Best children’s books of 2021
Author-illustrator Raúl the Third and Washington Post reviewers share their picks
As a teen, drawing-obsessed Raúl González hoped that long bus rides to San Diego Comic-Con from his home in El Paso would pay off with a job offer from Marvel or DC Comics. That dream job didn’t materialize, but those trips weren’t a waste. He met a lot of people who shared his passion.
“I learned what it meant to be part of a community,” González said recently from Medford, Mass., where he lives with wife Elaine Bay and their 11-year-old son, Raúl.
Over 25 years, González, known as Raúl the Third, has been a part of several artistic communities: fine arts, teaching, zines and, for the past seven years, children’s publishing. Cathy Camper, whom he met while creating zines, asked him to illustrate a graphic novel she was writing called “Lowriders in Space.”
The book is about three animal characters who love working on cars, especially lowriders — colorfully painted cars that are low to the ground. The setting, a Southwestern town in which conversations flow in English and Spanish, was familiar to González, who grew up in El Paso and nearby Juárez, Mexico, home to his mother’s family. He pulled from childhood images for the illustrations for this and the two Lowriders books that published in 2016 and 2018.
“I always say that a large part of my visual education as an artist came from growing up … at the Mercado Cuauhtémoc,” he said. “I just loved all the intricacies at the booths. How my grandparents set up their wares. … There were all sorts of cool things.”
The market also inspired “¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market,” a picture book that he wrote and illustrated. (Bay, also a professional artist, colored the illustrations.) The book, which follows a wolf and his dog as they interact with market vendors, is packed with details that take several readings to discover. It has been called a Mexican American version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown series. But González said it also reflects his love of cartoons.
“With Vamos I really wanted to be my own cartoon universe but have it be set in the place where I grew up,” he said.
González is on track to create a Vamos universe. Two more picture books have followed — “Let’s Go Eat” and the new “Let’s Cross the Bridge” — as well as an early reader series. Two board books and two more early readers are scheduled to publish next year. An animated television show is in development.
The books offer Mexican American kids a chance to see their culture represented on the pages, but González said he hopes parents and grandparents will read the books and encourage Latinx kids to become the next generation of storytellers.
“My parents never believed that I could become an artist or an illustrator,” he said. “They didn’t know anyone like them who had made it.”
KidsPost asked González and three Washington Post book reviewers to pick five new kids books they recommend this holiday season.
“The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess,” by Tom Gauld
(Neal Porter, ages 4 to 8)
In Tom Gauld’s debut picture book a king and a queen want nothing more than to have children, so an inventor and a green-skinned witch make them a wooden robot and a princess that turns into a log when she falls asleep. The intricately etched drawings tell an epic story of true love, friendship and the lengths one would travel to be reunited with a loved one. This funny and heartfelt book is a wonderful introduction to the language of cartooning for kids who before long will be devouring graphic novels like candy.
“Bright Star,” by Yuyi Morales
(Neal Porter, ages 4 to 8)
A scar across the desert landscape in the form of a wall threatens the life of a curious fawn and its human companions as they migrate north. This book is beautiful to behold, and every spread is magically rendered with bright colors, embroidered text and the desert critters that live in the borderlands. Morales reminds her readers that all humans and life are important and that we can dream a better future into existence for all who live here.
“Old Boat,” by Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey
(Norton, ages 6 to 8)
I can’t help but think of my son listening to my dad share stories about his rings and how they connect us to our great-great-grandparents whenever I read a book by the Pumphrey brothers. On the Old Boat a grandson learns the old ways of connecting to the sea from his grandfather, with every passing page years go by and little by little the effects of pollution begin to affect the world they inhabit. Created with stamps, the Pumphrey book beautifully weaves an origin story of a fisherman reborn to battle the pollution that has overtaken their shores and in the process asks us to reflect on our wasteful habits.
“¡¡Manu!!,” by Kelly Fernández
(Graphix, ages 8 to 12)
Manu isn’t like the other Brujas at her all-girls magical school, she is mischievous and so much better at casting spells than the rest of her classmates — plus she has a dark and mysterious origin! Fernández, an incredibly adept cartoonist, fills her pages with hilarious gags, rebellious children and a main character who has to come to terms with her true self before she can truly excel. I hope that we get to see future volumes in this exciting and new graphic novel.
“I Will!,” by Juana Medina
(Versify, ages 4 to 7)
It seems that lately we all need reminders how to behave as decent human beings, and our children absolutely need positive reinforcements as they begin to reenter everyday life after nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic. Medina simply and very effectively gives us daily affirmations that can go a long way toward setting us on the path to living a better day, week and life.
“Black Boy Joy,” edited by Kwame Mbalia
(Delacorte, ages 8 to 12)
Comics, fantasy, contemporary tales, science fiction — here are 17 lively stories about Black boys skateboarding, baking and exploring strange galaxies, by popular writers such as Jason Reynolds, Jerry Craft and Varian Johnson. Looking for fun? Dive into this book.
“Red, White, and Whole,” by Rajani LaRocca
(Quill Tree Books, ages 8 to 12)
Reha is often torn between wanting to be a fun-loving eighth-grader at an American school and the studious, dutiful daughter of her Indian immigrant parents. When her mother becomes seriously ill, Reha struggles to help in this vivid, heartfelt novel-in-verse, set in 1983.
“Starfish,” by Lisa Fipps
(Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 8 to 12)
Have you ever been teased or shamed for your appearance? Then you might be able to relate to Ellie. In poems funny and painful, she describes being mocked for her weight and how she begins to stand up to bullies with the support of a new friend and a good-humored therapist.
“The Legend of Auntie Po,” by Shing Yin Khor
(Kokila, ages 10 to 14)
This engaging graphic novel follows Mei, a Chinese American girl who loves to spin tales of brave Auntie Po and her giant blue ox. They help her deal with the prejudice she and her immigrant father experience as kitchen workers in a logging camp in 1885. But Mei’s sharp wits and baking skills soon set her on a path with some surprising turns. National Book Award finalist.
“Too Bright to See,” by Kyle Lukoff
(Dial, ages 10 and older)
Eleven-year-old Bug is confused and sad. The last thing she needs is another ghost in the old house she shares with her mom. And this one seems bent on helping her understand something — but what? This ghost story is richer and deeper than the usual scary tale. National Book Award finalist.
— Mary Quattlebaum
“What Is a River?,” by Monika Vaicenaviciene
(Enchanted Lion, ages 4 to 8)
This beautiful book, originally published in Sweden, celebrates all the ways rivers work, including as refreshment, as a home for animals and as a source of energy. Along with essential facts about nature, the author-illustrator delves into the historical and emotional connections shaped by these waterways.
“From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry,” by Paula Yoo
(Norton, ages 12 and older)
Looking back at the 1982 killing of 27-year-old Vincent Chin near Detroit, this book shows how it affected his family, his community and the American legal system. Paula Yoo’s detailed and compassionate account reveals a frustrating search for justice from many perspectives, including Chin’s mother, his friends, as well as a lawyer and a judge who admit to mistakes.
“Nano,” by Jess Wade; Melissa Castrillon, illustrator
(Candlewick, ages 6 to 9)
Written by a gifted physicist, “Nano” presents both the basics of science — the atom, for instance — and all sorts of technological possibilities that the new world of nanoscience encompasses. Wade presents her material with an appealing rhythm, and Castrillon has created whimsical images that match the hopeful spirit of the text.
“Black Birds in the Sky,” by Brandy Colbert
(Balzer & Bray, ages 13 and older)
Just as the picture book “Unspeakable,” by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Floyd Cooper, introduces the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to young readers, this account places the terrible events in a larger context for teenagers. Asking necessary questions, Colbert calls attention to the history of settlement in Oklahoma as well as to the circumstances and the legacy of a century-old assault.
“Fallout,” by Steve Sheinkin
(Roaring Brook, ages 10 and older)
Filled with facts and narrative verve, “Fallout” explains the Cold War tensions that led to a divided Berlin, the building of bomb shelters in the United States and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In addition to the secret world of spies and escape tunnels, Sheinkin shows how close President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to a devastating result.
— Abby McGanney Nolan
“Watercress,” by Andrea Wang; Jason Chin, illustrator
(Neal Porter, ages 4 to 8)
Mom and Dad stop the car so the whole family can pick a leafy, wet weed. It’s so embarrassing, and finding dinner growing by the road does not feel cool. But the story the parents tell about why the plant is precious is like a treasure itself, and the watercress turns out to be delicious.
“We All Play,” by Julie Flett
(Greystone Kids, ages 1½ to 5)
The Cree/Métis author-illustrator celebrates Indigenous language and the universality of play. Animals “hide and hop … chase and chirp … rumble and roll.” And you do, too! You might say “niska” in Cree or “gosling” in English; you might say “bunny” in English or “waposos” in Cree, but when the sun is out and the air is fresh, all little ones play, like you. And at the close of day, it’s time for everyone to cuddle and fall asleep.
“Nicky & Vera,” by Peter Sís
(Norton, ages 5 to 9)
Sometimes helpers work secretly. Nicky was going on a ski vacation, but a friend asked him to come to Prague instead. There he learned about children who needed to leave Czechoslovakia in a dangerous time as war began. Nicky stayed for months to help Vera and 668 other children leave for safety. Not even his family learned about his heroism until he was nearly 100 years old!
“Outside, Inside,” by LeUyen Pham
(Roaring Brook, ages 3 to 6)
One day, over a year ago, suddenly, everyone began to stay inside. Almost everyone, that is. Streets grew quiet as people around the world stayed separate for months. But workers “outside” helped those who needed help or food, and they worked tirelessly. Everyone hoped, prayed and wished, and they remembered that spring would come again, inside and outside.
“Change Sings,” by Amanda Gorman; Loren Long, illustrator
(Viking, ages 4 to 8)
Can you “hear change humming/In its loudest, proudest song?” You are growing, you make new friends and you understand the world in new ways. Caring for our planet and for the people who need help means change. Your good heart and strong mind have a song to sing about that: “You’re the love your bright heart brings.” Tap your feet, clap your hands, take care of what you can, and let your heart sing.
— Kathie Meizner
An early version of this story incorrectly listed “What Is a River?” author as Monica Vaicenaviciene. The author is Monika Vaicenaviciene. This story has been updated.
A note to our readers: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
Request for Reader Submission
What was the highlight of your reading life in 2021?
Tell the Post
What were your favorite books this year? And how did your reading habits change? We may publish your submission in follow-up stories, in the Book Club newsletter or on social media. Read our full submission guidelines here