The 2021 "Books We Wish We Had Time For" list

One of my favorite things about the 2019 Caldecott Awards was that a book we hadn’t covered here at Calling Caldecott (Brian Lies’s The Rough Patch) up and won an Honor. And I love this, because it proves the point that we are not in the business of predicting winners, nor are we interested in such a thing. No one knows what the real committee is discussing behind closed doors (cyber-doors this year), and that’s the beauty of these committees, made up of 15 contemplative, determined individuals, who will do what they want, thanks very much, despite what mock awards blogs or anyone else may say. 

How I love that element of surprise.

Will that happen this year? Will a book we haven’t discussed at all walk away with the Medal or an Honor? We don’t know, but we do know that we never have enough time to cover all the books we’d like to discuss. In that spirit, we present today our 2021 "Books We Wish We Had Time For" post, a list of books we can’t possibly wrap up this Calling Caldecott season without mentioning.  

¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat — I was happy with last year’s Caldecott winners, but you would have heard, ‘round the globe, a squeal of happiness from me if Raúl the Third had received a Caldecott nod for ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market. (Although it was named a 2020 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book, and YAY for that.) This year’s ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat is another bilingual adventure in which we revisit Little Lobo and his dog Bernabé. This time they discover that they are needed at el Coliseo right away; Lucha Libre 5000 will be taking place there that very night. On their way there, they learn that los luchadores will need delivery assistance before the match. As they make their way to the wrestlers, readers take in the sights of the town, including countless details on the streets and lots of glorious food trucks. As I noted at my own blog in April (where you can head if you’d like to see some art from the book), I found myself making joyous exclamations about the illustrations as I read this book, things like: “The textures! The colors! The DETAILS!” Will the Caldecott committee make similarly joyous noises?  

Nana Akua Goes to School — Nana Akua is Zura’s “favorite person in the whole universe.” She has facial markings (an African tradition, designating Nana Akua’s tribal family in Ghana) that “never wash off and never go away.” Zura worries her beloved grandmother will be mocked when she visits the classroom for Grandparents Day. This tender story captures one girl’s experiences in coming to understand her family’s cultural heritage and the pride to be found there; in this way it tells the specific story of one family. But it also manages to speak universal truths about learning to embrace what makes one’s family special. Tricia Elam Walker’s text is sensitive and empathetic, and April Harrison’s remarkably textured illustrations on a warmly colored palette vividly capture the protagonist’s home and classroom settings, particularly the abundant love she has for her Nana Akua.

The Fabled Life of Aesop — Author Ian Lendler brings readers an origin story for Aesop (the only children’s book biography of the man, I believe — though Barbara Bader's 1991 Aesop & Company: With Scenes from His Legendary Life came close), incorporating many of his best-known fables. The book is, as Betty Carter noted in the Horn Book review, “lavishly illustrated.” There is such detail and texture to the artwork here. Could the book garner Pamela Zagarenski yet another Caldecott Honor (she already has two) or even the big award itself?

In My Garden — Philip Stead reimagines a 1960 text (originally illustrated by Roger Duvoisin) from the great Charlotte Zolotow, even dedicating the book to her. Stead extends these remarkably child-friendly words with textured illustrations, and I’m especially fascinated by his line work and the way he plays with light here. Stead has written a Caldecott-winning book. Will this one garner him Caldecott recognition for his artwork?

Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring — It isn’t the first picture-book biography of famed artist Haring (there was even another one this year I still haven’t seen), but this one from Matthew Burgess — who also wrote this year’s spectacular The Bear and the Moon — is especially beguiling to me. I’ve heard precisely no one else mentioning it in Caldecott conversations, but hear me out: I think that artist Josh Cochran captures Haring’s style (and genius) without being over-the-top imitative. It’s art that bursts with color and movement. The book is a splendid symbiosis of text and art — I love that it’s “a” story of Haring, not “the” story, because how can you capture Haring in just one story? — and there are also many detailed design decisions made here that serve the book well. I’m in love. It’s a book that succinctly, reverently, and lovingly nails what made Haring special.

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars — Here’s another picture-book biography — this one from Gary Golio, a musician writing about another musician. Golio boldly writes in a direct-address voice: “You were born in the light, Willie Johnson,” the book opens. Since light is a theme and recurring symbol throughout this book, illustrator E. B. Lewis (2005 Caldecott Honoree) explores it on every single hazy, softly colored spread. There is light from stars and from the sun — the rising, midday, and setting sun and a good deal of sunlight streaming in through windows — all juxtaposed with various shades of blue.  

Swashby and the Sea — A fair number of Calling Caldecott readers have named as a favorite this picture book from author Beth Ferry and Caldecott Honoree Juana Martinez-Neal. It’s the story of the reclusive (retired) sea captain Swashby and the young girl who disrupts his “salty and sandy and serene” life of solitude. The illustrations capture the energy and spunk of the protagonist and evoke the seaside setting with appealing earth-toned hues and lots of wit and warmth. 

Robobaby — David Wiesner has won three Caldecott Awards and three Honors. That’s so many that someone should probably double-check my math. Will he get even more Caldecott recognition for his story of a family of robots who welcome a new addition to the fold? As Patrick Gall noted in the Horn Book review, there’s some impressive world-building going on in these “luminous, intricately detailed” illustrations.

The Little Mermaid — Pinkney brings readers Black mermaids and a richly imagined undersea world, giving the protagonist more agency and less punishment than in the original tale. I got to review this one for the Horn Book and noted its lush, iridescent illustrations, many of them breathtaking. Be sure to find a copy to (at the very least) get a look at Pinkney’s delightfully terrifying interpretation of the Sea Witch.

Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball — This lyrically written piece of nonfiction takes readers back to the early days of the NBA, when it “was not like it is today.” (In 1958, fans were more interested in Major League Baseball, and the NBA had a difficult time even selling tickets.) Elgin Baylor, a talented athlete and one of the first professional Black players, stages a protest against racial discrimination by sitting down and refusing to play on the court: “Sometimes you have to sit down to stand up,” writes Jen Bryant. “And that’s what Elgin did.” Frank Morrison captures it all in stylized oil illustrations. Morrison received a Silver Medal this year from the Society of Illustrators for Carole Boston Weatherford’s RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. You may remember that guest poster Julie Roach named this as a favorite this year and noted that, were she on the New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Book Awards committee, she'd have given it awards love. (And the closing endpapers of RESPECT may be my favorite endpapers of 2020.) Could one of these books bring Frank Morrison Caldecott recognition?

Everyone’s Awake — Mac Barnett’s A Polar Bear in the Snow, illustrated by Shawn Harris, is a book that some of our readers have named as a favorite this year. It is, indeed, captivating and a lovely and understated thing. But I humbly suggest we also not forget Colin Meloy’s Everyone’s Awake, also illustrated by Harris. It is, as I described it at my site, an exhilarating and joyous and downright anarchic adventure. Harris does much to bring the anarchy — with offbeat perspectives; funny and weird details; an eye-popping palette (printed with just three spot colors); and lots of high-flying energy. Beautiful chaos, this one. Will the Caldecott committee fall for one of these Harris-illustrated books?




What do you think, readers? Which books would you add to this list? The Youth Media Awards are nigh! January 25 is the big day. Can you believe it? 


Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.
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jules Danielson

Big thanks to you all for contributing to the conversation. The big day is just one week from today .... !

Posted : Jan 18, 2021 06:14

Emmie Stuart

Thanks for a thoughtful and informative roundup, Jules! I’m adding My Bed: Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep All Around the World. Each one of Salley Mavor’s ingenious hand-crafted spreads extend the minimal text and are little mini pieces of artwork. My students loved studying each page and exclaiming as they noticed detail after detail.

Posted : Jan 18, 2021 11:29

Ellen Gittes

I purchased most of these for my school library and shared a few with my students. They particularly loved "The Fabled Life of Aesop" (which married nicely with their social studies unit on ancient civilizations), "Swashby and the Sea" (which some students strongly favor to with the Caldecott because of how the sea "fiddles" with the words Swashby writes in the sand) and "A Polar Bear In the Snow" (I overheard two students debating if the polar bear is hiding in the first all-white page or not). This has been such a wonderful year of picture books! Thank you for posting this list!

Posted : Jan 18, 2021 01:07

Jamila Breese

I love this idea of "What we wish we had time for" as not every deserving story can win an award, and this opens the horizon of new books up more for avid readers and lovers of illustrated children's books like me. Great list! I can't wait to check out many of these titles.

Posted : Jan 15, 2021 06:17

Martha Parravano

Jules, I absolutely can't believe it's almost time for Midwinter, the decisions, the announcements, the excitement -- even if all virtual this year! One book I'd add to your excellent list here is The Boy and the Gorilla, illustrated by Cindy Derby. It's a book about a young boy grieving the death of his mother, and the art reflects the theme so perfectly. Has anyone else seen it?

Posted : Jan 15, 2021 05:49


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