2021 Starred Reviews Round-Up

Does your collection include this year’s critically acclaimed books? See what Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, and more, say about the top reviewed books of 2021 for kids and teens!

Click the tabs below to view more books in each age category.

Picture BooksMiddle Grade BooksYoung Adult BooksAdult Crossovers

We Wait for the Sun by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe; illustrated by Raissa Figueroa
On Sale Now

A beautiful and uplifting non-fiction picture book from trailblazing civil rights lawyer and activist Dovey Johnson Roundtree.


“The illustrations match the enthralling quality of the narrative…Absolutely captivating; a first purchase for picture book collections. This peek into the childhood of a groundbreaking civil rights activist is an excellent choice for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Grandparents Day, or any time of the year.”—School Library Journal, starred review

“Recalling a memorable moment of natural beauty, the tale is told simply and directly, underscoring the authenticity of the narrative and the warmth of the main characters’ mutual affection. In the engaging, lyrical illustrations, Figueroa makes good use of deep, soft, subtle colors in the night scenes and startlingly bright hues at dawn.”—Booklist, starred review

“With nighttime scenes bathed in deep purples and a final scene of daybreak in golden hues, this touching tale successfully conveys special moments of hushed expectation and quiet exhilaration between a child and her strong, loving adult. Makes magic out of a true moment, as the best picture books do.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Thoughtful imagery lush with sensory detail pairs seamlessly with atmospheric, luminous digital illustrations by Figueroa…This is a poignant glimpse into the childhood of a storied civil rights luminary, simultaneously serving as a testament to the love between caretaker and child and a soothing, nature-based meditation.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham
On Sale Now

From Caldecott honoree LeUyen Pham, Outside, Inside is a moving picture book celebrating essential workers and the community coming together to face the challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic.


“This powerful ode to community delivers a timeless message of humility, perseverance, and hope.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Reflecting shared experiences and hopes, here’s a welcome picture book for our times.” —Booklist, starred review

“Using simple language and detail-filled digital illustrations, Pham builds scenes with which young readers will be familiar. Outside, Inside contains a sense of hope…Pham’s excellent illustrations… are the heart of this book. Children will likely enjoy following the black cat as it interacts with people both outside and inside, and find comfort in seeing a scary time represented in such a gentle manner…This optimistic book will help even very young children make sense of Covid-19.” —Shelf Awareness, starred review

Bear Island by Matthew Cordell
On Sale Now

Louise and her family are sad over the loss of their beloved dog, Charlie. “Life will not be the same,” Louise says, as she visits a little island that Charlie loved. But on a visit to the island after Charlie’s death, something strange happens: She meets a bear… Here is a lovely, poignant story about loss and healing that will bring comfort to even the youngest readers.


“A poetically beautiful story of grief and healing mirrored in the natural world has a touch of magical realism as a young girl processes her emotions and realizes that endings lead to beginnings.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Life comes full circle…” —Horn Book, starred review

“In a story that respects grief’s slow pace, Cordell’s writing and artwork together carry grace, economy, and heart.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Lost Package by Richard Ho; illustrated by Jessica Lanan
On Sale Now

The heartwarming story of a package that gets lost, then found and an in-depth behind the scenes look at what happens at the post office, in Richard Ho and Jessica Lanan’s The Lost Package.


“Serendipity perhaps best describes Richard Ho’s second picture book, The Lost Package, enhanced by writer/artist Jessica Lanan’s superbly expressive watercolors. Together, the creative pair present a wondrous story about separation and near-magical reunion…Informative and inspiring.”—Shelf Awareness, starred review

“Quietly, beautifully told, and deeply satisfying.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“[A] moving story…The richness of the tale lies in subtly textured watercolor illustrations by Lanan…An end note by Ho contextualizes this homage to the USPS, where his immigrant father worked for more than 30 years, and urges readers to support the now-struggling agency.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo
On Sale Now

From New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne and illustrator Julia Kuo, here is I Dream of Popo. This delicate, emotionally rich picture book celebrates a special connection that crosses time zones and oceans as Popo and her granddaughter hold each other in their hearts forever.


“Readers will connect with this visual story on various levels or learn something new; possibly both. #Ownvoices tributes to childhood memories of home: It is as much an emotional space as a physical place.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A richly nuanced narrative that illuminates the interstices of one family’s diasporic experience.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge by Ray Anthony Shepard; illustrated by Keith Mallett
On Sale Now

Runaway is a powerful, lyrical picture book about the enslavement of Ona Judge and her self-emancipation from George Washington’s household.


“With a distinctive, haunting voice, powerful images, and thought-provoking story structure, this unique look at a remarkable young woman’s life choices and decisions offers an utterly necessary but seldom highlighted perspective on the contradictions within our society’s foundations. A powerful antidote to whitewashed cultural mythology.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A stunning picture book debut . . . an evocative portrait that keenly interrogates the structures upon which America is built.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

What’s the Matter, Marlo? by Andrew Arnold
On Sale Now

A picture book about best friends that highlights empathy, as well as anger and sadness, and reminds us that these aren’t feelings to run away from, but instead to help each other through.


“A sweet, reassuring validation of the power of a close friendship and empathy.” —Kirkus, starred review

“Profound and reassuring.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Home is in Between by Mitali Perkins; illustrated by Lavanya Naidu
On Sale Now

In the timely yet timeless picture book Home Is in Between, critically acclaimed author Mitali Perkins and illustrator Lavanya Naidu describe the experience of navigating multiple cultures and embracing the complex but beautiful home in between.


“Perkins explores a child’s experience of immigration in a sweet and child-friendly story presented in a beautifully illustrated package… This book can serve as either a validating mirror or an illuminating window. A warm read-aloud, it is a must-purchase for all ­picture book collections.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Animation-style characters by Naidu (Susie Will Not Speak) reflect emotion clearly, while straightforward writing by Perkins (Between Us and Abuela) shows how Shanti learns to appreciate aspects of her new life while keeping people and elements from her old one close to her heart.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom by Lita Judge
On Sale Now

With lush illustrations, poems, and accessible scientific information, The Wisdom of Trees by Lita Judge is a fascinating exploration of the hidden communities trees create to strengthen themselves and others.


“The research is thorough and the details are engaging. The illustrations capture the diversity of environments and beautifully highlight the connectivity of forests…The poetry adds a wonderful lyrical quality to the text…Wonderful illustrations and poetry highlight cutting-edge scientific information about how trees communicate and share information. Don’t leave this one behind.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“In poetry, prose, and art, examples from around the world teach both basic botany and current, even cutting-edge, research about trees.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Something’s Wrong: A Bear, A Hare, and Some Underwear by Jory John, illustrated by Erin Kraan
On Sale Now

A hilarious picture book from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jory John, paired with new illustrator Erin Kraan, about a bear whose friends help him make it through a bad day!


“This is a wonderful example of illustration adding further to a very funny text… Expect hilarity to ensue wherever underwear stories are a hit with the add-on bonus of this being a great title for discussions on the topic of ­allyship.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“The book is also a clever primer on handling embarrassment and how it can sometimes be dealt with by simply changing the perspective of what’s happening… This underwear affair is wise, witty, and just brief enough.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Stella’s Stellar Hair by Yesenia Moises
On Sale Now

Black girl magic takes the solar system in Stella’s Stellar Hair, a celebration of hair, family, and self-love from debut author-illustrator Yesenia Moises!

“An astronomically creative mix of science, fantasy, and African American culture….An innovative, refreshing, out-of-this-world tale about the incredible versatility of afro hair.” —Kirkus, starred review

I Love You, Baby Burrito by Angela Dominguez
On Sale Now

From Pura Belpre honoree Angela Dominguez, I Love You Baby Burrito is a modern classic picture book celebrating the act of swaddling a newborn into a “baby burrito.”

“This celebration of the “baby burrito” is a playful and loving take on life in a Latinx family.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Watch Me: A Story of Immigration and Inspiration by Doyin Richards, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
On Sale Now

“In an inviting, conversational tone, Richards introduces Joe, who is from Sierra Leone and wants to study in America…Cepeda’s scumbled sunlit paintings, created with oil over acrylic on board, emphasize warmth and openness. A personal story with universal impact.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

If Bees Disappeared by Lily Williams
On Sale Now

What would happen if bees disappeared? Find out in this fourth book from Lily Williams in the award-winning If Animals Disappeared Series that imagines the consequences of a world without bees.

“A rich, well-designed offering with multiple uses for teachers and students. A standout among the many books about honeybees.”—School Library Journal, starred review

Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen
On Sale Now

A middle grade memoir from a living literary legend, giving readers a new perspective on the origins of Gary Paulsen’s famed survival stories.


“The prolific Paulsen dips into his seemingly inexhaustible well of memories to pen yet another memoir… Resonant themes and beautiful writing unify the memoir’s episodic structure.” —Horn Book, starred review

“A rich, compelling read that is emotive and expressive without forcing empathy from the reader. Both brightly funny and darkly tragic, it is fresh in its honest portrayal of difficult themes… Readers will fall into this narrative of succeeding against overwhelming odds amid deep trauma.” —Kirkus, starred review

“A riveting, hopeful survival story about personal resilience amid trauma.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“In a memoir that reads like the fiction that has made him famous, Gary Paulsen leads his audience through the rugged terrain of his childhood…Paulsen exposes his early life with raw honesty and heartwarming humor…Some of the most inspiring moments come in Paulsen’s discovery of the library and the joy of reading…This awakening of Paulsen’s love of story ignites hope in his dark world, offering readers a buoyancy that counters the heaviness of his struggles…Gone to the Woods is labeled for middle grade children, but this literary treasure is written for book lovers of any age.” —Shelf Awareness, starred review

Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica by Rebecca E. F. Barone
On Sale Now

Equal parts adventure and STEM, Rebecca E. F. Barone’s Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica is a thrilling nonfiction book for young readers chronicling two treacherous, groundbreaking expeditions to the South Poleand includes eye-catching photos of the Antarctic landscape.


“A riveting tribute to epic tests of men against the elements.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Readers will be caught up in the real-time action sequences and should end up rooting for everybody as these determined individuals face unimaginable physical and mental hardships.” —Booklist, starred review

“Exemplary organization… keeps the narratives gliding effortlessly.” —BCCB, starred review

The Comeback by E. L. Shen
On Sale Now

E. L. Shen’s The Comeback is a heartfelt, #OwnVoices middle-grade debut about a young girl trying to be a champ—in figure skating and in life.


“Shen does an excellent job of depicting what racist bullying is like, how it can escalate, and the way it begins to take over every part of a victim’s life. Fast-paced chapters filled with competition, friendship, and inspiration make this a worthy addition to any middle-grade collection.” —Booklist, starred review

“Shen has created a wonderfully grounded character who navigates both middle school and the world of elite athletic competition with an authentic voice—foibles, insecurities, and all. And deftly woven around edge-of-your seat competition scenes are more mundane but significant issues: everyday racism, sportsmanship, burnout among young athletes, the value of true friendships, and the unfaltering love and support of family…That Maxine’s figure-skating idols are all Asian (and that there are so many of them) reminds readers of how important representation is. On-ice excitement and a fierce-but-vulnerable protagonist make this a winner.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Meltdown: Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima by Deirdre Langeland
On Sale Now

Deirdre Langeland’s Meltdown explores for middle grade readers the harrowing story of the deadly earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that caused the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster.


“Comprehensive…Eyewitness accounts from survivors woven throughout the expertly narrated text reveal the horror and devastation of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami…[An] impressive and compelling work of nonfiction.” —Horn Book, starred review

“Langeland’s narrative is impressively concise, with accessible explanations for such complicated technical subjects as plate tectonics, seismology, the fission process of nuclear power plants, radiation and radioactivity…[V]ividly depicted….Riveting…A well-researched, sharply written, engrossing account of natural and nuclear disaster.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas by Kimberly Willis Holt
On Sale Now

Kimberly Willis Holt’s The Ambassador of Nowhere, Texas is a stunning post-9/11 companion to the National Book Award-winner When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.

“In this companion to the author’s memorable When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, 30 years have passed and it’s 2001. Evocatively written, this is an altogether absorbing and affecting novel. It’s obvious that Holt loves her fully realized characters and their small-town setting, and readers can’t help but feel the same.”—Booklist, starred review

Starla Jean by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by A. N. Kang
On Sale Now

Printz Honor winner and National Book Award Finalist Elana K. Arnold makes her chapter book debut with this charming story of a girl and her chicken, irresistibly illustrated by A. N. Kang.

“This series starter features Starla Jean’s exuberant first-person narration, liberally punctuated with dialogue with her family and neighbors. Readers transitioning to early chapter books will appreciate the four short chapters and the limited amount of text per page, wide margins, and ample space between lines of text. Mercy Watson fans will flock to this whimsical new series for developing readers.”—Kirkus, starred review

Seven Voyages: How China’s Treasure Fleet Conquered the Sea by Laurence Bergreen and Sara Fray
On Sale Now

From New York Times bestselling author Laurence Bergreen and author Sara Fray comes this immaculately researched history for young readers detailing the life of Zheng He, his complex and enduring friendship with his emperor, and the epic Seven Voyages he led that would establish China as a global power.

“The research for this book must have been as formidable as the voyages, with the authors covering everything from Chinese daily life in the 1400s to shipbuilding and regional politics. It’s never overwhelming, though, since as well as being fascinating on their own, these facts contextualize the swashbuckling drama.”—Booklist, starred review

Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy
On Sale Now

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

“This marvelous middle grade novel provides an honest depiction of alcoholism and addiction. Petro-Roy’s description of Veronica’s anxiety will be relatable to many readers, as will her hope upon finding people with whom she can share her concerns… Hand this to readers who don’t mind a few tears on their way to a happy ending.” —School Library Journal, starred review

Pepper Page Saves the Universe by Landry Q. Walker; illustrated by Eric Jones
On Sale Now

Landry Walker and Eric Jones’ Pepper Page Saves the Universe is a middle-grade futuristic superhero story about a shy comic book girl-geek becoming her own superhero inspiration!

“A gallery of images in a highly readable afterword gives some insight into just how much work goes into a well-developed graphic novel… It’s a relief to see this is a planned series, so readers need not fret that this is the last of Pepper.”—BCCB, starred review

Spin with Me by Ami Polinsky
On Sale Now

From the author of the critically acclaimed Gracefully Grayson comes a thoughtful and sensitive middle-grade novel about non-binary identity and first love.

“Hopeful and real, this story is electric. There’s a lot to love here; recommended as a first purchase everywhere.” —School Library Journal, starred review

Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers by Juliet Menéndez
On Sale Now

Discover how 40 influential Latinas became the women we celebrate today! In this collection of short biographies from all over Latin America and across the United States, Juliet Menéndez explores the first small steps that set the Latinitas off on their journeys. With gorgeous, hand-painted illustrations, Menéndez shines a spotlight on the power of childhood dreams.

“The women represent different nationalities, ethnicities, races, cultural, and economic backgrounds, and life paths followed, but they are all highly successful role models that will inspire young children to follow their own dream…This book belongs in any child’s hands.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

The Awakening of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson
On Sale Now

A powerful narrative account of the activist’s adolescent years in jail, written by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz along with 2019 Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe award-winning author, Tiffany D. Jackson.


“Libraries will be incomplete without the inclusion of this captivating historical novel by Malcom X’s daughter.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Shabazz and Jackson effectively illuminate not only the figure’s religious and political awakening, but the injustice historically leveled against the Black community by mass incarceration and systemic racism.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Readers will make connections to persistent injustices faced by Black communities—and the beautiful ways which, despite that terror, Black families have found to craft visions of freedom and lives of dignity and love. A must-read reminder that transformation is made possible through community.” —Kirkus, starred review

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson
On Sale Now

What Beauty There Is is Cory Anderson’s stunning YA novel about brutality and beauty, and about broken people trying to survive—perfect for fans of Patrick Ness, Laura Ruby, and Meg Rosoff.


“A ­gorgeous, intense, and shocking look at chaos, survival, fate, and betrayal… A first purchase and a must-read. Prepare to be haunted and chilled to the bone by this exceptional story.” —School Library Journal starred review

“Intense, brutal, and searingly honest, Anderson’s debut features intricate plotting and action that hold up against the best thriller novels, yet it is all the more remarkable for its tender, multidimensional characterization and sharp, crystalline prose. Riveting and unforgettable.” —Kirkus starred review

“Debut author [Cory] Anderson captures the setting and souls of her characters through her sparse yet lyrical text, creating a suspenseful, throbbing tale of love and survival, choices and consequences. Told in alternating voices, this powerful story will mesmerize.” —Booklist starred review

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
On Sale Now

When two teens discover that they were both sexually assaulted at the same party, they develop a cautious friendship through her family’s possibly-magical pastelería, his secret forest of otherworldly trees, and the swallows returning to their hometown.


★ “An empowering story of two survivors healing together… Their vulnerable, spellbinding story, colored with magic realism and achingly beautiful prose, is about healing after trauma, reclaiming your body and choices, and the empathetic understanding between survivors…McLemore doesn’t shy away from the complexity and impact of trauma, but this is ultimately a transformative story about healing and finding the way back to your own magic.” —Booklist, starred review

★ “McLemore whips up a magical realist tale as spellbinding as the pan dulce creations described within this novel’s pages…With haunting prose and sharp insight, McLemore expertly combines the piquant with the sweet.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

★ “Aching, vivid narrative…The poetic and vulnerable prose illuminates the need for more open conversation about sexuality, consent, and abuse without the limits of the gender binary…Piercing magic.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

She’s Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heart
On Sale Now

An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in She’s Too Pretty to Burn, an expertly plotted YA thriller by Wendy Heard.


“This thriller is expertly paced, with Heard starting out slow to introduce her flawed, complex teen protagonists and later escalating events into a page-turning crescendo. With the already intriguing premise of a lesbian thriller that takes inspiration from Portrait of Dorian Gray in its focus on a single picture’s effect (if not the theme of aging), Heard follows through on the promises this concept offers while deftly integrating social media and a thriller plot with creepy, well-executed twists.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review

★ “A romantic, fast-paced thriller inspired by a classic. The story unravels in colorful, electric prose…leading to exhilarating and twisty final third. This dark, winding novel expertly interweaves suspense and romance. A wild and satisfying romp.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink
On Sale Now

Randi Pink’s The Angel of Greenwood is a historical YA novel that takes place during the Greenwood Massacre of 1921, in an area of Tulsa, OK, known as the “Black Wall Street.”

★ “Rich in its discussion of Black literature, this novel brilliantly juxtaposes a lighthearted story of young Black love with a deft reminder that such beauty has often been violently seized from Black people, and that these instances deserve remembrance.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

We Free the Stars by Hafsah Faizal (Sands or Arawiya, Volume 2)
On Sale Now

The second book in the Sands of Arawiya duology by the masterful Hafsah Faizal—the follow-up to the smash New York Times bestselling novel We Hunt the Flame.

★ “Each achingly raw character arc is fully realized, delivering a satisfying close to the zumra’s story. Faizal’s craft continues to evolve as she demonstrates a facility with language and literary technique, drawing readers into a fantasy world and into the lives of characters that feel impressively real. Moments of humor and edge-of-your-seat action easily balance the book’s dark, tragic depths, creating a memorable story at the height of the fantasy genre.” —Booklist, starred review

What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo
On Sale Now

Rose Szabo’s thrilling debut is a dark and thrilling novel about a teen girl who returns home to her strange, wild family after years of estrangement, perfect for fans of Wilder Girls.

★ “Deliciously gothic and wonderfully creepy.” —BCCB, starred review

Love is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann
On Sale Now

This is a laugh-out-loud exploration of sexuality, family, female friendship, grief, and community. With the heart and hilarity of Netflix’s critically-acclaimed Sex Education, Wibke Brueggemann’s sex positive debut Love Is for Losers is required reading for Generation Z teens.

★ “A sarcastic 15-year-old records angst—about her parents, first love and loss, and failure—in six months of achingly universal journal entries. Via journal entries told in Phoebe’s no-nonsense tone, debut author Brueggemann details the snarky, socially awkward protagonist’s growth as she experiences the messiness of attraction and love, and comes to appreciate the joy and pain of connection. Phoebe’s frequent internet searches and frank narration style manage to both entertain and inform on a wide variety of topics pertaining to sexuality and identity.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen
On Sale April 20, 2021

High school nemeses fall in love in Kelly Quindlen’s She Drives Me Crazy, a queer YA rom com perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Casey McQuisten.

★ “In addition to nailing the enemies-to-lovers romance (with a side of fake dating to boot), Quindlen also fleshes out white Scottie’s and Indian American Irene’s families and emotional lives…A little sweet, a little sharp, this romance will resonate with readers looking for an emotional journey.” —Booklist, starred review

Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto; illustrated by Ann Xu
On Sale Now

Poet and novelist Hiromi Goto effortlessly blends wry, observational slice-of-life literary fiction with poetic magical realism in the tender and surprising graphic novel Shadow Life, with haunting art from debut artist Ann Xu.


★ “Sprinkled with fabulism (a vacuum and salt can stop death), confronting racist history (Canada’s WWII prison camps for Japanese Canadians), and questioning institutionalized eldercare, Goto’s latest is an empowering, emotional tribute to defiant, independent, kick-ass old women living their best lives.”—Booklist, starred review

★ “The loose black-and-white line art by Xu, including interspersed wordless panels, perfectly captures the progression of Kumiko’s emotions from serenity to revelation to distress to determined defiance, as well as the narrative’s fantastical and surreal turns. Quiet sensitivity and humor shine throughout, lighting the bright triumph in one woman’s twilight.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review