2021 Blue Ribbons

2021 Blue Ribbons

2021 brought no more stability than its predecessor, so the staff here at the Bulletin has been grateful for the steady stream of brilliant books that have comforted us, challenged us, and reminded us that, while the future is unknowable, empathy is a necessity in times when we feel unmoored. We recognize the library world has experienced its own unique set of stresses this year, from closings to book challenges, and we hope our guide to the best books of the year offers support and solidarity to those struggling to get the right books into the hands of the right reader.

Kate Quealy-Gainer, Editor


Bates, Janet Costa. Time for Bed, Old House; illus. by AG Ford. Candlewick. 2-5 yrs
Grandpop has just the thing to help nervous Isaac settle down for bed in this gently soporific tale; Ford’s charming watercolor illustrations bring further coziness, making this a perfect choice for a cuddly lapsit. (July/August)

de la Peña, Matt. Milo Imagines the World; illus. by Christian Robinson. Putnam. 5-8 yrs
Poetic text pairs with dynamic art as readers join Milo on a subway ride while he draws wild imaginings about his fellow riders in his sketchbook. Without pretension or preachiness, de la Peña delivers an important message about the pitfalls of making assumptions. (January)

Gauld, Tom. The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess; written and illus. by Tom Gauld. Porter/Holiday House. 4-8 yrs
With quirky humor and striking art, this modern fairy tale plays on familiar tropes as the Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess adventure through a magical land after being separated from their family. (September)

Higgins, Ryan T. Norman Didn’t Do It! (Yes, He Did.); written and illus. by Ryan T. Higgins. Disney Hyperion. 4-7 yrs
Porcupine Norman is horrified to discover he might have competition as best pal to Mildred the tree in this storytime-ready tale of big feelings; droll narration and frantic Norman’s next-level histrionics ensure plenty of belly laughs. (July/August)

Khan, Naaz. Room for Everyone; illus. by Mercè López. Dlouhy/Atheneum. 3-6 yrs
In this sprightly rhyming story, Musa and his older sister hop the daladala (a jitney-type bus) for a trip to the beach on their Zanzibar island; mixed-media illustrations beam with sundrenched cheer in this joyful celebration of everyday life in a bustling community. (September)

Klassen, Jon. The Rock from the Sky; written and illus. by Jon Klassen. Candlewick. Gr. 1-3
Klassen returns with this spare, humorous early chapter book featuring an oblivious turtle, a wary groundhog, and a falling rock; sly humor and a helpful five-chapter structure make this a hit with early and reluctant readers. (April)

Lawson, Jonarno. Over the Shop; illus. by Qin Leng. Candlewick. 4-8 yrs
Fans of Bean’s Building Our House will delight in this wordless picture book, which tells a surprisingly layered story focused on the renovation of a general store and the diverse set of people the work brings together. (December 2020)

Liu, Dane. Friends are Friends, Forever; illus. by Lynn Scurfield. Godwin/Holt. 4-8 yrs
In this reassuring tale of friendship and celebration of cultural identity, young Dandan moves from China to the U.S.; narration steeped in the senses combines with striking illustrations to create a fully immersive reading experience. (November)

Shea, Bob. Chez Bob; written and illus. by Bob Shea. Little. 4-7 yrs
From the title’s comical inversion of the author’s name to the straight-faced absurdity of the opening lines, Shea fans will know they’ve arrived again in goofytown in this story of alligator Bob, who decides opening a birdseed restaurant on his nose is the best way to grab some avian grub. (July/August)

Wenzel, Brendan. Inside Cat; written and illus. by Brendan Wenzel. Chronicle. 4-7 yrs
Inside Cat reveals its rich imagination as the feline watches the happenings of the world outside its window in this clever picture book with an amusing, unexpected twist; rhyming text and peppy illustrations bring inspiration to see the world in a different light. (October)


Becker, Harmony. Himawari House; written and illus. by Harmony Becker. First Second. Gr. 9-12
Manga mashes with Western comic conventions in this clever, tender exploration of cross-cultural identity, as American-raised Nao attempts to navigate her cultural heritage when she spends a gap year in her native Japan. (October)

Bertrand, Lynne. City of the Uncommon Thief. Dutton. Gr. 9-12
Odd, Errol, and Jamila are brought together by a mysterious and strangely powerful set of iron needles in this grim, haunting fantasy novel that explores life inside a strictly quarantined world made up of 1,000 inhabited towers and a horrifying city underneath. (January)

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Being Clem. Holiday House. Gr. 4-7
Readers meet Clem, a smart but nervous kiddo, in this final title of Cline-Ransome’s historical fiction trilogy that sensitively explores different facets of the Black community on Chicago’s South Side during the 1940s. (July/August)

DiCamillo, Kate. The Beatryce Prophecy; illus. by Sophie Blackall. Candlewick. Gr. 4-7
With wry humor and elegant prose, DiCamillo expertly recrafts folklore tropes in the tale of the eponymous Beatryce, the monk that takes her in, and the prophecy that promises to take down a king. (September)

He, Joan. The Ones We’re Meant to Find. Roaring Brook. Gr. 9-12
There’s plenty to ponder in this science fiction dystopia, both about how we treat the world and how we treat each other when it all goes to hell; chapters move between sisters Celia, who is trapped on an island, and Kasey, who is desperately trying to find her, until the two stories come together in a shocking revelation. (April)

Ireland, Justina. Ophie’s Ghosts. Balzer + Bray. Gr. 4-7
Ireland offers readers a compelling look at the shifting race dynamics in 1920s America by focusing on young Ophie, whose ability to see ghosts help her solve the mystery of Clara, a young woman who died in the manor where Ophie now works as a servant. (April)

Lo, Malinda. Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Dutton. Gr. 9-12
It’s 1954, and seventeen-year-old Lily Hui is reckoning with her Chinese-American heritage and her sexuality in this powerful coming-of-age novel that tackles perceptions, expectations, and identity, and sweeps readers into smoky lesbian nightclubs and ‘50s culture. (December 2020)

Mills, Claudia. The Lost Language. Ferguson/Holiday House. Gr. 4-7
Sixth-grader Betsy tries to negotiate a tricky relationship with her brash, overreaching best friend while dealing with a depressed, distant mother; as usual, Mills approaches her protagonist and her readers with deep compassion and a keen ear for middle grade dynamics in this tender verse novel. (September)

Schrefer, Eliot. The Darkness Outside Us. Tegen/HarperCollins. Gr. 9-12
Ambrose, a bratty but gifted student at the Fédération’s elite space academy, and Kodiak, an aloof orphan from another nation, are paired on a mission to space to find Ambrose’s missing sister. Complex world building and a gaspworthy twist keep the story going, but it’s the book’s commentary on how we love and what we sacrifice for it that is truly memorable. (May)

Szabo, Rose. What Big Teeth. Farrar. Gr. 8-12
In this deliciously Gothic and wonderfully creepy tale, teenaged Eleanor struggles to find her place in her family of werewolves, monsters, and witches. Szabo’s tight, incisive writing keeps readers breathless until the chilling climax. (January)

Williams-Garcia, Rita. A Sitting in St. James. Quill Tree/HarperCollins. Gr. 10 up
The cruelties of plantation life in the South are laid bare in this soaring work of historical fiction that follows the Guilbert family and the enslaved people that labor on their estate; it’s a thoughtfully researched, elegantly constructed examination of slavery and its far-reaching, traumatic legacy. (May)


Ahokoivu, Mari. Oksi; written and illus. by Mari Ahokoivu; tr. from the Finnish by Silja-Maaria Aronpuro. Levine Querido. Gr. 6-10
This graphic novel adaptation of a translated Finnish folktale is a breathtaking exploration of generational connection and trauma, following the story of a mother bear, her cubs, and a magical girl with no clear family. Radiant, ethereal digital art accompanies the subtle storytelling to create a truly exceptional offering. (November)

Barone, Rebecca E. F. Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica. Holt. illus. with photographs. Gr. 5-9
Barone pairs her recounting of the 1911 rivalry between explorers Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen with coverage of the 2018 quests by Louis Rudd and Colin O’Brady to traverse across Antarctica solo. Exemplary organization and a breathless pace keep the action focused and the narrative lively. (December 2020)

Cherrix, Amy. In the Shadow of the Moon: America, Russia, and the Hidden History of the Space Race. Balzer + Bray. illus. with photographs. Gr. 6-10
In this thrilling and illuminating read, Cherrix tracks down the lost history of the scramble by both the U.S. and Russia to recover German military war secrets to advance their technology during the heated Space Race. (January)

Jones, Dan SaSuWeh. Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters: Chilling American Indian Stories; illus. by Weshoyot Alvitre. Scholastic. Gr. 4-8
Jones, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, introduces readers to otherworldly presences from First Nations across the United States and Canada in this crowd-pleasing anthology of traditional and contemporary tales. Alvitre, a member of the Tongva tribe of Southern California, provides memorably eerie line drawings for each tale. (October)

Greenfield, Amy Butler. The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life. Random House Studio. illus. with photographs. Gr. 6-12
With narrative flair and accessible prose, Greenfield delivers a biography that reads like a gripping novel. A career in code cracking was just one of many fascinating aspects of Smith Friedman’s life, which also included true blue romance, a Machiavellian employer, glass ceilings and uncredited labor, and a brilliant husband battling mental illness. (September)

Mack, Jeff. Art Is Everywhere: A Book about Andy Warhol; written and illus. by Jeff Mack. Holt. Gr. 2-5
In this stealthily sophisticated picture book, the fictionalized voice of Andy Warhol delivers a breezy monologue directly to readers, while Mack’s loose-lined, affectionately wacky art offers a vibrant visual hook for aspiring artists. (September)

Magoon, Kekla. Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People. Candlewick. illus. with photographs. Gr. 6-12
Magoon gives a full picture of the Black Panthers, showing how the organization came to be and how it has been purposely misrepresented in history books for decades. This fascinating portrait of a complex social movement offers young activists a model to make big change with local action. (September)

Sewell, Jacquie. Whale Fall Café; illus. by Dan Tavis. Tilbury House. 5-9 yrs
Both aspiring marine biologists and primary-grade science teachers will appreciate this playful look at a recently discovered phenomenon. Sewell guides readers along the journey of a whale’s corpse as it descends to the ocean floor—sure, it’s a little gross, but snarky text, intriguing facts, and humorous illustrations make this slightly macabre outing one worth diving into. (April)

Sheinkin, Steve. Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown. Roaring Brook. illus. with photographs. Gr. 6-12
Sheinkin returns with his usual aplomb, offering a chilling account of the nuclear arms race with vivid immediacy; history buffs will recognize many old friends here in the spies, scientists, and suits who appeared in Sheinkin’s Bomb and laid the groundwork for the Cold War. (September)