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 Books

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

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 January 26, 2021

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

We Wait for the Sun by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe; illustrated by Raissa Figueroa
On Sale February 9, 2021

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


“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

The Lost Package by Richard Ho; illustrated by Jessica Lanan
On Sale March 2, 2021

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.


“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

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

Bear Island by Matthew Cordell
On Sale January 26, 2021

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.

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

Home is in Between by Mitali Perkins; illustrated by Lavanya Naidu
On Sale February 23, 2021

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.

“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 March 2, 2021

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.

“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

If Bees Disappeared by Lily Williams
On Sale March 16, 2021

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

Something’s Wrong: A Bear, A Hare, and Some Underwear by Jory John, illustrated by Erin Kraan
On Sale March 23, 2021

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!

“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

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

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.


“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

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 January 19, 2021

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 January 19, 2021

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

The Comeback by E. L. Shen
On Sale January 19, 2021

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 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 February 9, 2021

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.

“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

Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy
On Sale February 16, 2021

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 February 16, 2021

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 February 16, 2021

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 February 23, 2021

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.

“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

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 January 19, 2021

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 February 2, 2021

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 February 23, 2021

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

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
On Sale March 16, 2021

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.

★ “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 March 30, 2021

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.

★ “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

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