Books of 2021

There have been so many books that have been absolutely brilliant this year – and so many more that I am yet to read. What follows is a list of books that I have read, I have loved, and I would recommend you get hold of if you can.

Picking up a book is always exciting, but there’s often a sense of trepidation on my part. Will the sequel maintain the high standards set in previous books? Will your favourite author keep producing classics? Will the book everyone’s been talking about be worth the hype?

Happily, these books tick all the boxes, and more. In no particular order, here are some lovely books I read this year…

  1. Mitch Johnson – Pop!

Mitch Johnson’s Pop is something of a satirical take on multinational corporations and how they operate, but delivers a serious message about the environment and our responsibility towards it.

2.Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz – Ergo

A masterpiece in terms of design, this story starts inside the egg, looking at Ergo pre-hatching. We are privy to her thoughts and fears about entering the real world, and we are gently encouraged to discover and appreciate our own identities.

3. Dara McAnulty – Wild Child

I really enjoyed this book because of its sheer love for the natural world, whether thinking about the different species that are all around us, the wonderful array of language that nature provides, or the nudging to go and be part of this natural world through making.

4. Pam Smy – The Hideaway

Following the extraordinary Thornhill is The Hideaway, a novel that fearlessly tackles domestic violence, grief, fear and loneliness as Billy McKenna runs away from home. Raw, honest and essential reading.

5. Zillah Bethell – The Shark Caller

Set in Papua New Guinea, this story follows Blue Wing, a young girl who has sadly lost both of her parents in a tragic accident at sea. When Maple arrives on her island, Blue Wing is forced to confront her past, with an explosive ending. My original review was written for Just Imagine and can be found here.

6. Sara Pennypacker – Pax: Journey Home

When a book as beautiful as Pax arrives, you leave a very happy customer. When a sequel is announced, there is a mixture of joy and fear – but this book is even better than its predecessor. For Peter, this is coming of age story, his closure, and there are some tender, heart-swelling moments here. Pennypacker’s writing is just a joy.

7. Jon Klassen – The Rock From The Sky

Some authors and illustrators can do no wrong, and, for me, Jon Klassen falls squarely into that bracket. This philosophical exploration of friendship and the future could be allegorical – where is our world heading? – but really this is just a book to savour. Five short stories, all interlinked, and had my four-year-old declaring ‘I don’t want to go to the future.’

8. Phil Earle – When The Sky Falls

There is a plethora of wartime books for year 5 and 6 children to choose from, so to stand out from the crowd really takes some doing. Set in 1941, Joseph is abandoned by his mother, has his father fighting in France, and a grandmother who cannot cope with his behaviour. So he is sent to live in London, where the bombs fall, and where he must learn to care for a silverback gorilla. This is a story full of compassion, trust and love.

9. Kiran Millwood-Hargrave and Tom de Freston – Julia and the Shark

This wonderfully written tale consists of Julia and her parents, who move to the Shetlands to fix a lighthouse and to find a shark. There is a cost to this though, as relationships become strained, tensions are heightened, and each of the three have to find something different in themselves. A powerful story supported by equally powerful illustrations.

My original review can be found here.

10. Geraldine McCaughrean – The Supreme Lie

Some books are just made for their times, and this story, all about political posturing, lies, deception, doublespeak and double standards might ring a few bells for those who are suffering the current UK government. It is not often politics is presented to the young adult audience (I would say this would be suitable for year 7 up), but this is a really interesting take, and an excellent story.

11. William Grill – Bandoola

William Grill always produces something special, and this is certainly true of this in-depth tale of Bandoola, an Asian timber elephant that had a special relationship with its captors, and the first elephant to be enlisted into the British Army in World War II. There is a real tenderness here, and a strong message that humans need to more to better support and respect the animal kingdom.

Read Paul Watson’s review here.

12. Onjali Q. Rauf – The Lion Above The Door

Since her debut The Boy at The Back of the Class, Rauf has been both prolific and excellent, shining lights on important issues such as the refugee crisis, homelessness and domestic violence. In this book, racism and representation are discussed in a way that would encourage discussion in the classroom, and hopefully the staffroom and the offices of higher powers in education. All people ought to be remembered and respected, and in Rauf’s story, the ‘lesser-known’ names of those involved in World War II are explored and celebrated.

13. Padraig Kenny – The Shadows of Rookhaven

The world that Padraig Kenny has created here is something else, something akin to Pullman/Reeve, perhaps, but stands out powerfully on its own as spell-binding gothic-fantasy. If you have read the first (The Monsters of Rookhaven), then you will learn more about Mirabelle and Piglet, but other members of the family are just as important. A world in which to get lost.

14. Elle McNicoll – Show Us Who You Are

Elle’s second book was something of a dystopian Black Mirror-esque tale, but a future that certainly doesn’t feel too far away. The tech giant Pomegranate are busy creating AI versions of celebrities so that people can meet their heroes, but they are also looking to provide a service whereby the bereaved can communicate with their lost loved ones. However, there is a sinister edge to their work. This is a commentary on respect neurodivergence, valuing everyone as individuals, and promoting tolerance and equality. My original review is here.

15. Jeet Dzung and Trang Nguyen – Saving Sorya

This is an oversized graphic novel that just begs to be pored over. Chang is enthusiastic about animals, stubborn and determined in her vision to help them, and relentlessly goes about becoming a volunteer at a rescue centre. Here she meets Sorya, a sun bear, and, with love and patience, becomes the bear’s best friend. Based on a true story, this is a fascinating insight into conservation, as well as a positive look at the human-animal relationship.

16. Saadia Faruqi – Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero

Living in Frey, Texas, is not easy for Yusuf Azeem, and when he moves to secondary school, he starts receiving notes telling him that he is not welcome. The twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is approaching, and the Muslim community are targeted by some. This story is sensitively written, taking in the darkest elements of racism and prejudice, but its sense of community, identity and hope makes for powerful reading.

17. Peter Carnavas – The Elephant

A beautiful allegorical tale of Olive and her father. Dad is struggling, and Olive notices a big grey elephant following him around. She resolves to help him lift the weight, and realises that we all have issues to deal with. Simple and effective.

18. David Farr – The Book of Stolen Dreams

A sprawling adventure story of two siblings who are sworn to protect a book from the evil dictator Charles Malstain. Its contents will give him ultimate power – but keeping its location a secret, and finding its missing final page, is a task that will test their resilience. Masterful writing in the vein of Philip Pullman.

19. Catherine Barr – Fourteen Wolves

I absolutely loved this. A fascinating tale of rewilding in the US, as without wolves at the top of the food chain, the knock-on effects meant other species of animal and plant were struggling. As the wolves were reintroduced, the balance of nature was found. A wonderful story, full of clear explanation and brilliant illustrations.

20. Philip Reeve – Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep

Utterly Dark is a girl who was washed up on the Autumn Isles and was looked after by the Watcher of Wildsea. Utterly then has to take over this role upon his passing, and begins to learn more about her past as she seeks to protect her home. If you like anything Philip Reeve has done before, you’ll like this. If you’ve never read anything by Philip Reeve before, then start here.

Read Beth Bennett’s review here.

21. Kereen Getten – When Life Gives You Mangoes

Clara lives in the Caribbean, and has a quiet life picking mangoes, causing mischief with her friend Gaynah, and playing outside in the rain. However, her memory is not working – she can’t remember what happened last summer. When Rudy arrives from England, all the dynamics of her friendship change, and Clara is forced to confront the events of the previous year. One of those books you won’t easily forget.

Read Mat Tobin’s Q and A with Kereen here.

22. Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis – What Is Love?

I have loved everything these two have ever done, and to see a picture book collaboration between them is just perfection. A young boy wants to find out what love is, but his grandmother cannot tell him, so he sets off on a journey to find an answer. It is both touching and humorous, and is a reminder to us all that love can be found in the most unusual of places.

23. Jeffrey Boakye – Musical Truth

An educational insight into the narrative power and importance of music by black musicians, starting with Lord Kitchener’s London Is The Place For Me to modern artists like Stormzy. 28 songs are presented with insights into what makes them important, how they reflect on the societal norms of the time, and whether we have learned from our past. A must.

Listen to the playlist here.

24. Liz Kessler – When The World Was Ours

Max, Elsa and Leo are three friends, caring only for birthdays, games and each other. Then the Nazis come. The children are taken on three very different routes across Europe: Elsa and Leo run away, seeking survival, while Max joins the Hitler Youth. Each story is intertwined despite their distance from one another, and there are some truly harrowing parts to the book. However, there is hope, and that is something that the children cling to.

25. Julian Sedgwick and Chie Kutsuwada – Tsunami Girl

A powerful retelling of the 2011 tsunamis in Japan, as told by Yuki and her grandfather, Jiro. After a year has passed, Yuki revisits the scene in order to come to terms with what has happened, and themes explored are her experiences detail her mental health, the supernatural, and her family. A mix of prose and manga makes this slightly different to anything else I’ve read, and that can only be a good thing.

That’s it. My 25 books. There are others too, and there are some I have ready to read (Nicola Davies, Kate DiCamillo and Jakob Wegelius are next), but I am quite happy with this list. Enjoy!

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