Welcome to Publishers Weekly’s ninth Children’s Starred Reviews Annual! In these pages, you’ll find more than 350 reviews of books for children and teens published in 2021 that received a star from PW, indicating that they are titles of exceptional merit. We’ve arranged these reviews into five categories—Picture Books, Chapter Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Comics—making it easy to find your new favorite read.
Our issue also includes interviews with some of today’s top authors and illustrators and a list of our 50 Best Books of 2021. Happy reading!
About Our Cover Artist
Community is a recurring theme in author-illustrator Ruth Chan’s life and books, and it’s buoyed her throughout the pandemic, she says. “We all needed a bit of kindness and thoughtfulness and support.” Work is another constant. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chan has been “really busy making books during Covid-19. That helped a lot.” Working from home at a “little desk” in her bedroom was an adjustment, and Chan is relieved to be returning to her studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which she shares with fellow children’s book creator Thyra Heder.
Chan had four books come out in 2021: two solo books, The Alpactory and Thank You, Neighbor!, and two collaborations, Hard-Boiled Bugs for Breakfast and Other Tasty Poems by Jack Prelutsky and Have You Seen Gordon? by Adam Jay Epstein. She says the impetus for Thank You, Neighbor! “came out of the darkest times of the pandemic.” The picture book follows a child on their daily walks, stopping to greet and thank passersby.
It’s a ritual that Chan herself took up while walking her new dog. “I still haven’t been able to see my family in Canada,” she says. “The only people we had physical contact with were our neighbors. Everyone was sort of afraid of being outside and interacting, but I found that just saying hello, or little gestures—like getting the mail or offering to pick up groceries—meant so much. It helped us feel less isolated and more connected.” She adds, “I hope that when life returns to ‘normal,’ people will continue to take the time to say hello or do something kind.”
The book is also rooted in Chan’s background in arts education, teaching elementary school and managing community-based nonprofit programs. The focus of her work, she says, was “how do you make the arts accessible to everyone?” It’s a mission that carries through to her storytelling. “Thank You, Neighbor! has meant so much,” she explains, “not only because it’s based on my real neighbors but because it encompasses what I’ve come to value in children’s literature.”
True to that spirit of solidarity, in spring 2020 Chan teamed up with author-illustrator Elisha Cooper on Kid Lit Art Surprise, an effort to support independent bookstores at a time when many were struggling due to Covid restrictions. The initiative allowed illustrators to create custom notes and artwork that local stores could then share with customers, to boost sales and morale.
Shifting gears a bit, Chan says she just signed the contract for her first work for middle graders, a graphic memoir. She describes the book as “a reverse immigration tale about my experience moving from Canada to Hong Kong with my family at 13. There’s a theme of belonging, as little Ruth grapples with not feeling Chinese enough.” The memoir also integrates the story of her father’s childhood in the 1940s. “He was born on the run during the Sino-Japanese War,” she says. “It’s a story that he’s told me since I was born, and it has an almost mythical quality. I’m so excited to share it.” —E.K.