Penn GSE’s Best Books for Young Readers 2021

January 27, 2022
Best Books for Young Readers title card

The interlocking crises of the past several years have shown us the many ways in which our worlds are connected. From the collective experience of human trauma, racial and economic injustice, and climate change faced by vulnerable communities across the globe, to the rise in movements against oppressive forces and structural inequities, we share intersecting stories.

Now more than ever, it is imperative that the stories we tell, read, and write are reflective of the histories and experiences of the many different communities that make up our world — communities which are often missing from bookshelves in schools and libraries.

In choosing the Seventh Annual Best Books for Young Readers list, curators Rabani Garg and Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova focused on authors and illustrators who brought these stories and experiences to the fore in real, empathetic ways. Through their work, the creators listed below center these histories and provide joy, strength, and resilience to young readers — giving them a space to imagine a more just world. This year’s list also marks an introduction to books written and published outside of the United States. In the coming years, Rabani and Sibylla hope to build  a dialogue with a wider community of children’s literature authors, illustrators, and publishers who are similarly engaged in creating books that validate underrepresented experiences — opening the door to a wider array of perspectives and stories.

The Best Books for Young Readers list was first created in 2015 by Penn GSE’s Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an expert in children’s literature. Her tireless efforts to showcase authors and illustrators dealing with issues like gender, race, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and socioeconomic class in authentic ways have guided the selection process ever since. As more and more diverse works finally make their way onto shelves, Dr. Thomas asks us to think:  “We know we need to make our bookshelves more diverse — but what is going on within the label of diversity is something we have to constantly question. What kinds of diverse books are getting through, and what kinds of diverse books would we like to see more of?” 

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Our Young Adult selection features books which dive deeper into difficult conversations about our shared histories, emotional and physical well-being, and social justice. In her “From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry,” Paula Yoo provides a scan of America's recent history. With the precision of a documentarian, she tells a story about the conditions that propel social movements. Farha Bashir’s “Rumours of Spring,” a memoir of the author’s adolescence spent in Srinagar, Kashmir, captures moments of joy and resilience from a girlhood spent in a conflict zone. In her “Disability Visibility” collection, Alice Wong provides a stage for seventeen authentic voices to remind us of the daily challenges, our fragility, and, ultimately, our strengths. 


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Graphic novels have a way of communicating messages with enviable ease that makes them a favorite genre for young and not-so-young readers. After a long wait, the success of the “March” trilogy continues with “Run: Book One,” celebrating the remarkable life of civil rights movement activist John Lewis.  Huda Fahmi creates a kaleidoscope of new situations for her character in “Huda F Are You?” while Viola is navigating her inner anxieties and tensions in Rosena Fung’s “Living with Viola.” Finally, the captivating storytelling of L.L. McKinney and misleadingly pink pallet of illustrator Robyn Smith share the tale of Nubia’s quest for her own identity in “Nubia: Real One.”


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The voices represented in this year’s middle-grade selection follow the Best Books for Young Readers tradition of opening doors and looking with kindness and understanding into the many communities that shape us. “Take Back the Block” by Chrystal D. Giles centers on friendship and unites the community in a quest for social justice. Christine Day’s elegant “The Sea in Winter” and the powerful messages of Kwame Mhalia’s “Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood” will ignite readers' imagination to help envision a different future. This year’s selection combines the strength of diverse communities to look inside our daily struggles while bringing us closer together through these authentic stories. 


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2021 offered a diversity of stories and emotions. This selection of picture books brings the joy of Winsome Bingham’s vibrant “Soul Food Sunday,” “Bright Star” by Yuvi Morales, and the reflective and wise contemplation of “The Longest Letsgoboy” by Derick Wilder and illustrator Cátia Chien. Artwork ranging from the warm, bright colors and dreamy blues of “Areli Is a Dreamer” by Areli Morales and illustrator Luisa Uribe to the dense hues created by illustrator Nikkolas Smith for “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson. The 2021 picture book selections place diversity, hope, and dreams into the hands of readers.

We would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for her advice and input as this year’s  list came together — and for being a guiding light for the Best Books for Young Readers list over the years.