The picture books of 2021 have been beautiful, funny, emotional, and important — sometimes all within the same book. A few years ago, I started trying to read and buy more recently published picture books. I studied picture books in my master’s program about writing for children. I read them with my young students and the children of friends and family. And I’d always gravitated towards classic picture books I remembered from my childhood. Ones that had been published when I was a kid, or even when my mom was a kid.
I still love those books. But I started thinking about how if everyone only read and bought classic picture books, there would be no new classics to add into the rotation moving forward. The lack of diversity in classic picture books also bothered me. I started trying to support currently writing and publishing picture book authors and illustrators. And wow, there are so many beautiful (in every sense of the word) picture books that come out every year. The picture books from 2021 are no exception. From informational nonfiction picture books about Black and Native American history to books about accepting our emotions, celebrating our family heritage, or just being silly, this year’s picture books have been amazing. So when you are picking out books to give as holiday gifts or bringing home something to read from the library, I hope you’ll consider supporting 2021 picture books. Maybe even one from this list!
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, and Nikkolas Smith
The 1619 Project created a picture book in verse to help children reflect on the consequences of slavery and Black history in the United States. The book begins with a child trying to complete a family tree project at school. Her grandmother explains why she can only trace her family back three generations. She tells the story of their ancestors being stolen by white slave traders and brought to America in 1619. But she also describes how even though they can’t trace their family tree further back, they have a history that predates slavery back in West Africa. The lyrical poems and beautiful illustrations move through over 400 years of Black history. One of the most important 2021 picture books to read this year!
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman and Loren Long
A young girl leads a cast of characters on a musical journey to make change in their community. This rhythmic picture book in verse is from poet and activist Amanda Gorman. It is a celebration of big and small changes that can happen to make the world a better place.
Chez Bob by Bob Shea
Bob the alligator hatches a dastardly plan to lure small birds near him by pretending his snout is restaurant that serves only best birdseed. At first, it seems like the plan is working. Birds start to attend Chez Bob from all over the world. But Bob keeps forgetting one thing: to eat his bird customers. Is he forgetting or is his inconvenient conscious getting in the way? I loved the what Shea built suspense about if Bob was going to eat the adorable birds throughout the story. And the alligator’s sarcastic, wry sense of humor had me laughing out loud!
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho
An Asian American girl begins noticing how her eyes are different from her classmates. She thinks about how they are similar to different members of her family, from her Mama to her little sister to her Amah. She thinks of how different eyes are beautiful and what eyes can convey about a person. A meaningful book with a message of claiming your own beauty.
Jenny Mei Is Sad by Tracy Subisak
This simply illustrated book delves into some important emotional lessons. It’s okay to be sad. And, perhaps most importantly closing out year two of the pandemic, it’s okay for your friends to be sad. The narrator describes how even when her friend Jenny smiles and laughs she can be sad. She also lists ways she can support her friend with popsicles and games of kick the rock without forcing Jenny out of her emotion. A complex book with a beautiful, timely message.
Keeping the City Going by Brian Floca
While most adults might not be ready to read a book about the pandemic, as a teacher, I think children are hungry for stories that make sense of this confusing, traumatic time. This story looks at all the essential workers who kept cities going throughout the early days of COVID-19. From paramedics to grocery store clerks to post office workers, these detailed illustrations explain and celebrate frontline workers.
Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl
This book might be the definition of cottagecore. It is also long, really four picture books in one with a new section for each season. Little Witch Hazel is a tiny witch who lives in the forest and helps plants and animals. Some of her adventures include saving an orphaned egg, healing forest creatures during her house calls, and solving mysteries. But the true test of friendship occurs when Hazel needs help. Will she be able to get the help she needs in time? Not only is this a sweet and intricately illustrated book, it also features a fat main character whose weight is never mentioned. We love to see it!
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld
This charming picture book twists fairytale conventions to tell the story of two siblings on a quest to save each other and return home. They face a myriad of adventures on this quest, from a magic pudding to the queen of the mushrooms. The tone of the book, from the wording to the illustrations feels both friendly and slightly ominous. But it is the family devotion between the siblings, and their parents, that stands out as particularly heartwarming in this magical tale.
The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi and Lorena Alvarez
This rhyming, motivational picture book tackles the lesson of perseverance. It promotes trying new things and letting yourself fail along the way. With bright colorful, illustrations and an inspirational message, this 2021 picture book is a great substitute for Dr. Seuss’s popular Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
The Midnight Club by Shane Goth and Yong Ling Kang
The midnight club is a celebration of siblings — specifically sisters. So it was particularly poised to steal my heart! In the first official meeting of the Midnight Club, Milly wakes up her big sister, Becca, at exactly 12 a.m. They go on adventures around the house, from playing with their cat to eating their dad’s jelly beans. Maybe they’ll get caught. Maybe they won’t. Either way, it will have been worth it.
A New Day by Brad Meltzer and Dan Santat
Sunday has had enough! She is tired of being a day and doesn’t want to do it anymore. So when she quits the calendar the other days hold auditions for a new day to join their team. They are hoping for someone peaceful and chill to take Sunday’s place. Instead days like Funday, Burpday, and Acrobaturday show up. Then they get even sillier with SnowmenInABlizzardEatingMarshmallowsDay or MonstersWhoResembleJellyfishDay. The days don’t know who to pick, when a little girl shows up with a present to thank Sunday. A little appreciation goes a long way, and Sunday decides not to leave the calendar after all.
The Rock From the Sky by Jon Klassen
This is another long picture book, at 96 pages. Even though this would make for a prolonged bedtime story, I am here for it. These five illustrated chapters tell the story of small hat-wearing animals, like Turtle and Armadillo, all standing in the same spot. A spot that might — or might not — have a giant rock hurtling towards it as they speak. The suspense Klassen creates from page to page is wonderful. And the twist at the end made me laugh out loud. If you or your favorite young readers are fans of Klassen’s Hat Trilogy, this longer picture book is not to be missed!
Time to Recharge Harper by Kelly Leigh Miller
A nap time book that emphasizes the importance of rest through a quirky robot! With cheerful illustrations, we learn about Harper, a robot who never wants to recharge his battery. Why would he when being plugged into the wall means missing out on all the fun activities in his classroom? But as his battery begins to run low, Harper starts slurring his speech and getting grumpy. Maybe taking a rest and recharging his batteries is a good idea after all.
The Tree In Me by Corinna Luyken
A poetic and metaphorical exploration on the similarities between humans and trees. Trees and humans can stand up strong. We can also both be flexible and bend in the wind so we don’t break. And the similarities don’t end there. Besides the beautiful, intricate illustrations, I love how this book emphasized the connections humans have to the natural world. This book felt like a pep talk and a big hug from Mother Nature at the same time.
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper
For too long American history has ignored the Tulsa Race Massacre. This picture book, with frankly stunning illustrations, sensitively tells the story of the racial violence that occurred in 1921 when a white mob attacked a prosperous Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The story manages to sensitively describe this event while not shying away from the horror. The book ends with the injustice of the ways this was swept under the rug, with no serious investigation for over 75 years and little mention in history books. It acts as both a memorial and a call to action.
Vampenguin by Lucy Ruth Cummings
A giggle-inducing picture book about a very creative switcheroo! When a vampire family visits the zoo, baby Dracula doesn’t want to just look at the penguins. He sneaks into their cage and spends the day living like a penguin. To take his place, a baby penguin goes into his stroller. His parents don’t even notice all day at the zoo. Will they discover the exchange before it’s time to go home?
Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin
A young girl in Ohio learns about her family’s history in China when her parents pull over on the side of the road to collect watercress. At first, the girl is embarrassed and worries one of the cars driving by will recognize her family foraging for food in the mud. But her attitude shifts when her mother describes growing up with extreme food scarcity in China. Based on an autobiographical story, this picture book has a beautiful message told with effective, simple language and gorgeous illustrations.
We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know: by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac
The book provides a history of what happened to the Native Nations after their treaties with the U.S. government ended in 1871. The frame for this information is presentations being given for Indigenous People’s Day at a Native American school. The book doesn’t shy away from hard truths and the dark history of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans. But it also highlights the strengths of the Native community as it discusses the past, present, and future for Native Americans.
What Happened to You by James Catchpole and Karen George
A book that directly addresses how to talk to a disabled child from a disabled author. Joe wants friends to play with, but every kid on the playground keeps asking him personal questions about what happened to his leg. He does not want to answer. He just wants to play pirates. Eventually, one kid notices that Joe feels uncomfortable about the questions and joins his pirate game. This is an important conversation starter about setting boundaries and respecting them, too.
What If, Pig? by Linzie Hunter
Pig is a jolly, generous, outgoing friend to everyone. But he’s keeping a secret from all his companions. He’s a big time worrier. Before throwing a party, he has an attack of the what ifs. What if a lion eats the invitations…or the guests? Or what if no one comes? What if none of his friends really like him at all? Mouse helps pig disrupt his anxiety spiral and think about all the good what ifs. This book accepts worries as a normal part of life while showing some strategies using imagination and optimism to feel better. And readers will find the brightly colored animal characters relatable and so cute!
There are so many 2021 picture books to enjoy now that we are approaching the end of the year. I hope you will find a bunch of 2021 picture books to read in your favorite bookstore or library. And if you are giving books as gifts this year, consider supporting some recently published authors along with the classics!