I have never been fond of literary hit parades. They rarely reflect young readers’ preferences, and books possess endless intrinsic goods that no ‘Best of’ list can account for. Compiled by my predecessor Vicky Smith, our list of 100 picture books that got us through another fraught year isn’t a benchmark of good taste in reading. Rather, it’s a guidepost to the unprecedented future of children’s publishing, a mirror of the industry’s slowly growing inclusivity, and a gateway to the limitless, dynamic landscape of books for young readers. These are some of the gems that captured our imaginations and consoled our hearts in 2021.
This year marked a watershed for Black awareness and brought hopeful if precarious signs of racial progress—Juneteenth became a federal holiday, a historic guilty verdict was handed down in Derek Chauvin’s trial, and Black-authored books flooded bestseller lists thanks to the #BlackoutBestsellerList social media campaign. Picture books bearing witness to the struggle and triumph of the African American experience made a strong showing. We Shall Overcome (Orchard/Scholastic, Dec. 28), Bryan Collier’s celebration of an iconic civil rights anthem, emboldened by stirring paint-and-collage illustrations, thoughtfully traces the wide arc of African American history. In Kirkus Prize finalist Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda, Feb. 1), Carole Boston Weatherford unflinchingly chronicles the racially-motivated destruction of the Greenwood community, once known as “Black Wall Street”; the book’s capstone, however, is the cinematic, sepia-toned art of Floyd Cooper, who sadly died in July. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s When We Say Black Lives Matter (Candlewick, Sept. 7) is a soulful envisioning of Black lives steeped in dignity and regard; the facelessness of the characters may be unsatisfying, but the chalk-and-oil renderings of a maturing Black family feel almost sacramental in their simplicity.
Other picture books provide space and pause for discussing complex and difficult emotions, a theme especially relevant during the stressful and heightened experience of life under lockdown. In Toni Yuli’s Ollie Feels Fine (Little Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Feb. 2), an octopus weathers roller-coaster emotions on a day when “So many things are happening!" (the year 2021 anyone?); readers learn that even seemingly unmanageable feelings are normal and mentionable, and the illustrations play with color symbolism to drive home the message. Jenny Mei Is Sad (Little, Brown, June 15) explores the kaleidoscope of emotions that accompany grief; Tracy Subisak’s touching portrait of the bond between a sad, small Asian girl and her supportive Black best friend reminds readers that friendship goes a long way in helping us buffer difficult times. The Longest Storm (minedition, Aug. 31) is a timely meditation on the complex psychology of human behavior in times of crisis; Dan Yaccarino’s layered account of a White family riding out a literal and emotional storm announces itself like a thunderclap.
Many readers needed a bit of fantasy escapism to buoy their spirits in the midst of so much uncertainty. Enter Moon Pops (Owlkids, Aug. 15), featuring quirky anthropomorphic animals and theatrical 3-D diorama illustrations; in Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner Heena Baek’s reimagining of a traditional Korean folktale (translated from the Korean by Jieun Kiaer), stranger and stranger events unfold when the moon begins to melt on a sweltry summer night. In The Midnight Fair (Candlewick, Feb. 2), Gideon Sterer and Mariachiara Di Giorgio’s visually sumptuous and fully realized caper, animals emerge from the woods at night to enjoy an exhilarating romp in a deserted fairground. Éléonore Douspis concocts an imaginative parable with The Day the Rain Moved In (Groundwood, April 6), translated from the French by Shelley Tanaka; rain mysteriously starts falling inside a small White family’s home (despite the sunny weather outside), slowly transforming it into a jungle, much to their horror and embarrassment, until curious neighbors help them see the beauty and value in being different.
Other books filling out the list highlight the wonders and fragility of nature; important childhood milestones; and the power of creativity and self-expression; or encourage children to discover their potential. Whether sharing stories with a group or settling in for some bedtime reading, make the best of every moment with these books that beg to be savored and reread.
Summer Edward is a young readers’ editor.