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The Best Picture Books of 2021

by Miranda Rosbach

best-picture-books-2021

Does anyone else love best-of-the-year lists? I eagerly anticipate them! They fill me with a sense of wonder for all the creative work that was put out into the universe during any given year. Which, honestly, is also a reflection of an entire team of people making final products that become available to the general public. It feels like humanity is working together in pursuit of artful expression and human connection. The Scrooges of the world might say it’s only for capitalistic profit, but I’m advocating that artful expression (in various formats) is what we need, nay crave, as a species. Without further ado, here are just a few of the phenomenal picture books of 2021. I hope you’ll seek them out and savor them.

  • Change Sings

    by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long

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    A young girl totes her guitar past a mural of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and sings her anthem of change. She meets another child, and together, they clean up a litter-ridden playground. Throughout the book, the protagonist uses her strength and smarts to make a difference. She gives a bone to a dog, builds a ramp for a wheelchair user, shares a meal with a homeless child, and gathers a band of music lovers. The poem’s rhythm is beautifully depicted through rich illustrations and is an ode to the ripple effect of good one person can create. This is a standout picture book of 2021.

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  • Grandude’s Green Submarine

    by Paul McCartney, illustrated by Kathryn Durst

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    Kids and grandparents love this sequel to Hey, Grandude! from music legend Paul McCartney. On a hot summer day, Grandude invites his grandchildren into his secret invention shed and unveils his green flying submarine. Together, the group heads off on a hunt to find Nandude (Grandma), meeting new people and having musical adventures along the way. Eventually, they spot Nandude, and everyone arrives home in time for bed.

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  • Nina

    by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson

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    Born in North Carolina in 1933, Eunice Waymon had music in her soul. As a child, she played piano with her daddy and in the church where her mother was a preacher, but the astute prodigy knew she lived in a world divided by skin color. After high school, Eunice went to Juilliard but got rejected from the Curtis Institute because she was Black. Over the years, she played in bars, changed her name, and eventually became the main attraction at Carnegie Hall in 1963. The gorgeous cover and inspirational story will entice music lovers and pop culture gurus to pick up this brilliant new biography.

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  • Cat Problems

    by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith

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    A cranky cat laments the loss of a warm sunbeam, the unappealing kernels in his food bowl, and the unwelcome presence of another house cat — not to mention the monstrous vacuum cleaner. Told from a grumpy cat’s perspective (except for one monologue from a squirrel who insists the cat has an ideal existence), Cat Problems is layered with dead-pan humor perfect for adults and kids alike. It’s a must-read!

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  • Different—A Great Thing to Be!

    by Heather Avis, illustrated by Sarah Mensinga

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    Macy has Down Syndrome and sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit in. Still, she is friendly and kind, noticing things that others don’t see. When her peers reject her at the beach, she helps them see that being different makes her a fantastic friend. This inclusive story features children of many abilities and makes an excellent read-aloud for a child with neurodiversity or another invisible disability.

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  • Tomatoes for Neela

    by Padma Lakshmi, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

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    With a picture of Paati (grandmother) looking over them, Neela and Amma (mother) cook one of their family’s traditional recipes. With the familiar aromas swirling around the kitchen, Amma’s bangles create the perfect music for dancing. This picture book pays homage to family traditions and seasonal food. It also features two recipes, an author’s note, and facts about farm work and tomatoes. Trust me when I say that this lavishly illustrated book is worth seeking out.

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  • Flashlight Night

    by Elisabeth Hasselbeck, illustrated by Julia Seal

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    On a large chalk wall, a young boy writes his prayers, both big and small. Things like wanting to do well on a math test or standing up to the school bully. The wall is a space to write what’s in his heart. The boy and his friend leave their worries on the wall and return at night with their flashlights. His mother shines the light on answered prayers and switches it off for the ones they are still waiting for. It’s a lovely object lesson about how God hears and answers prayers that families of faith will love.

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  • Bronco and Friends: A Party to Remember

    by Tim Tebow, illustrated by Jane Chapman, with A.J. Gregory

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    Kids love this heartfelt picture book from legendary athlete Tim Tebow. When Squirrel asks Bronco (a dog) if he’s going to the party that night, Bronco (who doesn't have the best eyesight) begins to hunt for the missing puzzle piece he’s supposed to take. More and more animal friends help him search until they find the missing puzzle piece. Together, the critters gather for a festive party to celebrate the beautiful qualities that make each animal unique.

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  • C is for Country

    by Lil Nas X, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

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    A little boy awakes, eager to greet the day in this ABC adventure from music sensation Lil Nas X. In his bedazzled pink riding outfit, the boy rides through the country on his pony, races mustangs, and shows off his swagger. After dinner, the boy snuggles into bed with a reminder that love is for everybody, “no matter who you are, where you’re from, [or] what you look like.” This inclusive and feel-good picture book is a must-read for every child.

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  • Milo Imagines the World

    by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

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    On the subway with his sister, Milo notices people around him, imagines what their lives are like, and creates images in his mind (depicted with childlike crayon drawings). When one immaculate boy enters the subway, Milo is struck by his seeming ideal life. At last, the siblings reach their destination and wait in a security line before entering the prison to visit their incarcerated parent. Milo is surprised to see the boy from the subway waiting in the same line. This layered story is about families and our assumptions of others, and it’s as much a social commentary as a beautiful conversation starter.

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  • What’s Inside A Flower?

    by Rachel Ignotofsky

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    “Flowers grow everywhere.” From lush gardens to high mountaintops, they come in many colors, shapes, and sizes. Flowers grow with stems and leaves, but they start from seeds, soaking up rainwater and minerals from the soil. This scientific exploration of photosynthesis and plant growth is a Master Gardener course for aspiring botanists. It’s an absolute standout nonfiction work that feels both fun and informative.

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  • Big Feelings

    by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

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    A group of friends plan to create a treehouse in an empty lot, but a pile of debris sits in their way. What can they do? After talking it out, the kids form a new plan and work together to haul out the junk. Afterward, they feel hopeful but tired. Kids have big feelings, and seeing other points of view, making alternative plans, and strengthening friendships can help them navigate the human experience. This joyful picture book is a fantastic follow-up to the bestseller All Are Welcome.

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  • A New Day

    by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Dan Santat

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    When Sunday quits as one of the days of the week, the other days place an ad for a replacement. What ensues is a comical array of possible substitutes ending with an act of kindness that makes the week whole again. Full of heart and humor, this entertaining story is sure to become a new favorite read aloud.

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  • The Tree in Me

    by Corinna Luyken

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    A young child reaches for an apple, takes a bite, and relishes in everything about the tree, from its deep roots to its crown of leaves and flowers. The tree inside the child is strong and reaches towards the light, too. And with the insight of youth, the child notices a tree in his mother as well. Filled with exuberant hues of pink, mustard, cobalt, and black, this allegorical tale’s sparse text brims with meaning.

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  • I Don’t Want to Read This Book

    by Max Greenfield, illustrated by Mike Lowery

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    A reluctant reader sets out to read a book; the only problem is that the reader (who is the story’s narrator) DOES NOT want to read the book. Why read a book when you already know what’s going to happen? You could eat cake instead. Or watch YouTube. Or do both at the same time. Filled with punchy typography and zany graphics, this humorous book is ideal for enthusiastic and hesitant readers alike.

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  • Someone Builds the Dream

    by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Loren Long

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    An architect, engineer, and artist all work to create finished masterpieces: a home, a bridge, a park fountain. However, each endeavor takes a team of people working together to build it. Even a picture book took more than an author and illustrator to make. Behind the scenes, there are countless others whose unseen work is vital to the finished masterpiece. This rhythmic nonfiction book will capture the attention of budding creators.

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  • My Little Brave Girl

    by Hilary Duff, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

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    With an expansive world waiting and a love that knows no bounds, endless possibilities await a young girl as she grows. Over time, she learns to count, swim, climb, and bake. She hopes and dreams of a limitless future with her heart leading the way and a clever brain in her head. Geared toward girls, the message of a parent’s love for their child is palpable in this sweet story.

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  • Fatima’s Great Outdoors

    by Ambreen Tariq, illustrated by Stevie Lewis

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    After a rough week at school, Fatima is thrilled to join her family on their first campout. On the way, Mama offers warm homemade samosas for a snack while the radio plays Bollywood music. As the Khazi family navigates setting up a tent, fending off pests, and making a proper campfire, they connect to the outdoors and each other. This diverse voices book is an ode to the timeless invitation for families to reconnect in nature.

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  • The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

    by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

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    A young girl receives a school assignment to trace her ancestry, but she can only count back three generations. When she asks her grandmother about her heritage, the family matriarch recounts the voyage of black men and women on a ship in 1619. Before becoming enslaved, they were free, with land and homes of their own. They lived in central Africa and worked with their hands, mixing herbs and beating drums. They were joyful dancers until they were stolen. This non-immigration story is a powerful Black history lesson of a courageous people who endured the unthinkable. It’s an unforgettable read for kids ages seven and up.

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  • Uni the Unicorn in the Real World

    by Paris Rosenthal and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Brigette Barrager

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    When Uni the unicorn visits her human friend, the girl eagerly introduces Uni to her parents and playmates, but nobody can see her. It isn’t until a rainbow hits Uni’s horn that a boy on the playground catches sight of her and spreads the word about the magical creature in their midst. Filled with a kaleidoscope of color, this follow-up to Uni the Unicorn is ideal for all true unicorn believers.

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  • Kalamata’s Kitchen

    by Sarah Thomas, illustrated by Jo Kosmides Edwards

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    Kalamata worries about her first day at a new school and considers staying home with her stuffed animal, Al Dente. Thinking back to her summer trip to India, Kalamata hopes to summon the courage she had there as she embarks on this new adventure. With Al Dente, she floats through an imaginary world of scents: cinnamon and chili powder, curls of cumin, and dazzling turmeric. As the sounds and smells of dinner swirl around Kalamata and Al Dente, they find a way to face their fears. This book is a culinary feast for the curious eater with a glossary of terms and a delectable Dal recipe in the back.

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