Best Picture Books 2021 | SLJ Best Books

Our 2021 best picture books list boasts 24 excellent works for children, including two bilingual books and several glowing tributes to mothers. 


Picture Books

Aronson, Katelyn. Clovis Keeps His Cool.
illus by Eve Farb. Page Street. ISBN 9781645672135.
PreS-Gr 3–This book will remind kid lit fans of another book about an unforgettable bull—Ferdinand. Toxic masculinity meets its kryptonite, and his name is Clovis, a bull and former linebacker, who takes over his granny’s china shop. He has something of a temper, Clovis does, but when he gets bullied, he handles provocation with charm and understanding.

Baptiste, Tracey. Looking for a Jumbie.
illus. by Amber Ren. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062970817.
K-Gr 2–A perfect tale for when it starts to get dark, featuring Naya, who is not afraid of much. This vibrant and entertaining picture book is filled with mythical creatures from Caribbean stories, with an endearing heroine at its center.

Bates, Janet Costa. Time for Bed, Old House.
illus. by A.G. Ford. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536209983.
PreS-Gr 2–The rituals of bedtime, as encompassing and timeless as the bonds between generations, elevate a simple story and make it an essential purchase for every collection. The realistic illustrations of Grandpop’s old house, its interior, and the outside landscape make this tale even more tender.

Bowles, David. My Two Border Towns.
illus. by Erika Meza. Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9780593111048.
Gr 1-3–In a wistful and generous book, a boy and his father travel between two countries; readers learn firsthand what borders do to families and livelihoods. This is a work meant to ignite conversations.

Charles, Tami. My Day with the Panye.
llus. by Sara Palacios. Candlewick. ISBN 9780763697495.
PreS-Gr 3–A mother is planning a special day for her daughter, Fallon, in the markets of Port-au-Prince. Charles sprinkles Haitian words into the text of this loving book, which is part interpersonal story and part travelogue. There are metaphors for carrying the panye (a large woven basket) that extend to Haiti itself—that it sways under the weight of sad events but is not crushed.

Fontaine, Valérie. The Big Bad Wolf in My House.
illus. by Nathalie Dion. Groundwood. ISBN 9781773065014.
PreS-Gr 4–A small girl narrates how life changes drastically after the Big Bad Wolf, her mother’s boyfriend, moves into her home. Resonant art casts simple shapes to allow the text to bear the weight of what is said, and what is not. Those who need this book will understand the subtext, and as no community is safe from domestic abuse, the hopeful message will encourage those experiencing similar situations to talk.

Greene, Rhonda Gowler. This Magical, Musical Night.
illus. by James Rey Sanchez. little bee. ISBN 9781499811728.
PreS-Gr 2–Like a 21st-century update of Lloyd Moss’s virtuoso Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, this really is a magical, musical book. Musicians of all skin colors and in all manner of dress, from tux to hijab, chime in from first tune-up to last fabulous note. Share this with children before first concerts, as a primer on orchestras, or even as a course on tuneful collaboration.

Ho, Joanna. Eyes that Kiss in the Corner.
illus. by Dung Ho. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062915627.
K-Gr 3–A young girl of Asian heritage remarks on the shape and color of the eyes of the light- and dark-skinned girls in her class, and finds beauty in her own features, and in those of her ancestors. The timing of this book provides resonance to a strong message, lyrically told, winningly delivered.

Hodgson, Rob. When Cloud Became a Cloud.
illus. by author. Penguin Workshop/Rise. ISBN 9780593224915.
PreS-Gr 2–A simplified but terrific tale, perfect for beginning readers or anyone seeking an exciting and funny science story about the water cycle, starring the intrepid Cloud. The book is divided into easy chapters that invite closer inspection of smiling raindrops and other friendly elements, but the facts are sound.

Laden, Nina. Dear Little One.
illus. by Melissa Castrillón. S. & S./Paula Wiseman. ISBN 9781534454774.
PreS-Gr 3–Framed as a letter full of love and gratitude from Mother Nature, this book helps readers, alongside the main character, explore flowers, trees, water, animals, deserts, mountains, and stars. The result is a gentle message about celebrating the world’s natural beauty in big and small ways—perfect for units on Earth Day or environmentalism.

Lawson, Jon Arno. Over the Shop.
illus. by Qin Leng. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536201475.
Gr 3-5–A dedication to trans activists and the inclusion of nonbinary characters allow a simple message of love and acceptance to resonate subtly. In this wordless book, grandparent and child provide a welcome home for two strangers, who set about transforming not just their home but the community. Every meticulously detailed spread offers a heartwarming message of renewal, hope, friendship, and compassion.

Luby, Brittany. Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh/This Is How I Know: Niibing, dgwaagig, bboong, mnookmig dbaadjigaade maanpii mzin’igning/A Book About the Seasons.
illus. by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley. Groundwood. ISBN 9781773063263.
Gr 3-5–This universal guide to the seasons, nature, climate, and beauty invites readers into a beloved locale. Along the way, there are glimpses of Ojibwe culture: the people, languages, and artwork. This bilingual book is written in Anishinaabemowin and English.

McGinty, Alice B. The Water Lady: How Darlene Arviso Helps a Thirsty Navajo Nation.
illus. by Shonto Begay. Random/Schwartz & Wade. ISBN 9780525645009.
Gr 1-4–In these United States, some people wake up thirsty, but there is no water. Darlene is not only the Water Lady (who delivers water to families on a Navajo Nation reservation); she is also the bearer of news, social connections, and other threads of community life. Begay’s watercolors depict a parched landscape full of desert beauty, and a sure path for children wanting to know more about water management in the Navajo Nation and elsewhere.

Paul, Miranda & Baptiste Paul. Peace.
illus. by Estelí Meza. NorthSouth. ISBN 9780735844490.
Gr 1-2–This striking, charmingly illustrated picture book informs young readers of the benefits of peace, stresses that it is attainable, and explores how war affects not only humans but also the animals living in the midst of conflict. A valuable, necessary lesson that beautifully defines peace for children and their adults.

Quang, Phung Nguyen & Huynh Kim Lien. My First Day.
illus. by authors. Random/Make Me a World. ISBN 9780593306260.
K-Gr 3–A Vietnamese boy sets out on a journey in his little wooden boat on “the great river, Mother Mekong” and delivers a series of firsts that will rivet readers, through open waves, mangrove trees, schools of fish, and water buffalo until he reaches his destination: school, on his very first day. A visually breathtaking expedition filled with highs and lows.

Ramos, NoNieqa. Your Mama.
illus. by Jacqueline Alcántara. HarperCollins/Versify. ISBN 9781328631886.
PreS-Gr 2–In a glowing tribute to mothers, here is one hip parent who spends quality time with her child. With long, wavy black hair, large gold hoop earrings, and heeled knee-high boots decorated with red roses, this mama has as much energy as her child. It’s a modern salute to motherhood and a valentine to family.

Samuel, Sigal. Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi.
illus. by Vali Mintzi. Levine Querido. ISBN 9781646140374.
Gr 2-4–In language reminiscent of a fairy tale, this loose biography relates the little-known story of the first female rabbi, Osnat Barzani, a Kurdish Jew whose knowledge of the Torah and leadership of a yeshiva in ancient Iraq broke gender barriers.

Srinivasan, Divya. What I Am.
illus. by author. Viking. ISBN 9780593204016.
PreS-Gr 2–A human, a girl, a daughter, a granddaughter—the narrator starts simply and then breaks open the definition of what she is in a head-spinning, eye-opening set of all but intangible opposites. It’s surprising, provocative, and to tell the truth, we’ve never seen any affirmations quite like these.

Talbott, Hudson. A Walk in the Words.
illus. by author. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9780399548710.
Gr 1-3–With a directness similar to Jordan Scott’s I Talk Like a River, this story addresses the stigma surrounding dyslexia. While drawing is like breathing for the boy, he knows he is the slowest reader in his class. Talbott brilliantly illuminates the feeling of dyslexia through his watercolor and colored pencil illustrations, offering hope to struggling readers and an avenue of understanding for others.

Valdivia, Paloma. Nosotros Means Us: Un cuento bilingüe.
illus. by author. Knopf. ISBN 9780593305140.
PreS-Gr 2 –This bilingual picture book opens with a mother sitting in a chair with her child. It can be called a Spanish Runaway Bunny, as it cements family bonds in reassuring language and specific, poetic art.

Walker, Tricia Elam. Dream Street.
illus. by Ekua Holmes. Random/Anne Schwartz. ISBN 9780525581109.
K-Gr 3–Meet the residents of Dream Street—the best street in the world—in this uplifting picture book that celebrates the power of possibility. A series of exuberant vignettes become so much more than the sum of their parts. Overflowing with Black joy, this is an invaluable addition to all collections.

Wang, Andrea. Watercress.
illus. by Jason Chin. Holiday House/Neal Porter. ISBN 9780823446247.
PreS-Gr 3–Simple text and serene illustrations pack a strong emotional punch in this picture book. A tightly woven piece of story and watercolor art is exemplified in one spread, where the cornfields of Ohio become the famine-stricken land of China. Who leaves a homeland, and at what cost?

Woodgate, Harry. Grandad’s Camper.
illus. by author. little bee. ISBN 9781499811933.
PreS-Gr 2–Before they became the couple that a child knows as Grandad and Gramps, two young men, waving a rainbow flag from their pink VW bus, they were a romantic duo, traveling the world—or at least Europe—together, camping under the stars. For the hope for new adventures, and the glimpse of intergenerational kindness and understanding, this lovely book should be on every shelf.

Yuksel, M.O. In My Mosque.
illus. by Hatem Aly. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062978707.
PreS-Gr 3–This marvelous, welcoming book on mosques, Muslims, and Islam is a must, offering foundational knowledge on the world’s second largest religion in accessible text and sterling illustrations.

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