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Favorite Books of 2021

Yes, it’s list time. 

What follows are my favorite 2021 books that I reviewed here at TLT and excerpts of my reviews. Guess what? Here’s what I wrote at this time last year, and it’s still true, and maybe will always be true, so here you go: This was a ROUGH year (understatement, I know) full of stress and grief and change and despair. Everyone who debuted during this terrible year, congratulations. Everyone who published anything this year, congratulations. Anyone who wrote anything this year, congratulations. Anyone who simply survived this year, congratulations.

I pretty much exclusively read contemporary fiction, which my list reflects. These are the books that most stuck with me this year.  Even though I’m a voracious reader, I’m sure I missed a lot of great 2021 books. I always enjoy reading the many lists that crop up this time of the year, but I also always want more variety and to hear from more people. So here’s my list—will you share yours with us too? Leave us a comment or hit me up on Twitter where I’m @CiteSomething. 

Books appear on this list in order of publication date. These are excerpts of my reviews, with links at the end of each excerpt to the full review.

Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore (ISBN-13: 9780803741508 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 01/19/2021 Series: Graceling Realm Series, Ages 14-17)

Winterkeep deals with heavy themes, many of which are common to all of the Graceling stories—love, loss, grief, trauma, manipulation, and toxic families. The biggest themes, however, are environmentalism and warfare, themes that all the humans must grapple with as they trek through Winterkeep and themes that are at the heart of what the silbercows and their giant sea creature friend must do.

While this story can be read alone, reading it in context of the rest of the Graceling Realm books would be more meaningful. This particular book also has wide crossover audience appeal. Bitterblue is 23, Giddon is 31, and Hava is 20. Lovisa and friends are the teens in the story. Parents and other adult family members of various characters also play large roles in what unfolds.

This is a story of choices and survival. It is one of bullying, gaslighting, abuse, and fear. It is about government, politics, and war. But more than anything, it is about truth, strength, warmth, love, support, and healing. This is a strong addition to the series—perhaps my favorite—and I hope we see more of this expanding world. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (ISBN-13: 9780062975164 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 01/19/2021 Series: Supernatural Investigations #1, Ages 8-12)

Now Amari has to prove herself to those in charge or she’ll be cut loose from the program and have her memory wiped. Staying and succeeding is the only chance she has at tracking down her brother. As Amari thinks, this is not so different from being a Black girl from the projects attending a private school (as she did). She’s used to standing out, to being judged. She doesn’t like being underestimated and will prove people that they’re wrong about her, but will have to deal with secrets, lies, blackmail, creatures, illusions, tests, and traitors along the way.

Every page of this story was a delight. Really all I want in life right now is for this whole series to be out and all the movies so I can just live inside the world of Amari and friends. I’m obsessed. Go order this right now. And get ready for it to fly off library shelves. One of the best starts to a fantasy series that I’ve read in a very long time. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore (ISBN-13: 9781547605309
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 03/09/2021 Age Range: 12 – 17 Years)

Before long, Carey is at the center of a movement to increase the safety and support of queer kids at their school, eventually leading a protest, starting petitions, addressing the school board, and gaining national attention.

Through it all, Carey is surrounded by love and support. They have a great therapist, a fantastic mother who is 100% there to support and love her kid, and far more friends than they initially feel like are in their corner. Throughout the story, Carey needs to learn to be brave, feel safe, and trust others (you know—just really tiny and simple things—ha!) in order to be seen as they truly are. Carey comes to really understand that the reality of people is that they’re complicated and messy, but those that are there for you will be there for you no matter what. This book will leave readers with the powerful and affirming message that you are worthy, loved, perfect, important, and deserve to be seen as yourself, whatever that may look like. And while many upsetting and completely unacceptable things happen to Carey over the course of the book, Salvatore makes sure Carey always sees the love and support, ultimately leading Carey to a much happier place than they start the story in. Carey’s road is not easy—in fact, it’s very painful to read about—but the crying I mentioned up there in my tweet? It wasn’t for the all-too-realistic trauma Carey goes through—it was for the beautiful expressions of love, support, solidarity, and acceptance. All teens should be so lucky. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson (ISBN-13: 9781250268099 Publisher: Roaring Brook Press Publication date: 04/06/2021, Ages 14-18)

A desperate boy risks everything to keep his brother out of foster care in this heart-pounding and heartbreaking story of survival and sacrifice. Seventeen-year-old Jack and his second-grade brother, Matty, only have each other. With their father incarcerated and their mother recently deceased, their only hope of sticking together is finding the money their father went to prison for stealing. Deeply impoverished and terrified of child protective services getting involved, Jack sets out to track down that cash, pursued at every turn by drug dealers and Bardem, his father’s partner in crime. His only hope comes in the form of Ava, who decides to help them and gets wrapped up in their mission. But Ava’s secret—that she’s Bardem’s daughter—guarantees there is no way things can end happily. Unremittingly bleak and gritty, this suspenseful story centers around the ravages of poverty and drug addiction that have left Jack and Matty with nothing. Breathtakingly beautiful writing and tender characters collide with a brutal plot filled with bloodshed and anguish. The body count piles up as Jack, Matty, and Ava try to hide in the quiet, frigid emptiness of rural Idaho, never more than half a step ahead of their hunters. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

How to Become a Planet by Nicole Melleby (ISBN-13: 9781643750361 Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill Publication date: 05/25/2021, Ages 9-12)

Pluto spends the summer working with a tutor, beginning therapy, visiting her father (and meeting his girlfriend, who has OCD), also having a terrible, terrible time trying to adjust to living with depression and anxiety. She pulls back from friends, lashes out at her mom, shuts down, rages, cries, fakes her way through things, and just feels crummy.

But.

But. There’s hope. She has the BEST supportive and loving mother. She has medication. She has a therapist. She’s getting caught up in school. She’s sort of seeing her old friends a little. And she’s realizing she gets butterflies whenever she’s around Fallon. She will be okay. Pluto learns to move beyond just wanting to be “fixed” to starting to understand that she’s still herself, no matter what is happening in her life. It’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to not be okay. And just like with the planet she’s named after, her definition may change but her properties are still the same. She’s still Pluto.

This is a lovely, compassionate, and gentle story that’s full of love, support, hope, and honesty. An absolutely necessary addition to all collections that serve this age group. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Strange Creatures by Phoebe North (ISBN-13: 9780062841155 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 06/01/2021, Ages 14-17)

Annie and Jamie live the truest versions of their lives in Gumlea, a safe, sacred fantasy world in the woods behind their house, where they encounter harpies, mermaids, and feral children. In the real world, they don’t fit right. Jamie learns to turn off his feelings and go along to get along. Annie doesn’t mind being abrasive and strange, but worries she’s losing Jamie. When Jamie disappears as a young teen, Annie’s world is shattered. She becomes consumed with the idea that Jamie must somehow be trapped in Gumlea—she can see him there, with ships and pirates and ropes, their sanctuary now a prison. After Annie begins to date Indian American Vidya, Jamie’s ex-girlfriend, she descends into what looks like madness, gathering supplies for a ritual to open the Veil and bring Jamie back so she can be whole again. The story follows them from birth through Annie’s college years. Chapters begin with bits of their Gumlea stories, which serve as allegory and revelation. Narration is shared by Jamie, Annie, and Vidya to powerful effect. Readers will puzzle over just where the reality is in all the fantasy as they delve deeper into the siblings’ richly imagined paracosm. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil (ISBN-13: 9781641291712 Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated Publication date: 07/06/2021, Ages 14-17)

You can read the summary up above my thoughts. I’m not going to talk about what happens other than to say I felt completely wrapped up and brought along on the adventures Orr and Iph have while apart (and eventually together) in Portland. It’s the 90s, in this book (you know–that time I was a music-obsessed punk teen, an era my brain INSISTS on thinking was maybe 10 years ago—don’t correct me). The story is full of feminism and punk rock and adventure and magic and love. There’s poetry, theater, sex workers, books, beautiful weirdos in crummy apartments, mythology, fairytales, animals, and love love love. It’s a weird, dark, happy, sad, real, fantastical story. It’s serious and upsetting and whimsical and hopeful. Just go read it. This is a standout book about runaways finding what they need in the strangest of ways. Just lovely. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (ISBN-13: 9780062943255 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/07/2021, Ages 8-12)

Yusuf and others at school as called “terrorists” and told to go back where they came from, referred to as “the enemy” and sweeping statements are made about “your kind,” not just from the adults in this Patriot Sons group, but by their classmates. Yusuf is hurt and furious. This is their home. And so he starts calling out the bullying he’s witnessing. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but he does want to be a decent person who spreads kindness and protects others—things he sees as his duty as a Muslim. He’s speaking out and standing up, but horrible stuff just keeps happening—a peer’s hijab is ripped off, his father’s shop is vandalized, and, eventually, Yusuf is accused of having a bomb at school and hauled into the police station. He listens to his friends tell him it’s just easier to stay on the sidelines and not get involved, but that’s just not who Yusuf is. Someone has to be brave. Someone has to speak up.

The journal entries from 2001 and Yusuf’s narration from 2021 show the kind of hatred and cruelty that exists. And though Yusuf faces a lot during his sixth grade year, he is also surrounded by so many good people who also stand up for what’s right, who speak up, who are willing to learn and change and grow. This emotional read will give readers plenty to think about—whether because they’re learning to see people and events in a new light, or because they see their own experiences reflected in Yusuf’s. A must for all collections. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

The Insiders by Mark Oshiro (ISBN-13: 9780063008106 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/21/2021, Ages 8-12)

But it’s no ordinary closet—it’s a secret portal/space that links him with two other students seeking refuge—Chinese and Black Juliana, who likes girls, and Filipino and white Sal, who uses they/them pronouns. Small note: Héctor lives in CA, Juliana in SC, and Sal in AZ. Yep, magic. The closet/Room (as they start to call it) seems to be a place that shows up to protect them and provide them with what they need. And the biggest need for all three? To feel like they belong, like they’re accepted, like they have their place in their schools. Together, the three are able to support and help each other. And in non-Room-related school stuff, Héctor begins to become friends with kids who befriended him right away. He goes from lonely, not feeling like he belongs, and wanting to just disappear to learning it’s okay to be himself, to trust new friends, and to ask for help.

Though all three Room kids face uncertainty, confusion, fear, and anxiety, they are all surrounded by support and love. Oshiro’s message is clear: nothing is better than being yourself. Not even a magical Room that appears just when you need it. A heartwarming and fun read. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (ISBN-13: 9780062275127 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 10/12/2021 Age Range: 8 – 12 Years)

By the end of the story, we see the myriad ways men fail women, the way they are cowards and liars and manipulators. We see the truth, we see the lies, we see the control, the power, and the bravery. We also see that Anne Ursu is a master storyteller (which, of course, we already know) who knows just how to skewer the patriarchy and leave readers feeling inspired by the brave actions of her characters. I could not put this book down and when I did, I felt hopeful, which is an amazing feeling to experience for even two minutes these days. A smart story about control, rebellion, story itself, and the fearsome power of girls allowed to be themselves. A great book for girls who can’t follow the rules and, better yet, don’t want to. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee (ISBN-13: 9781534469181 Publisher: Aladdin Publication date: 10/12/2021, Ages 9-13)

While her mother’s opioid addiction is the most Important part of this story, there are many smaller important parts that also feel so significant to Wren. Negotiating new friends in middle school is almost always fraught with lots of peril, and Wren has ups and downs with her new classmates as she tries to figure out who’s nice, who seems fake, and who’s maybe just misunderstood. And her whole obsession with special effects makeup is pretty cool. She’s always watching tutorials and practicing on her friends and her mom. I loved this interest for her, given her very real need to be interested in wearing a mask, becoming someone else, changing your story, etc.

Like all of Dee’s others books, this one handles the more mundane and relatable just as seriously and skillfully as the heavy and specific. Both are shown as significant. For many middle schoolers, they have a lot going on in their home lives, a lot that they may be hiding. For Wren, we see her get through what she can alone, while feeling confused and not necessarily well cared for, but we also see her surrounded by support, love, and, eventually, help. A great read. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

Living with Viola by Rosena Fung (ISBN-13: 9781773215488 Publisher: Annick Press, Limited Publication date: 11/30/2021 Age Range: 9 – 12 Years)

Hard to do better than this book. Rosena Fung makes it clear just how cruel, smothering, and omnipresent mental illness can be as Viola, Livy’s anxieties, tags along behind her all day, shouting a constant stream of lies and worst-case scenarios at her. Livy is trying to navigate her 6th grade life, but it’s hard when there is just so much to worry about. She finds solace in books and art, but it’s hard to keep Viola quiet, even if Livy is otherwise occupied. She’s at a new school and figuring out new friendships. She’s self-conscious about her parents’ jobs and what her home is like. She’s made to feel inferior to how her cousins are doing and what their goals are. Even her lunches aren’t “right”—other kids make fun of how they smell, making her even more self-conscious about everything. She doesn’t feel like she fits anywhere, and a lot of that is just typical middle school stuff that will probably get worked out as time goes on, but a lot of it is specifically Viola, or her anxiety. It has a special knack for trying to ruin absolutely everything and gripping onto the smallest thing and making Livy feel terrible as she fixates on it. (FULL REVIEW HERE.)

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