lehman and Sophie Beer (Scribble; May 4)
Wren does not like noise. Unfortunately for Wren, he has five siblings, and one of them is a newborn. Desperate for some quiet, Wren moves in with his grandparents in the country, and while at first, he enjoys the quiet, he misses his family, even his noisy baby sister. A surprise awaits him when he comes back home, for his extremely fussy baby sister quiets right down when held by her quiet and calm older brother. Lehman’s story is so sweet and realistic and often funny, and Beer’s detailed illustrations can provide endless enjoyment for children. There’s always something fun to look at in the background, and everyone’s expressions, including the baby’s, are so on point.
Wishes by Mượn Thị Văn and Victo Ngai (Orchard; May 4)
Inspired by real events in author Mượn Thị Văn’s life, Wishes tells the story of a Vietnamese family journeying to a new country from a little girl’s perspective. The simple, lyrical prose paired with Victo Ngai’s stunning and intricate illustrations create a memorable story of hope and survival. I suspect this picture book will win some awards.
Line and Scribble by Debora Vogrig and Pia Valentinis (Chronicle; May 11)
This innovative picture book juxtaposes Line’s orderly illustrations with Scribble’s wild meanderings. Line “goes straight on her way” while Scribble “wanders.” I love the simple and direct black lines with pops of red. The playful art and prose make this a pleasure to read for both children and adults.
Pride Puppy by Robin Stevenson and Julie McLaughlin (Orca; May 11)
This rhyming alphabet book features an intentionally non-gendered family going to a Pride Day celebration with their doggy, who runs away. As they look all around for their excited and mischievous dog, they see all sorts of people and fun activities. The inclusive illustrations are vibrant and fun, with lots of things for young children to engage with in the background, like a sloth on a school bus for the letter S. The rhyming text makes it a super fun read-aloud.
We All Play by Julie Flett (Greystone; May 25)
This gorgeous and simple picture book depicts animals at play, from a snake slipping and slithering through the grass to a baby bear wiggling and wobbling, and in between children play: “We play too! / kimêtawânaw mîna.” Flett uses Cree and English every time the children play, and the back of the book has a Cree glossary of animal names. The bold and simple illustrations and short but dynamic text make this a fantastic book for very young readers.
Bodies Are Cool By Tyler Feder (Dial Books; June 1)
Tyler Feder follows up her graphic memoir Dancing at the Pity Party with this rhythmic celebration of all types of bodies: “Freckled bodies, dotted bodies, rosy-patched or speckled bodies, dark-skin-swirled-with-light-skin bodies, bodies are cool!” The illustrations are an absolute joy, depicting all different body types, skin colors, abilities, and ages. Kids will love the sing-song prose, and adults will enjoy reading it aloud. I can’t wait to pick up my own copy of this inclusive and delightful picture book.
Poem in My Pocket by Chris Tougas and Josée Bisaillon (Kids Can Press; June 1)
A child writes the perfect poem and sticks it in her pocket. But when the pocket rips, the words from her poem scatter everywhere, creating new poems and phrases and words scattered everywhere for her to find. This lyrical celebration of poetry is a perfect book for aspiring young poets. The vivid illustrations capture the frantic word search and have lots of fun things in the background for children to find, like a chicken riding a scooter.
Aaron Slater, Illustrator by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts (Abrams Books for Young Readers; November 2)
A new Questioneers picture book! These picture books are fantastic read-alouds featuring children from the same classroom with big aspirations. Aaron Slater wants to write stories one day, but he struggles with reading and writing. All the words look like squiggles to him. He worries he’ll never be able to tell stories, but then inspiration hits. The blurb doesn’t tell me what that inspiration is, but I’m hazarding a guess that he realizes he can tell stories through his illustrations. I love this book series and can’t wait to add this one to our collection.