While there have been plenty of downsides to 2021, one really wonderful upside are all the fantastic children’s books and YA lit that has come out this year.
So, this year I’ve got my library reservations page handy as I’ve been scouring all the best-of award lists. Bookmark this page so you can have it handy at your local bookstore or library too.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this article is always a huge labor of love, and it’s my favorite one to write every year. It takes days for me to read through all these lists of the best children’s books of 2021, read some of them myself, and highlight the ones I think our readers will love.
This year, diversity and representation continue to color these lists, and I particularly noticed how many women writers, Asian authors and protagonists, and a growing number of Indigenous authors and storylines are featured this year. We’re thrilled about that.
So, from picture books to early chapter books to YA novels I love to read even without my kids, I present the best children’s books of 2021. Please do click through to each list and support all these authors, though. There were too many good ones to mention them all here.
(Note: some of the 2021 lists include books from 2020, but you can never have too many good book recommendations, in my opinion.)
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The Best Children’s Books and Award Winners of 2021: All the Best-Of Lists in One Place
1. The 2021 ALA Awards
(Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré & Stonewall)
2. The 2020 National Book Awards
3. The New York Times Best Children’s Books of 2021
(Children’s, Middle Readers, YA)
4. Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books of 2021
(Picture Books, Middle Grade, YA)
5. Amazon Editors’ Best Children’s Books of 2021
6. NPR Best Children’s Books of 2021
7. The Marginalian’s (formerly Brain Picking’s) Loveliest Children’s Books of 2021
8. Brightly Editors Best Children’s Books of 2021
(Picture Books, Middle Grade, YA)
9. Good Reads’ Choice Awards of 2021
Past “Best Children’s Book Lists of the Year” posts
The best children’s books of 2020
The best children’s books of 2019
The best children’s books of 2018
The best children’s books of 2017
The best children’s books of 2016
The best children’s books of 2015
The American Library Association (ALA) hands out the biggest awards in children’s publishing every year, but they also partner with more niche groups, like the American Indian Library Association, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and the Association of Jewish Libraries to recognize important books in those categories too.
The 2021 Caldecott Medal, for outstanding illustration
We Are Water Protectors (Amazon | Indiebound) illustrated by Michaela Goade and written by Carole Lindstrom is a stunning tribute to the unrelenting efforts of Indigenous people to protect the Earth’s water from pollution and corruption.
The 2021 Newbery Medal, for outstanding writing
When You Trap a Tiger (Amazon | Indiebound) by Tae Keller is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It’s the story of two sisters who move with their mother to care for their elderly grandmother, but this modern tale weaves in ancient Korean folklore while also reflecting the importance of the Asian experience in America.
The 2021 Coretta Scott King awards, for African-American illustrators
The winner for best illustrations is R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul (Amazon | Indiebound) illustrated by Frank Morrison and written by Carole Boston. Each page of this book features a word that describes the Queen of Soul — TALENT or DETROIT or GROOVE. But the real showstopper are the gorgeous oil pantings depicting the stages of her life.
The 2021 Coretta Scott King awards, for African-American authors
The writing award goes to Before the Ever After (Amazon | Indiebound) by one of our all-time favorites, Jacqueline Woodson. Since my husband and I made the decision to prohibit our sons from playing football…I’ve been really wanting to read this novel about the child of a former NFL player who’s struggling with the impact of CTE, and the larger narrative of the impact it has especially on Black athletes.
The 2021 Pura Belpré awards, for Hispanic authors and illustrators
Immersed in the world of soccer, Furia (Amazon | Indiebound) by Yamile Saied Méndez is the Pura Belpré YA winner. It’s the empowering and heartbreaking story of what it costs for a young female athlete to follow her dreams.
Vamos! Let’s Go Eat (Amazon | Indiebound) is the youth winner, featuring quirky cartoon-y illustrations and writing by Raúl the Third. Your mouth will water as you follow Little Lobo on a tour of enticing food trucks around Mexico.
Winner of the children’s award, Efrén Divided (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ernesto Cisneros is the story of an American-born teen who’s undocumented mother doesn’t return home one day…and his fight to reunite his family.
The 2021 Stonewall Book Awards, for LGBTQ+ topics
We Are Little Feminists: Families (Amazon | Indiebound) by Archaa Shrivastay and Lindsey Blakely depicts a beautifully diverse representation of family in this board book that all children will adore.
Related: The best feminist baby gifts
The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is a highly respected award, given to a literary book generally suited to the reading levels of our older teens. Or, you know, us. Because we love YA books too.
These days you can find plenty of wonderful, LGBTQ+-centric novels for teens, but Stonewall Award winner Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Amazon | Indiebound) by Malinda Lo layers this tension with the complexities of 1950s culture, being Asian in America during the Red Scare, and immigration complications that are still relevant today.
Among the New York Times list of best children’s books each year, we tend to find thoughtful books with stunning artwork. You’ll need a New York Times subscription to see their full list, however I’ve picked some of my favorites here.
The New York Times Best Children’s Books category
If your child could use a little dose of bravery these days, then Bright Star (Amazon | Indiebound) by Yuyi Morales (one of our perennial faves) is an excellent pick. The sweet, empowering story of a fawn’s journey through beautiful but dangerous territory will inspire.
Pull your child into your lap with The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth (Amazon | Indiebound) by Bruce Handy & Hyewon Yum and explore what makes people feel happiness. It will spark wonderful conversations.
The Longest Storm (Amazon | Indiebound) by Dan Yaccarino is almost more for adults than children. This quiet reflection on the complex family dynamics and tensions we lived through during the beginnings of the COVID quarantine is difficult but important.
(Ed Note: We’re also grateful that the publisher is a recent sponsor of ours, because wow do we love all the opportunities to share great books, as you can tell!)
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Amazon | Indiebound) by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper helps us talk to our kids about this horrific, but often untaught, moment in US history that our kids should know about. For more on this important topic, check out our roundup of resources on the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The New York Times Best Middle Readers Books category
The Beatryce Prophecy (Amazon | Indiebound) is a magical, medieval tale by Kate DiCamillo (a favorite 2021 Spawned Podcast guest!) and illustrated by the prolific Sophie Blackall, both of whom have been featured on our annual lists before. The story is complicated and interwoven and way to involved to explain in one sentence here, but it’s about the power of story and connection and definitely one to pick up this year. (Also, it reminds me of The Book of Boy, another complex, winding, magical Middle Ages tale you must read from our 2018 list of best children’s books.)
If your kids loved Hatchet as much as mine did, then you’ll want to get a copy of Gone to the Woods (Amazon | Indiebound), a memoir by the late Gary Paulsen, who we sadly lost just a few months ago. Readers will see the origins of his classic novel in this story of Paulsen’s own, very difficult childhood.
The Many Meanings of Meilan (Amazon | Indiebound) by debut author Andrea Wang is on my own short list to read in 2022. It’s about processing loss (depicted through the death of her grandmother), learning how to be yourself in a new hometown, and truly finding peace with who you are.
The New York Times Best YA Books category
In the YA category, the NYT has chosen Himawari House (Amazon | Indiebound) by Harmony Becker is a graphic novel about three foreign exchange students in Japan and the different pressures they face being strangers—and fellow students—in a new country.
In the Wild Light (Amazon | Indiebound) by Jeff Zentner examines friendship and family loyalty, as two students in a small Appalachian town receive scholarships to attend a Connecticut prep school but struggle about leaving family behind.
The late Senator John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell were able to once again joined forces to pen a new graphic novel series along with L. Fury, starting with Run: Book One (Amazon | Indiebound). After participating in the Civil Rights Marches, Lewis of course ran for office, and this wonderful series covers this aspect of his personal history.
4. Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books of 2021
Publisher’s Weekly is an industry magazine, with the primary purpose of providing reviews of new books to bookstores each year. Getting a starred review from PW is any author’s goal, and making their best-of list is a true honor. The books you find on their list are both critically excellent and also commercially successful.Publisher’s Weekly Best Picture Books of 2021
From PW’s Best Picture Books of 2021, here are a few I wanted to highlight:
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (Amazon | Indiebound) by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Newbery honor-winning author Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith. A chronicle of slavery and resistance in the US, this is an essential book that every family needs in their library about a time in history we all should know more about. Accurately..
For kids with an irreverent sense of humor, check out Chez Bob (Amazon | Indiebound) by Bob Shea. (Get it?) In this story, clever alligator Bob is a totally planning to eat the birds for whom he opens a restaurant…on his nose.
It doesn’t get more 2020…or 2021 than Keeping the City Going (Amazon | Indiebound) by Brian Floca. This children’s book is an ode to the frontline workers who kept NYC running during the pandemic shutdown in early 2020, all brought to life with Floca’s beautiful, award-winning illustration style.
Perhaps it’s an instinctive response to the quarantine, but I’ve noticed several stunning picture books themed around a return to nature. PW’s list includes The Night Walk (Amazon | Indiebound) by Marie Dorléans (translated by Polly Lawson) about a family’s nighttime hike with an absolutely lovely ending. I also enjoyed Watercress (Amazon | Indiebound) by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, about a family who pulls over on the side of the road to gather watercress…and ends up returning to their roots as a family.
Publisher’s Weekly Best Middle Grade Books of 2021
From their Best Middle Grade Books of 2021 list, I’ve highlighted these titles:
The list of awards and recognitions for The Last Cuentista (Amazon | Indiebound) by Donna Barba Higuera is so long on Amazon, you have to click “read more” to see them all. This gripping, post-apocalyptic novel relies on the power of ancient Mexican folktales to save humanity.
Three kids who don’t fit in at school, one mysterious custodial closet, and a magical friendship make The Insiders (Amazon | Indiebound) by Mark Oshiro a fantastic middle grade read with LGBTQ themes that any kids can appreciate.
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt (Amazon | Indiebound) by Varian Johnson centers on fifth-grader Ant, who’s trying to keep up his family legacy of winning at a Spades tournament. But when his playing partner gets grounded he has to ask a classmate to fill in, and secrets begin to unravel his entire family in the process.
Publisher’s Weekly Best YA Books of 2021
And from the Publishers Weekly list of the Best YA Books of 2021, I want to call out these titles:
Blackout (Amazon | Indiebound) is one innovative novel, co-written by six prominent Black authors: Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon. This fun love story is called “an ode to black joy, black love, and NYC.” It takes place during a blackout, in which six different couples find their relationships take a turn, and it’s such a compelling story, if Netflix or HBO hasn’t already optioned the movie rights, I’ll be shocked.
Also a National Book Award finalist, Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People (Amazon | Indiebound) by Kekla Magoon presents a comprehensive look at the Black Panther party’s work in communities and the roles women have played there. Fans of Judas and the Black Messiah will definitely want to grab this.
Another book with an impressive number of recognitions this past year — including the National Book Award longlist — is Snake Falls to Earth (Amazon | Indiebound) by Darcie Little Badger. I fell in love with her novel Elatsoe from our 2020 list of the best books for children, and I can’t wait to read this book called a “breathtaking work of Indigenous futurism.” Little Badger draws on Lipan Apache folklore in her work, and this story about two teens from different worlds and the monsters that inhabit them sounds fascinating.
Amazon’s list is decidedly more “commercial” than the other lists we feature, but over the last few years we’ve seen them include more of the kinds of books we tend to recommend. This year, we’ve chosen some of our favorites from their very broad categories of “children” and “YA,” but if you click through they also break down their list into smaller age groups too.Amazon Editors Top 20 Children’s Books of 2021
In Amazon’s Editors Top 20 children’s books of the year list, I would start with these. (Whether or not you get them from Amazon.)
Room for Everyone (Amazon | Indiebound) by Naaz Khan and Mercè López is a joyful and inclusive glimpse into life in Zanzibar that can open a child’s eyes to a different way of life…or help them see more representation of their own.
The same way 2017’s Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut paid homage to Black hair, Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (Amazon | Indiebound) by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho is a lovely book that celebrates the beauty of Asian eyes. “Eyes that glow like warm tea and crinkle like crescent moons.” If you have an Asian child in your life, it is a must-have…and if you don’t, it’s a wonderful way to teach your kids to appreciate the beauty in all people.
Book 2 in the Skunk and Badger series, Egg Marks the Spot (Amazon | Indiebound) by Amy Timberlake and one of our favorites, Jon Klassen, follows the two buddies as they hunt for Badger’s long-lost agate rock. But when they arrive at the campsite, the adventure really takes off as they encounter secrets, lies, and even betrayal by friends.
Need a hug? Pick up Every Little Kindness (Amazon | Indiebound) by Marta Bartolj. This wordless picture book shows the ripple effect of a single act of kindness, and it will inspire your kids to look for ways to bring more kindness into the world.
Amazon Editors Top YA Books of the Year
And in Amazon’s best YA books of the year list, the standouts to me:
Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Iron Widow (Amazon | Indiebound) by Kiran Jay Zhao follows 18-year-old Zeitan, who offers herself to be a concubine-pilot to battle the mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall…but she does it with a secret motivation: to assassinate the male pilot who killed her sister.
Angie Thomas’s new novel Concrete Rose (Amazon | Indiebound) returns to Garden Heights to tell the story of Mav’s teen years and Seven’s birth. If your kids loved The Hate U Give, they’ll want to read this too.
Looking for a good romance? Then grab How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe (Amazon | Indiebound) by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland. The wallflower sister of a social media star meets a grumpy but decidedly hot guy on the road while traveling with an influencer tour to manage their merch. How does that sound for a book capturing the 2020s zeitgeist!
Black mermaid fantasy. Need I say more? Skin of the Sea (Amazon | Indiebound) by Natasha Bowen is on so many best-of lists this year and was an instant NYT bestseller, for good reason. In Bowen’s tale, Simi defies the gods by saving a human boy thrown overboard in a storm, and now must travel to the Supreme Creator to make amends while battling danger. Ooh.
Told in verse — one of my favorite genres of books — Newbery medalist LInda Sue Parks’ The One Thing You’d Save (Amazon | Indiebound) winds through a middle school classroom as a teacher asks the students what they’d save in a fire. It’s inclusive, vibrant, and authentic.
Inspired by her own life, author Muon Thi Van gives us Wishes (Amazon | Indiebound) illustrated by Victo Ngai. In a style that feels safe for even very young children, she reveals the difficult experience of leaving things behind in search of a better life in a new place.
So often, kids books go all the way dark or stay way too light and fluffy, so when I saw Garlic & the Vampire (Amazon | Indiebound) by Bree Paulsen described as both cozy and adventuresome, I perked up. The premise is adorable — a dangerous vampire moves into a new castle near a town of vegetables, so who do they send to confront him but Garlic, of course? It’s a sweet story about bravery that kids will love.
(Editors Note: As Miles Finch would say, not tomatoes. Tomatoes are too vulnerable. -LG)
The Big Bath House (Amazon | Indiebound) by Kyo Maclear and Gracy Zhang appears on several lists this year, and it’s a joyful look at a distinct Japanese cultural tradition: the bath house. The book is based on the author’s cherished childhood memories, and that love comes through in the writing.
NPR’s Best YA Books of 2021
In a village where blood ceremonies determine whether you join or become an outcast, 16-year-old Deka’s heart sinks when her blood runs gold — yes, gold — setting her off to discover a secret world of warrior women who defend the empire. The Gilded Ones (Amazon | Indiebound) by Namina Forna is their story of good versus evil and sounds like the kind of book so many kids we know would love.
A National Book Award finalist as well, Me (Moth) (Amazon | Indiebound) by first-time novelist Amber McBride is the story of a teen girl’s grief and the boy who helps her journey through it thanks to a powerful, supernatural road trip.
Why We Fly (Amazon | Indiebound) by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal is described as a story of “friendship, privilege, sports, and protest,” which sounds like a fabulous combination for a YA novel. In it, the cheer team unexpectedly find themselves in the national spotlight — and find their friendships at risk — when they take a knee at the season opening football game.
Charlie feels like it’s not enough to be smart, artistic, and funny, as an overweight girl of color in an affluent Connecticut neighborhood.That’s the story of Fat Chance, Charlie Vega (Amazon | Indiebound) by Crystal Maldonado — a measured, honest, sometimes-doubting look at coming of age when you don’t feel like you fit in. It’s a timeless, universal topic told in a modern way that’s sure to help so many YA readers feel seen.
We always find the most gorgeous, thoughtful books hand-picked by Maria Popova of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). These are usually books we don’t see on other lists (though they’re often found here!), and her picks always have a thoughtful, artistic bent. Many are international books as well. We’ve highlighted some of our favorites here.
Corinna Luyken is one of my favorite modern children’s illustrators, and her newest book, The Tree in Me (Amazon | Indiebound), is just perfect. Her wispy, ethereal illustrations beautifully contrast the strength of the tree here, that symbolizes the fortitude in each of us.
When a child asks their grandmother What is a River? (Amazon | Indiebound), the answer is provided in this wonderful book by Monika Vaicenavičiené. A river is so much more than mere waterway, it’s a symbol of connection between people across history, and will help so many children see the world around them in a new way. Truly a lovely book, as promised.
The life and work of Sister Corita Kent is highlighted in the colorful Make Meatballs Sing (Amazon | Indiebound) by Matthew Burgess and Kara Kramer. This remarkable woman was a nun, teacher, artist, and social justice activist — and the book’s style itself is an homage to Kent’s own distinctive mid-century artistic style.
(Note: If you’ve ever seen a photo of our editor Liz sitting on her couch, you’ve seen Sister Corita Kent’s work!)
Brightly is a website about raising kids who love to read, and their curated lists always include engaging, popular but well-written books kids will enjoy. This year they published a Best Picture Books of 2021, Best Middle Grade & Chapter Books of 2021, and Best YA Books of 2021
Brightly Best Picture Books of 2021
Poet Amanda Gorman brought us Change Sings (Amazon | Indiebound) illustrated by Loren Long, which empowers kids to bring about the change they want to see in their communities. We even included it in our list of 50 amazing holiday gifts for kids under $15 this past year.
The message of Different: A Great Thing to Be! (Amazon | Indiebound) by Heather Avis and Sarah Mensinga is one we’re all trying to promote in our own kids — look for the differences and celebrate the beauty of them.
From the team who brought us Last Stop on Market Street, we get to follow a little boy on a subway in Milo Imagines the World (Amazon | Indiebound) by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. It’s a celebration of creativity and hope.
Brightly Best Middle Grade Books of 2021
Another body-positive look at middle school, Starfish (Amazon | Indiebound) by Lisa Fipps is a novel written in verse about a young girl coming to terms with her size and making true friends in the process. It’s also one my own kids enjoyed this year.
Readers’ sense of trust will be challenged in The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother) (Amazon | Indiebound) by David Levithan, the story of a boy who goes missing for 6 days, the incredible story he tells his brother, and the fallout and rejection they face when others hear…and don’t believe.
A unique perspective on WWII, War and Millie McGonigle (Amazon | Indiebound) by Karen Cushman follows a young girl in California who’s navigating new love, a sick (and super annoying) sister, and a world that’s falling out of balance as war starts to overtake Europe.
Also, a shoutout to R.J. Palacio’s newest book, Pony (Amazon | Indiebound), which Wall Street Journal editors call “perfection.” From the author of Wonder, it’s the adventurous journey of a young boy to save his father, accompanied by a pony and a ghost.
Brightly Best YA Books of 2021
Winterkeep (Amazon | Indiebound) by Kristin Cashore is the next book in the Graceling Realm series, but they can be read in any order so go ahead and pick this one up, even if it’s your first. You’ll enter a fantasy world filled with airships and telepathic foxes, but the powerful female protagonists are key to the massive success of this series.
A thrilling suspenseful bank heist story where the con artist’s daughter gets kidnapped, The Girls I’ve Been (Amazon | Indiebound) by Tess Sharpe is going to be a Netflix film staring Millie Bobby Brown soon. So get your kids to read the book first!
If you liked Get Out, you must pick up a copy of The Taking of Jake Livingston (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ryan Douglass. Jake is a 16-year-old Black prep school student at a school with indisputably racist teachers — and he’s also a medium. Just as a romance starts to bloom with a handsome new student, the visions from ghosts — one vengeful one in particular — get stronger and more dangerous for him.
In Instructions for Dancing (Amazon | Indiebound) by Nicola Yoon, Evie can see visions of how couples’ romances begin and end…and it challenges her to ask if it’s all worth it when she encounters her own love.
Good Reads keeps their picks short and sweet: one winner in Young Adult Fiction, Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction, Middle Grade & Children’s and Graphic Novels & Comics…and they’re all decided by the readers on Good Reads. That said, you can click through to see every nominee in each category too for more ideas.
The readers’ choice for best YA Fiction is Firekeeper’s Daughter (Amazon | Indiebound) by Angeline Boulley, an Indigenous thriller about corporate corruption and an 18-year-old Ojibwe woman who agrees to use her knowledge of native medicine and modern chemistry to go undercover to ultimately protect her community.
President Barack and Michelle Obama’s own production company is currently adapting the novel into a Netflix film, so read it now before it hits your TV.
The top choice for 2021 in YA Fantasy & Sci Fi is Rule of Wolves (Amazon | Indiebound) by Leigh Bardugo, part of the Shadow & Bone universe. It’s the second book in the King of Scars duology, and the plot is way too complicated to unpack here. But if you’re a fan of fantasy you’re going to want to get started on this series right away.
The reader’s choice for best Middle Grade & Children’s book is Daughter of the Deep (Amazon | Indiebound) by beloved author Rick Riordan. We adore Riordan in our home for re-imagining Greek, Norse, and African myths, and now he’s retelling 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with freshman Ana Dakkar, an orphaned girl attending an elite marine-science high school, at the center of the plot.
And finally, the Good Reads winner for best 2021 Graphic Novel & Comic goes to Lore Olympus (Amazon | Indiebound) by Rachel Smythe. Both NPR and the New York Times recognized this book as well, which imagines the scandalous, forbidden world of the Greek gods, and no doubt both you and your kids will be captivated.