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2021 Summer Reading: Picture Books


Need suggestions for summer reading? This year we've super-sized our lists, with a baker's dozen recommendations for different age ranges — including fiction, nonfiction, folklore, and poetry — all published 2020–2021 and ideal for the season. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.


Easy Readers and Primary Grades | Intermediate | Middle School | High School


Picture Books

Suggested grade level for all entries: PS–2


I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes; illus. by Gordon C. James (Paulsen/Penguin)

Barnes and James (Crown, rev. 11/17) reunite for this beautiful and necessary book that affirms Black boyhood. James’s vibrant oil-paint illustrations harmoniously depict Black boys in full vitality as they skateboard, swim, or stand contemplatively in the outdoors. Barnes’s refrain of “I am” is a powerful, present-tense reminder of the robust lives Black boys deserve to live. 32 pages.

Cave Paintings by Jairo Buitrago; illus. by Rafael Yockteng; trans. from Spanish by Elisa Amado (Groundwood)

A young traveler journeys through space to visit his grandmother on a futuristic Earth. Throughout otherworldly illustrations, scenes of highly advanced spacecraft, polychromatic galaxies, and alien lifeforms of every size, color, and shape fill the pages. Returning home, the child is inspired to draw what he sees and has seen — using his great-great-grandfather’s colored pencils. 48 pages.

You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration by Loree Griffin Burns; photos by Ellen Harasimowicz (Charlesbridge)

Burns hosts a “moth ball,” a STEM-friendly activity in which a group of youngsters observes moths on a summer night. Harasimowicz’s sharp photographs depict the children as they plan and execute their evening activities, as well as the variety of moths encountered. DIY directions for creating such gatherings are included. 40 pages.

The Night Walk by Marie Dorléans; trans. from French by Polly Lawson (Floris)

A family of four ventures eagerly into the dark, in this gorgeously illustrated, hushed, and intimate tale. Where they’re going is a mystery, until dawn breaks. The poetic, evocative text immerses readers in a nocturnal world as this book creates a respite from the demands of the daytime world and pulls readers into a moment of pure wonder and peace. 32 pages.

Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper by Candace Fleming; illus. by Julie Downing (Porter/Holiday)

An engaging picture-book biography about Helen Martini, the Bronx Zoo’s first woman zookeeper, who began her career in the early 1940s by “fostering” lion and tiger cubs in her city apartment. Warm, retro cartoon art captures all the adorable antics of the baby animals. When it’s time for them to return to the zoo, Helen quietly, but tenaciously, follows. 48 pages.

We All Play by Julie Flett (Greystone Kids)

In Flett’s lively and beautifully illustrated story, animals engage in all sorts of playful behaviors. A group of children, too, run, swim, climb, and sled: “We play too! kimêtawânaw mîna.” A bold, dynamic page design and vibrant textures enhance the images, and the children’s gorgeous skin tones range from deep copper-brown to beige. 40 pages.

Time for Kenny by Brian Pinkney (Greenwillow)

Four brief stories take us through young Kenny’s day with his family as he gets dressed, has an encounter with a monster-like vacuum cleaner, learns “no hands!” soccer skills, and resists bedtime. The text is both spare and engagingly lively, and the illustrations — in Pinkney’s signature swirly art — are full of movement, energy, and personality. 40 pages.

Try It!: How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff; illus. by Giselle Potter (Beach Lane/Simon)

Produce pioneer Frieda Caplan introduced Americans to such treats as kiwifruit, jicama, Asian pears, dragon fruit, and more. She was the first woman in the United States to open her own produce market, in 1962. Rockliff’s wordplay is perfectly paired with Potter’s folksy depictions, serving up a lively story of an independent woman of vision and the foods she shared with the world. 32 pages.

The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat; illus. by Lauren Castillo (Paulsen/Penguin)

“Down the mountain, across the creek, past the last curve in the road, five children lived together in a ramble shamble house.” From this first sentence we’re in classic picture book territory with the ever-appealing theme of children in charge. The multiethnic family decides to “proper up” their dilapidated house and garden, only to change their minds and sensibly re-establish their comfortable, chaotic, creative world, beautifully depicted in the impressionistic, light-infused illustrations. 32 pages.

The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer; illus. by Mariachiara Di Giorgio (Candlewick)

Once the humans head home for the evening, forest creatures have their own nighttime fun at the county fairgrounds in this wordless and wondrous book. Atmospheric illustrations are brilliantly rendered through lush color washes and intriguing contrasts of dark and light. Cinematic visuals show the animals stuffing their faces, playing games, and covering their eyes on rides. 32 pages.

Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

A little bird named Mel jumps from her branch and freefalls — an event made even more dramatic by this book’s vertical orientation. When she splashes into the water, readers are instructed to turn the book clockwise and follow her back up, with a fish in her beak: “She flew!” Relaxed, loose-lined illustrations capture Mel’s endearing, determined personality. 40 pages.

Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki (Abrams)

Our narrator explains, with great gusto, how “every Wednesday, we come together in this little kitchen” to prepare a communal meal for all who are hungry. A sense of effervescent improvisation pervades the tale. Sure-handed illustrations feature characters of all ages, shapes, races, religions, abilities, and genders, each of whom exudes vibrancy, warmth, individuality, and purpose. 48 pages.

How to Find a Bird by Jennifer Ward; illus. by Diana Sudyka (Beach Lane/Simon)

“There are a lot of ways to find a bird.” The two children in this enticing and beautiful book demonstrate how. The story ends with the advice that the best way to find a bird is to close your eyes and listen: and a glorious double-page spread follows showing a riot of color and bird species and birdcalls. 48 pages.


From the May 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book: Summer Reading. For past years’ summer reading lists from The Horn Book, click on the tag summer reading.

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