We asked staffers at children’s publishing houses to tell us about their favorite children’s or YA book they read this year. Our only condition: it couldn’t be a book that their company had published. Happy reading!

Meghan Pettit, senior production associate, HarperCollins

I first heard about The Inheritance Games through some rave reviews on Goodreads, and then saw that a friend had just started reading it and heard more about it from her. It definitely sounded like a book that I’d enjoy. I could not put this book down! All of the characters interested me and there really wasn’t a dull moment throughout the book. I found myself laughing and gasping a lot reading this one. The mystery had me completely hooked and I was very glad to hear that a sequel was coming after finishing the book. The story has some Knives Out and The Westing Game vibes, but still manages to be original.

Emily Daluga, associate editor, Abrams

I could write pages and pages about how much I loved The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen. I’d picked it up because I liked the cover, and from the first page, I was totally obsessed with the art style and the use of color. And I just loved it more and more as the story unfolded. Not only does it beautifully explore Tiến figuring out how to come out to his family, it also shows how fairy tales and fiction can be used to express ourselves when we don’t always have the language we need. It’s moving and transportive, and the final pages had me crying on my couch in the best way. I’m so glad this book exists for readers young and old to experience!

Carlee Maurier, library sales assistant, Scholastic

While there were many incredible books I read this year, my absolute favorite was The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer. I found out about this book after seeing the cover on Twitter in late 2020, and started listening to the audiobook (with excellent narration by James Fouhey) on a whim in June. I was immediately captivated by the setting, the characters, and the mystery at the heart of the story. It became one of those rare books where I knew I would give a five-star rating within the first two sections. This book is full of plot twists, loss, romance, and most importantly, hope. It made me cry and laugh and stay up late staring at the ceiling. It also made me think a lot about my place in the universe and what it means to share your little slice of the universe with another person. I was in a reading slump for months after finishing this stunning book.

Stephanie Cohen, editor, Inkyard Press

Blanca Gómez’s picture book Un pájaro en casa was a bright spot for me this year. The illustrations are warm, whimsical, and stunning, and I loved that I could pick it up in both Spanish and English after coming across it online. This book features a Latinx protagonist learning about caring for nature from her abuela, and also learning when it’s the right time to set things free or let them go and resume their natural course. I happened to read this book soon after my beloved grandfather passed, who taught me that caring for animals and nature is one of the greatest blessings in life. I appreciated that this book, with its adorable illustrations and compelling messaging, was a reminder that the time we spend with loved ones is irreplaceable, but that we can carry their legacies on in our own lives and actions.

Vicki Lame, executive editor, Wednesday Books

One of my favorite reads of 2021 has to be Sarah Kuhn’s sparkling From Little Tokyo, with Love. A funny, emotional young adult romance with a well-earned happily ever after, it stars Rika, a main character who absolutely does not believe in them. But this is more than a romance. Kuhn deftly explores sisterhood and complex family dynamics all while taking readers on an unforgettable tour of L.A. If you are looking for a fun escape with the perfect amount of depth, this is it!

Carol Hinz, associate publisher, Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

Wishes by Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai, has stayed with me ever since I first read it. I don’t always find short texts to be satisfying reads, but this one is absolutely remarkable. Văn’s spare text evokes tremendous emotion and Ngai’s illustrations work beautifully with the text to create a visual narrative for the reader to follow. From the case cover to the endsheet art to the thick matte paper the book is printed on, every element is carefully considered. Deceptively simple, this is a book I want to return to again and again.

Alexandra Aceves, associate editor, Holiday House

This year, I was absolutely blown away by Thanks a Lot, Universe, debut author Chad Lucas’s stunning middle grade novel. I was the first reviewer for Thanks a Lot, Universe at Junior Library Guild, and I knew within pages that it would be a must-have for the JLG list. Lucas navigates alternating points of view with startling confidence—both Brian and Ezra are complex, vivid, and fully realized narrators, and it’s impossible for readers not to root for them from the jump. The story is so compassionate and tenderhearted, so adept at interweaving hilarity and heartbreak. And the book’s nuanced take on friendships and social bonds between boys feels surprisingly rare and refreshing.

Lynn Hildebrandt, library and retail sales manager, Peachtree Publishing Company

I’m not sure I could ever pick a favorite book, but one that I read this year that has stuck with me is Call Me Athena by Colby Cedar Smith. I loved it for so many reasons—the cover is gorgeous, the writing is beautiful, and the story is intriguing. I love Athena/Mary and her determination to be her own person. I am fascinated by thinking about how her parents became the people they are in the book, from the people they were before the book started. Books that stick with you, while you ponder the characters and what became of them, are those that I like to recommend. This is one I would do so with no reservations.

Doris Allen, senior sales support associate, HarperCollins

Keeping It Real by Paula Chase is an honest, intimate, touching, and realistic middle grade novel that features an extremely authentically written Black girl protagonist, Marigold Johnson. This story explores [how important it is for families to share life-altering information with children no matter their age because when young people discover the truth on their own, trust and boundaries are often broken. Verbiage and themes of classism and colorism are written genuinely while the backdrop of the fashion industry and family dynamics provide additional relatable layers to this phenomenal read.

Savannah Breckenridge, marketing associate, Abrams

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland must be my favorite book published this year. I haven’t felt so seen by a YA book in a long time. I related to Moon’s character on such a deep level and the stunning imagery created by Gilliland’s writing left me speechless. The book is something I could have sorely used when I was in high school with its body positive messaging, exploration of ethnicity, realistically flawed family dynamics, and sex positive dialogue. The book left me light-hearted and reflecting on just how powerful books can be.

Elizabeth Law, backlist and special projects editor, Holiday House

Books about the childhood of artists have practically become a subgenre, including this year’s masterwork from Eugene Yelchin, The Genius Under the Table. And Sylvie Kantorovitz’s graphic memoir about growing up in France, Sylvie, is every bit as good. As children, Sylvie and her brother grow up in an actual school, where her father is the principal. How cool is that! They get to play in empty classrooms (where Sylvie draws and draws on the blackboards) and rummage around in the attic where all sorts of neat things are stored. Some things are the same in any country—fearing the dreaded “look” from Mom, or the fun of having a new baby in the family when you’re an older child. But other scenes in this book could only be French, like countryside meals en plein air or the afternoon when Sylvie and her dad stroll among the artists in Montmartre. As the book comes to a close, Sylvie has to look deep in her soul—should she train to be a teacher, or an artist? In a category already so rich with great stories, Sylvie brings its own je ne sais quoi.

Lexie Cenni, sales associate, special markets, HarperCollins

Ever wanted something, but didn’t realize just how badly you wanted it? I knew Xiran Jay Zhao through their tweet threads and YouTube videos about Asian culture in some beloved Western franchises. When I heard about their book Iron Widow, I was intrigued. Then I saw the quote “Be their nightmare,” in relation to the main character, and I was smitten. Iron Widow has everything—romance, family, revenge, betrayal, action, politics, buried government secrets, and social manipulation like you wouldn’t believe. The kinetic energy in the book fairly crackles whenever Wu Zetian is on the page and by the ending scene I was ready to take up arms by her side.

Kathy Dunn, director, publicity, Random House Children’s Books

One of my favorite books that I read this year was Tiffany Jackson’s White Smoke. It was so creepy and compelling—I could not put it down. I could feel myself in the house with the characters, seeing, smelling, and watching the horrors unfold as if I was right there. I love a read that scares you still after you have finished it and this book did that for me. I have read and loved all of Jackson’s books, so when I saw information about this new release, I knew I had to get my hands on it! There was so much packed into this story that I wish I could read it for the first time again. But I will settle for a good reread....

Shaina Olmanson, editorial director, YA nonfiction, Twenty-First Century Books and Zest Books

Paula Yoo’s From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry continues to haunt me months after I first read it. I appreciate the way Yoo leads the reader into the story, giving a matter-of-fact account of what happened the night Vincent Chin was beaten, examining his killing and the aftermath from different perspectives. Yoo’s suspenseful storytelling is engaging, and she deftly incorporates an incredible amount of primary source material and research throughout. Although these events took place 40 years ago, they feel deeply relevant to what’s happening in our communities today.

Justin Krasner, senior editor, Odd Dot

Don’t get me wrong, I adore earnestness, but Kens by Raziel Reid was exactly what I needed one hot summer weekend—an outrageous, offensive, and oh so gay YA novel that shocked, sizzled, and had me saying “sh*t, can you say that?” While everyone else is reimagining the classics from sophomore year English, Reid retells every outcast and oddball’s favorite 1980s movie, Heathers, with the titular mean girls recast as nipped and tucked, ripped and rich gays who are out for blood and Botox. In the words of the original Heather and Veronica, I ate it up like a brain tumor for breakfast.

Jenny Lu, senior publicist, Sterling Publishing

Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance absolutely blew me away. This atmospheric dark academia thriller follows a delightfully unreliable narrator as she grapples with grief, guilt, and the potential existence of magic. It’s set in a boarding school, filled with beautiful moments of uncertainty that had me wondering if I was reading a contemporary fantasy rather than a thriller, and the plot had incredible character-driven twists that kept me enamored until the brutal end. I typically am not a huge thriller reader; I picked up this book because one of my authors (shoutout to Chloe Gong!) was doing an event with Victoria—and I’m so glad that I did!

Joanna Sussman, publisher, Kar-Ben

My favorite is Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I found that this lovely story about a neighborhood where one friend sticks up for another who is threatened by mean-spirited people spoke to my heart. Had there been more people like the story’s Teresa—and more books like this one—in my parents’ day, the world may have looked different.

Irene Vazquez, marketing and editorial assistant, Levine Querido

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker is one of the most refreshing portrayals of what it’s like to be a young person grappling with living with a mental illness. It’s compassionate and never cringey, but it doesn’t shy away from the awkward moments. I love how it feels so 2008—resplendent with fashion and music but not dated. And it’s got that signature Morgan Parker voice that I love in her poetry.

Mark Podesta, associate editor, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers

When I first read Kevin Henkes’s stunning picture book Waiting, I cried. A lucid meditation on time, on experience, on companionship, this book reminded me of something profound: life is filled with more stops than starts, and it’s within those periods of stagnancy that we learn why we love what is precious to us. This is a book meant as much for humans tiny and new to this world as it is for those who have spent a lifetime collecting memories (I mean, I didn’t fall for it until I was nearly 30!). Waiting is a story that makes you fall in love with life again. In its pages I realized what I’d been waiting for all along: this book.