A lot of excellent books for kids have come out in 2021. On our list, we collected books that have won or been shortlisted for prestigious prizes this year —such as the Newbery Medal in the US and the Carnegie Medal in the UK—as well as our own selection of good books for kids that have come to our attention. It's turned out to be a very strong year for middle grade fiction (novels for children age 8-12), especially fiction in a historical setting. We made sure to include picture books and non-fiction as well.
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Part of our best books of 2021 series.
I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.
by Stefanie Posavec & Miriam Quick (illustrator)
***Winner of the 2021 Royal Society Young People’s Books Prize***
“My very favourite of the books. In fact, I liked it so much that I bought fifteen copies and I’ve been giving them out to everyone…. I wasn’t the only one who loved this book. I think everyone was intrigued by it, because it’s so interactive. It’s a true and very creative art and science fusion.” Read more...
Best Science Books for Children: the 2021 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize
Katharine Cashman, Scientist
The False Rose
Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves
Free-standing sequel to the multi-prize winning The Murderer’s Ape and The Legend of Sally Jones, The False Rose is another finely crafted book set around 1930 and narrated by the highly original heroine Sally Jones. In this book Sally Jones and her comrade set out to solve the mystery of an exquisite piece of jewellery hidden on board their cargo ship. Their quest turns out to be far more dangerous than they imagined and they are soon at the mercy of a ruthless smuggling queen in the Glasgow underworld. Sally Jones is an ape, but from her we learn so much about what it is to be human, about the value of loyalty, friendship, empathy and freedom. Wegelius has a talent for making the reader feel present together with the characters in the story. Illustrated in black and white by the author.
Ages 8+ and if you are an adult reading for children I challenge you not to enjoy it at least as much as they do
The Secret Detectives
by Ella Risbridger
A fabulous detective story which pays homage to both The Secret Garden and Sherlock Holmes, with a nod to The Brothers Karamazov. On board the S.S. Mariana in the Bay of Bengal in the autumn of 1892, eleven year old Isobel Petty witnesses a murder. When the captain insists that nobody is missing, Isobel and her new friends realise that they must solve two mysteries: the identity of the victim as well as that of the murderer. It is difficult to be detectives when you have to follow the rules of grown-ups who don’t believe you and don’t understand that there is no time to waste; the young sleuths must solve the case before they get to Port Said, the next port of call.
Above and Below: Sea and Shore
Harriet Evans & Hannah Bailey (illustrator)
An informative book brimming with lovely, accessible illustrations and split pages with a flap on each two-page spread that adds richness. Younger children will enjoy the pictures of all kinds of animals and plants. Older children can begin to understand the variety and interconnectedness of coastal and deep sea ecosystems through chapters that include polar seas, tropical shore, kelp forest, mangrove, estuary and coral reef.
The Shark Caller
by Zillah Bethell
A wonderful story set in Papua New Guinea, peppered with Pidgin English (glossary included). Blue Wing is an orphan in the care of Siringen, an old shark caller. When an American researcher arrives in the village, Blue Wing is assigned to look after his twelve year old daughter and a deep friendship gradually develops. But The Shark Caller is more than a friendship story. It is a story of hunting for treasure. It is also a story of coping with loss, the attraction of revenge, and being aware that every moment is of value. With elders close to nature and a village head who has lost his head to jukeboxes and mobile phones, there is also the question of how communities balance tradition and development. As if that were not enough, just before the end there is a gigantic twist.
A Wish in the Dark
by Christina Soontornvat
***2021 Newbery Honor Book***
A Wish in the Dark is an enchanting fantasy tale based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in a Thailand-inspired setting. Pong is born and orphaned in prison in Chattana, where – as the child of an incarcerated woman who has died – he has to serve his mother’s sentence. Pong escapes, but marked by his prison tattoo he will never be free from his past. Nok is the perfect daughter of the prison warden who is determined to track down the fugitive. In the process she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always believed. A story of light and dark, privilege and poverty, the crucial distinction between law and justice, and the value of friendship.
Circus Maximus: Race to the Death
by Annelise Gray
Circus Maximus is a gripping novel set in ancient Rome, centred on the world of chariot racing. Readers meet Dido, a 12 year old girl who loves to look after the horses her father trains. Girls do not compete, but Dido nevertheless dreams of racing in the Circus. When she witnesses a crime she has to go on the run from the Praetorian guard. We follow her journey over the next couple of years as she finds ways to train as a charioteer whilst longing to be reunited with her beloved horse Porcellus. Meanwhile the unpredictable emperor Caligula has become obsessed with chariot racing, raising the stakes for all involved to ever more dangerous levels. The story wears the historical detail lightly but very convincingly.
Ages 8+ but really just as exciting for teens
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling & MinaLima (illustrators)
You don’t need to be a Harry Potter fan to enjoy this, as long as you take pleasure in gorgeously crafted books. Not counting The Case of Beasts, this is the second Harry Potter book produced by MinaLima. If you saw their edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone you will know what to expect; this is more of the same beautiful presentation, interactive elements and exquisite attention to detail. MinaLima is a collaboration between Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, who are behind the graphic style of all the Harry Potter films.
The Incredible Record Smashers
Jenny Pearson & Erica Salcedo (illustrator)
This is a light and funny novel about growing up with a parent affected by depression. Convinced that it will help get her mother out of depression, 11 year old Lucy pairs up with her friend Sandesh in a far-fetched scheme which involves entering the Record Smasher game show. The author finely balances the serious message with a lot of ridiculous situations and quirky facts in this laugh-out-loud story.
How Life on Earth Began
by Aina Bestard
An exquisitely produced nonfiction book that gives an overview of the evolution of life on earth through fossils and dinosaurs to the first humans. Each time period is given its due, without going into much detail. It is good to see a comprehensive book for children about prehistory which is not limited to dinosaurs. The illustration style, depicting many lost landscapes and fascinating extinct creatures, pays homage to 19th century scientific engravings.
Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls
by Atinuke & Onyinye Iwu (illustrator)
This is the second volume in the Too Small Tola series; each volume consists of three stories. Resourceful little Tola lives in a one-room apartment in Lagos with her strict but loving grandmother, studious older sister and football-obsessed older brother. These slim volumes feature the universal concerns of a little girl against the backdrop of daily life in one of Africa’s megacities. A very charming book by a professional storyteller.
by Jeanne Willis & Paddy Donnelly (illustrator)
A delightful, warm picture book with serious undertones. A shipwrecked boy ends up on an island inhabited by a creature called Hom, who is the last of his kind. The two survivors find that they have skills to teach each other and have a lot of fun. When a rescue ship finally comes, what choice will the boy make? A book about friendship but also about thinking through the consequences of our decisions and protecting biodiversity. The colourful and detailed illustrations interweave very skilfully with the text, making it easy for children to get involved in the story.
The Silk Roads: The extraordinary history that created your world
Peter Frankopan and Neil Packer (illustrator)
This is a flexicover illustrated edition of Frankopan’s bestseller for adults. It is rare to get a history book for kids with an international perspective, so a book for younger readers that provides a succinct summary of the broad sweeps of history is very welcome. Inevitably with such condensed material, there are points to quibble about and more thought could have been given to exactly what level of readers it is for. Nevertheless, this is the sort of book that can ignite a passion for history, a feel for the bigger picture. The focus is on the intersection of the routes between east and west, north and south, places such as Baghdad and Constantinople. There are pages of dense text so the audiobook is a good option, but the print version has the advantage of maps.
Kay's Marvellous Medicine
by Adam Kay & Henry Paker (Illustrator)
Subtitled ‘A Gross and Gruesome History of the Human Body’, this book humorously blends random and relevant facts and jokes. A very engaging book for children about the fascinating history of medicine, likely to appeal to fans of the Horrible Histories books. The author was a medical doctor before he became a full time writer.
Pallavi Aiyar & Aaryama Somayaji (illustrator)
Jakarta Tails is the second pacy book about the globe-trotting former Beijing alley cats Soyabean and Tofu. Just as the cats are settling into an idyllic life of frangipani-scented snoozing in the Indonesian capital, a rat starts skulking about in the garden and the family’s beloved driver is attacked by a violent mob. As the cats get sucked into a fake news network, they provide a perceptive feline perspective on human behaviour. Meanwhile, they have to come to terms with some deep-rooted prejudices of their own.
Me and the Robbersons
by Siri Kolu & translated by Ruth Urbom
Maisie is expecting another dull summer holiday when she is suddenly snatched by the Robbersons in a bungled raid on her family’s car. The Robbersons are a family of bandits who drive fast and act tough but only steal what they need (they have an insatiable appetite for sweets) and care more about going for a swim than they do about money. To everyone’s surprise Maisie decides she isn’t ready to be rescued and would rather join the adventure. An anarchic and energetic roadtrip novel which has won prestigious prizes in Finland and the Netherlands.
Daughter of the Deep
by Rick Riordan
14 year old Ana Dakkar is at a boarding school which trains children for underwater exploration. When disaster strikes, she finds out that not only was Captain Nemo - of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame - not a fictional character, but she is his descendant. Faced with his complex legacy, under attack and possibly with a saboteur among her crew, Ana needs to decide what kind of Captain she is going to be. The book, which has a diverse cast including a character with autism, is permeated with belief in the power of communication to solve problems. It’s an action adventure sci-fi story which pays homage to Jules Verne and looks likely to be the first in a new series by this bestselling author.
Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small
by Jess Wade & Melissa Castrillón (illustrator)
An award-winning physicist introduces young readers to essential concepts such as atoms and elements, and to various fields that scientists might study. Young children can relate to questions such as what makes different materials light, heavy, strong or bendy, while older readers can think about how materials are combined and engineered for practical applications such as making seawater safe to drink. An elegant picture book to inspire curiosity about the world around us.
by Lindsay Galvin
This novel cleverly mixes fact and fiction. It is 1835. Young Syms Covington is fiddle-player on board the HMS Beagle and assistant to Charles Darwin. Having survived being washed overboard, Syms makes an unexpected friend: a clever green lizard. Together they help each other survive poisonous giant centipede bites, thirst, an erupting volcano, and encounters with a fiercely protective winged fire-breathing creature. Galvin’s research into the Galapagos islands – as well as the historical setting in Victorian London and on board the small ship – is very convincing. As for the dragons, might they be real too?
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh
by Helen Rutter
Billy Plimpton has a dream: he wants to become a famous stand-up comedian. There is only one problem. Billy has a stammer. In this warm story featuring bullies, new friends and a school talent show, can Billy find a way both to stand out and fit in? A heartfelt novel written by the mother of a boy who has a stammer.
by Patience Agbabi
“We’ve got here a young heroine. She’s Afro-Caribbean, she’s autistic. She’s at high school, but this high school is very special in that she attends a school in the future, because she is a time traveler, born on February 29, during which a certain percentage of people are gifted with time traveling powers. But things are going wrong in the future. While it is aimed at younger readers, that doesn’t mean the writing is any less mature. It’s an absolute page turner.” Read more...
The Best Science Fiction of 2021: The Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist
Tom Hunter, Journalist
Small in the City
by Sydney Smith
***Winner of the 2021 Kate Greenaway medal***
This book is set in Toronto, but will resonate with kids in any snowy city. A child guides the reader along busy streets, past building sites and yards, down an alley, up a tree and past a bench… Gradually it is revealed that the narrator isn’t speaking to the reader so much as to a missing cat. The illustrations are tightly woven with the text, in a simple story expressing loneliness and worry, but also comfort and confidence.
When You Trap a Tiger
by Tae Keller
***Winner of the 2021 Newbery Medal***
“Long, long ago, when tiger walked like man…” Thus start the folktales which Halmoni (grandmother in Korean) has been telling Lily and her older sister since they were little girls. Now that Halmoni is ageing and Lily is coming of age, a magical tiger appears straight out of Lily’s favourite tale to strike a bargain: healing for Halmoni if she releases the history she has kept bottled up. A sparkling novel about the power of stories.
Look Both Ways
by Jason Reynolds
***Winner of the 2021 Carnegie Medal***
A mixed collection of short stories, some of them very lovely, by The US National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The stories are bound by a common thread: they all take place on the way home from school, in that space where children are unsupervised by teachers or parents. A myriad thoughts and words form along the city blocks that separate school and home, as relationships are built and events unfold on the children's separate but interconnected journeys.
by Gill Lewis
Newly expelled from school, Dylan is forced to move from the city to his grandfather’s small seaside village in Wales. In grandfather’s unjudgmental company, Dylan is gradually able to be himself again. This story highlights the restorative power of nature and the importance of community. A dyslexia-friendly short novel with large, well-spaced font and thick, tinted paper, it is also good as a quick read for confident readers. Lewis packs a lot of content into the short chapters.
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera
by Candace Fleming & Eric Rohmann (illustrator)
***Winner 2021 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal***
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera is a scientific picture book about the short, busy life of the honeybee. It contains the usual facts that an information book should but also provides food for thought about how we all follow a similar cycle of life and death, and how much work really goes into a spoonful of honey. What lifts this book is the seamless interweaving of the text with the detailed, magnified oil painting illustrations.
Planes: from the Wright Brothers to the supersonic jet
by Jan Van der Veken
Planes is a nonfiction book tracing the history of airplane design in an attractive, somewhat retro illustration style. It also covers how flight works in terms of atmosphere and weather, and communication and navigation. The overly short chapter on the future of flight fails to mention electric flight and doesn’t reflect the exciting range of new technologies that are currently being dreamt up and tested. That aside, this is a stylish guide to the history and mechanics of aviation.
Two Sisters: A story of freedom
by Kereen Getten
Ruth and Anna are sisters. Inseparable, they grow up on a sugar cane plantation in the 1770s. But there is one significant difference: Anna’s father is the plantation owner, Master John. Anna has fair skin and light hair; Ruth has dark skin and braids. Anna is used to relying on Ruth – who does what is right even when she is afraid – but when they arrive in Georgian London events unfold that put Anna on the spot. Will she find the courage to protect Ruth from being shipped back to Jamaica and sold as a slave? This book is part of Scholastic’s Voices series of historical fiction, which highlights the power of books to shape our sense of history.
The Flag Never Touched the Ground: America’s Brave Black Regiment in Battle
by Kekla Magoon
It is 1863 and the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Volunteers are marching to battle in the American Civil War. Their mission is to capture the impregnable Fort Wagner, and the stakes could not be higher. It is only a few months since it became legal for Black men to serve in the armed forces; the 54th is an all-Black regiment needing to prove that they can rise to the challenge. Not only that, but if they get captured by the Confederate army they will be enslaved. In the ranks is William Harvey Carney who – having escaped slavery – knows how precious freedom really is. This book is part of Pushkin Press’s True Adventures series of historical fiction from around the world. All the books centre on a historical person, and contain some non-fiction pages at the end that provide historical context.
When the Sky Falls
by Phil Earle
***British Book Awards 2022 – Children’s Fiction Winner***
Aged 12, Joseph still hasn’t learnt to read. Dyslexia is not widely understood, and being laughed at in school has made him angry. Loss has made him more furious still. While other children are being evacuated from London in 1941 he gets sent to London to be looked after by his grandmother’s gruff old friend, Mrs F, who runs a zoo. In Joseph’s experience, friendship and trust count for nothing, but gradually a special bond forms between the boy and Adonis, the zoo’s remaining gorilla. But what happens if Adonis’ cage is damaged by the bombs? A silverback on the loose during the blitz? Sometimes doing the right thing feels completely wrong.
The Wolf and the Fly
by Antje Damm
This is a fun little book for toddlers about a greedy wolf. As items disappear from a shelf, young readers can figure out what the wolf has just eaten. They will relate to the wolf’s burping, napping and trip to the toilet. But is it a good idea to eat the fly?
A Superhero Like You
by Ranj Singh, Liam Darcy (illustrator)
Lily wants to be a superhero when she grows up, but she is not interested in climbing up the side of a building or wearing pants outside her trousers. This is a predictable but nevertheless heartwarming picture book that encourages children to think about all the important jobs that people do around us all the time. Due to the plentiful detail in the bright illustrations there is a lot to talk about with toddler readers as well. People can argue about why certain key professions are not included, but essentially it is a celebration of all those people who do their work with kindness and care.
by Tom Percival
Isabel is good at noticing beautiful things around her. But when her family can no longer afford their house and move to a tower block on the far side of the city, she starts to feel invisible. Then something happens: Isabel suddenly starts to notice other invisible people. She sees what they are interested in and starts to help them fix things up. Gradually other people join in. The neighbourhood is transformed from a cold, sad and lonely place to a vibrant and colourful community. Isabel has achieved something special: she has made a difference.
Becoming: Adapted for Younger Readers
by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir, Becoming, is now available in an edition for readers aged 10 and up. It chronicles the life of an iconic woman of our era from childhood through to her time at one of the world’s most famous addresses. Obama writes of the values instilled in her by her father (work hard, laugh often and keep your word) and her mother (think for yourself and use your voice). By choosing the title “becoming” Obama emphasises that we are never static and unchanging, whilst giving young readers a sense of the importance of staying true to certain constant values to underpin the continuous shaping of our lives.
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team
by Christina Soontornvat
***2021 Newbery Honor Book***
***2021 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book***
Ages 10+, likely to appeal especially to 12-16 year olds, but interesting for adults too. Read more about this book in our selection of best books of 2021 for teens.
by Kimberly Brubaker
***2021 Newbery Honor Book***
***2021 Odyssey Honor Audiobook***
Ages 10-14. Read more about this book in our selection of best books of 2021 for teens.
How to Grow Up and Feel Amazing: The No Worries Guide for Boys
Dr Ranj, David O'Connell (illustrator)
Written by a paediatrician, this book is aimed at pubescent and adolescent boys. Read more about it in our selection of best books of 2021 for teens. Ages 11+