A Review of Recommended Books for 2021

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

Throughout the year, a member of the Worlds of Words community recommends a book for others to enjoy. In 2021, we highlighted 12 books, and I thought it would be great to see them all together to get a sense of how 2021 unfolded. There are six middle/secondary school novels, one graphic novel and five picturebooks worthy of a second look. Here are the books we recommended:

Cover art for Cane Warriors features a blue and black photograph of a young Black boy with an ink drawing of Tacky's Rebellion in the background.
Cane Warriors (2020) by Alex Wheatle. Set in 1760 Jamaica, Moa is an enslaved 14-year-old boy who works the sugar cane fields. While his family is also on the plantation, he rarely sees them, but does affiliate with a small group of others to consider escaping over the celebration of the Easter holiday. Moa is frightened, but believes in the cause of freedom, and thus is resolved to join the others in either escape or a fight for freedom. This narrative chronicles Tacky’s Rebellion, an actual historical event, and one seldom studied in schools or written about for younger readers. While written in common usage English, the dialogue is Jamaican patois, giving it an authentic richness. A narrative that is both insightful and uplifting, Cane Warrior is a critical addition to Caribbean literature.

Alex Wheatle is a finalist for the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature and Cane Warriors was Shortlisted for the 2020 Caribbean Readers’ Awards.

Cover of Brother's Keeper, depicting a girl and a young boy climbing an icy mountain.
Brother’s Keeper (2020) by Julie Lee. Set in the 1950, at the onset of the Korean War, Sora’s family decides to flee North Korea in the midst of the chaos, and before they are blocked from ever leaving North Korea and its harsh political regime. As they begin to walk toward Busan, a city in South Korea where other members of the family live, the contingent they are traveling with is bombed. Sora and her brother Young are separated from the rest of the family, and Sora must decide if they should go back to their home or continue onward toward the South. The decision she makes may just end up being the most important of her young life.

A stunning and harrowing novel, it is the recipient of the following honors: ILA Intermediate Fiction Award Winner, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award finalist, a Kirkus Review’s Best Book of the Year, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year.


The Most Beautiful Thing (2020) by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Khoa Le. A thoughtful and sensitive picturebook about the love of a girl for her grandmother, this a story from the author’s own childhood experiences as a Hmong refugee. It is the story of doing without, and what that can mean in a world where, so often, material goods are the measure of an individual and of a family. It is about issues of beauty and yes, the adage of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Beautifully written and richly illustrated in mixed media, this beautifully designed text has been honored as a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, ALA Notable Children’s Book, New York Public Library Best Book for Kids, and NPR Best Book of the Year.


The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (2020) by Yoshimi Kusaba (Editor), Gaku Nakagawa (Illustrator), Andrew Wong (Translator). The address of the José Mujica, President of Uruguay, to the United Nations in 2012 come to life in this picturebook that asks readers—like members of the United Nations—to consider human consumption that has created the economic and environmental crises. Almost a decade has passed since President Mujica’s challenge, and there is still much to consider in respect to his speech. Readers are invited to delve into the concepts of what it means to be a citizen of a nation, as well as an inhabitant of the world. Questions about what it means to be a neighbor on both a national and community level as well as what readers might do in response to the crises still faced by the world’s places and peoples.

Cover of The Cat Man of Aleppo, depicting a man in a red and grey jacket surrounded by cats with a city in the background.
The Cat Man of Aleppo (2020) by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. With illustrations in mixed media, this picturebook chronicles the true story of Mohammed Alaa Aljaleel, an electrician who stayed behind when his city was devastated by the war in Syria. Aljaleel stayed behind to help his city’s people by driving an ambulance, but he became known as the “cat man” when he took upon himself to save the cats that had been left behind in the rush to evacuate the city. As he fed his neighborhood cats, more cats showed up to be fed, and eventually he was feeding as many as 1000 cats a day. The Caldecott-Honor book provides the space to consider how animals are treated in not only dangerous places, but in communities across the world. Winner of the 2020 Middle East Book Award, a BCCB Blue Ribbon Book of 2020, a 2021 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, a 2021 Buckeye Children’s & Teen Book Award Nominee, and a 2021-2022 Dogwood Book Award Nominee.

Cover art shows a line of people waiting to enter an internment camp and one Japanese boy looking over his shoulder at the reader.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (Author), Justin Eisinger (Author), Steven Scott (Author), Harmony Becker (Illustrator). Based on the true story of Star Trek cast member George Takei, who was incarcerated in an internment camp during WWII, this graphic novel chronicles the treatment of the Japanese who were treated as enemies even those born within this nation. Readers will experience the xenophobia and legalized racism that undergirds the actions by the US government, as well as acknowledge that this is a story of a young boy, who thought he was safe until he was not. A necessary work that is both easily negotiated and difficult to read, They Called Us Enemy reminds readers of any number of vulnerabilities people face in light of government policies. Winner of the 2020 Asian/ Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature and the 2020 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work.


Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley. A debut novel that presents the story of Daunis Fontaine, an 18-year-old Ojibwe woman who finds herself on the edge of escaping her ill-fitting life on the reservation only to be drawn back to take care of her mother. Staying on the reservation begins to look all right when Daunis meets Jamie, a friend of her brother, but he has secrets that might be the part of something that is killing members of the tribe. Daunis is reluctantly recruited to go undercover to discover the source of the secrets that could be the source of those killing. This YA thriller has been optioned for a Netflix production, and was honored as a TIME Magazine Best YA Book of All Time Selection, Amazon’s Best YA Book of 2021 So Far (June 2021), a 2021 Kids’ Indie Next List Selection, an Entertainment Weekly Most Anticipated Books of 2021 Selection, and a PopSugar Best March 2021 YA Book Selection.


Sweet Pea Summer (2021) by Hazel Mitchell. Illustrated in graphite and watercolor, this picturebook chronicles the summer a young girl stays with her grandparents when her mother goes to the hospital. Finding the transition difficult, the grandfather suggests that the little girl help him in the garden, taking care of his prized sweet peas. As the summer progresses, the sweet peas grow, but then disaster hits when the buds fall off. Investigating ways to help the sweet peas, the young girl eventually discovers what the problem is and how to fix it. A gentle reminder of hope and perseverance, this story reminds readers of the work it takes to hold on in a time of family illness and homesickness.


I Dream of Popo (2021) by Livia Blackburn, and illustrated by Julia Kuo. Digital illustrations enliven this picturebook about a young girl who moves from Taiwan to San Diego and misses her grandmother. Filled with both memory and transition, this narrative is a loving reminder of the importance of grandmothers regardless of the time and distance between them and their grandchildren.


Unsettled (2021) by Reem Faruqi. Nurah, who loves her home in Pakistan, finds transitioning to Peachtree City in the USA difficult even as she attempts to blend in, but knows she still stands out for her cultural differences. It isn’t until she and her brother discover the neighborhood pool with a swim team that blending in isn’t what Nurah wants to do. She wants to be the fastest swimmer, she wants to win! But an incident at the pool, and Nurah’s own complicity, weighs heavily upon her and her family. This coming of age novel for middle schoolers addresses issues often faced by young people in respect to balancing the tensions of being yourself and being included with others.


The Beatryce Prophecy (2021) by Kate DiCamillo. Beatryce awakens in the stall on the property of monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing remembering only her name and clutching the ear of a notoriously cranky goat named Answileca. In a time of war, remembering might be a bad thing, but a girl who can read might be an even more dangerous thing—and Beatryce can read. Brother Edik finds Beatryce and knows he must hide her, not only because she reads, but because her reading—and her stories—endanger her because of the prophecy Brother Edik himself penned about who will challenge the king for the crown. Part philosophical treatise, part fairy-tale, this narrative is a must read for those who search, and for those who recognize the power of story. Honored as the 2021 People Magazine Best Books of Fall Winner and recipient of seven starred reviews from across the publishing world.


Your Heart, My Sky: Love in the Time of Hunger (2021) by Margarita Engle. A story about Cuba during what the government calls el período especial en tiempos de paz—the special period in times of peace, two young people who refuse to comply to government edicts of “volunteer” work discover each other by a chance encounter with an enigmatic dog. Liana is hungry and brave, Amado also searches for sources of food, and together they try to salvage hope in a time of desperation and starvation. Inspired by the author’s own family story of a time in Cuba, this YA novel reminds readers of the struggle that many experience as they try to feed themselves and their families in what might be considered places of plenty. Told in verse, this is a necessary read that will have reader’s questioning government policies and practices.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To view our complete offerings of WOW Currents, please visit its archival stream. This look at the 2021 WOW Recommends will continue every Wednesday through the end of the month, so check back!

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