Fanfare 2021 Annotations

Welcome to the 2021 edition of Fanfare, the Horn Book’s choices of the best books for children and teens published in the last year. As always the forty-four selections contain something for pretty much everybody — the single book on the list I’ve been touting for and to pretty much everybody is Michael Emberley’s The Message, which explains how texting works. One of the best things about my job has been discovering books I didn’t know I wanted to read about subjects I didn’t know I was interested in reading about. Librarians, you know what I’m talking about and I hope you each find several on this list to extend your curiosity and renew your faith in the power of books.

This editorial note will be the last one you will see from me in Notes from the Horn Book, as I am retiring from the Horn Book editorship at the end of this month. It’s been grand! I won’t be leaving your inboxes, though, as I am continuing, with Al Berman, the Talks With Roger advertorial interviews you receive as part of your subscription to Notes, which itself will continue in the more than capable hands of Elissa Gershowitz and Cindy Ritter. My thanks to them and the rest of the Horn Book’s top-notch editors; thanks also to the two former Horn Bookers who got Notes started back in 2008, Lolly Robinson and Anne Quirk. It has been a great privilege to work with such a wonderful bunch of people. Happy holidays and happy reading to all!
Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Picture Books

Sato the Rabbit
written and illustrated by Yuki Ainoya, translated from Japanese by Michael Blaskowsky; Enchanted Lion
(Preschool, Primary)

A little boy named Sato, dressed in a rabbit costume, turns daily activities into magic. Cracking open a walnut reveals an inviting miniature world; observing a meteor shower leads to a star-collecting mission. Over the course of the seasons, seven small and wondrously illustrated episodes bring continual surprise and delight. Review 1/21.

Milo Imagines the World
written by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson; Putnam

While on the subway with his sister, young Milo shifts his perspective and assumptions as he draws imagined lives for the people surrounding him. Robinson’s eye-catching illustrations alternate seamlessly between color-saturated scenes of train activity and Milo’s colored-pencil notebook sketches. The story’s culmination — a visit with the siblings’ incarcerated mother — adds impact. Review 3/21.

The Night Walk
written and illustrated by Marie Dorléans, translated from French by Polly Lawson; Floris
(Preschool, Primary)

Awakened by their parents, two children sleepily dress so they can “get there on time.” Where they’re going is a mystery, until dawn breaks; they’ve finally arrived. Sumptuous midnight-blue illustrations illuminate the family’s moonlit trek toward their breathtaking destination. Review 5/21.


We All Play
written and illustrated by Julie Flett; Greystone Kids

In a deceptively simple, bilingual (English and Cree) story about interconnectedness, a variety of animals and children engage in playful behavior on land and in the water: “We play too! kimêtawânaw mîna.” The lilting, sensory text emphasizes action, while the illustrations — featuring vibrant textures and the children’s gorgeous range of skin tones — display an understated exuberance. Review 5/21.

The Rock from the Sky
written and illustrated by Jon Klassen; Candlewick

Five strange, connected short stories (ninety-plus pages and composed solely of spare, color-coded dialogue) feature a turtle, an armadillo, and a snake — everyone in hats — plus an alien and the titular meteor, all in a gorgeously realized desert setting. Klassen effortlessly builds suspense with his quintessentially sly, deadpan humor. Review 3/21.

Little Red and the Cat Who Loved Cake
written and illustrated by Barbara Lehman; Clarion/HarperCollins
(Preschool, Primary)

An inventive and very clever retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” told only through art and speech bubbles containing images. Wolfie the cat sneakily follows Little Red through town to Grandmother’s house, hoping for cake. Entrancing folktale-themed details appear everywhere but never distract from the story’s clear trajectory. Another triumph from a master of the wordless picture book. Review 1/22.

The Big Bath House
written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Gracey Zhang; Random House Studio

A young girl visiting her beloved baachan (grandmother) in Japan narrates this not-so-traditional book about the traditional Japanese custom of going to a bath house. Maclear’s text lovingly guides readers through the (potentially unfamiliar) rituals, while Zhang’s illustrations exude buoyancy, communalism, and body-positivity. Review 11/21.

Time for Kenny
written and illustrated by Brian Pinkney; Greenwillow
(Preschool, Primary)

Four brief stories take us through a preschooler’s day as he gets dressed, encounters a (monster-like) vacuum cleaner, learns “no hands!” soccer skills, and resists bedtime. The situations are all ones to which young readers will relate, and they will cheer each time Kenny emerges victorious (“Is Kenny dressed? Yes!”). Pinkney’s signature swirly art, full of movement and energy, perfectly captures this young Black boy’s personality. Review 1/21.

written by Matt Ringler, illustrated by Raúl the Third and Elaine Bay; Little, Brown

When overtired Sam throws a tantrum, her father has the perfect solution — a ride on the strollercoaster! They race along the city sidewalks, past bemused neighbors and street signs in English and Spanish, on a thrilling adventure full of vibrant colors and lively illustrative text. The dynamic movement makes Sam feel “like she’s flying” — until, finally, she’s all tuckered out, leading to a much-needed rest for daughter and dad. Review 7/21.

On the Trapline
written by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett; Tundra

A boy accompanies his grandfather Moshom up north, where as a child Moshom and his family lived on the trapline. Robertson’s affecting text is conversational and immediate, with naturally incorporated Swampy Cree words and phrases throughout. Flett’s outstanding illustrations — anchored by an evocative blue-green and punctuated by warm browns and bright reds — immerse the viewer in the landscape. Review 7/21.

The Ramble Shamble Children
written by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Lauren Castillo; Paulsen/Penguin
(Preschool, Primary)

With no grownups in sight, five children take care of their house, their garden, and one another. Even Baby Jory has an important job — he looks after the mud. When attempts to “proper up” their home end up making them miserable, the children learn to embrace the happy chaos. An invitingly rhythmic text and warm, impressionistic illustrations welcome us into this family’s “ramble shamble” world. Review 5/21.

Mel Fell
written and illustrated by Corey R. Tabor; Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
(Preschool, Primary)

Mel, a young kingfisher, is eager to fly. She plunges from her high-up branch…and this playful and innovatively designed book shows how gravity — plus ­determination — does the rest. Turn the vertically ­oriented volume 180 degrees to follow the return journey of this courageous and ­self-confident bird. Review 3/21.

written by Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai; Orchard/Scholastic

With her mother and siblings, a girl must flee her homeland, leaving behind loved ones on a perilous journey to a new life. Văn’s spare text is mainly from the perspective of compassionate inanimate objects (“The boat wished it was bigger”). Ngai’s intricate and luminous illustrations transport viewers into harrowing — and hopeful — scenes. Review 7/21.

written by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin; Porter/Holiday

Embarrassed when her parents stop to pick watercress by the side of the road, a girl gains new appreciation for the food on her table when her mother shares the story of her difficult past in China. Chin’s stunning watercolors create their own narratives, visually connecting the present and past in Wang’s poignant tale of honesty and family communication. Review 3/21.

Someone Builds the Dream
written by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Loren Long; Dial
(Preschool, Primary)

In propulsive verse and with bold, muscular art, this is a paean to people who work with their hands. Full-bleed, full-color spreads show hosts of people — of differing races, genders, and abilities — wielding tools, checking blueprints, and operating machinery to create a house, bridge, windmill farm, and a book. Inclusive, engaging, and inspirational. Review 5/21.

Red and Green and Blue and White
written by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky; Levine Querido

Two best friends, one Jewish, one Christian, look forward to their respective winter holidays. After a rock is thrown through the Jewish family’s window, the Christian friend rallies their town in solidarity. Zelinsky’s masterful use of light and shadow captures the sinisterness of the antisemitic vandalism as well as the comfort and cheer of the season. Review 11/21.

A Boy Named Isamu: A Story of Isamu Noguchi
written and illustrated by James Yang; Viking

Yang’s invented childhood day-in-the-life of a mid-century Japanese American artist is also a tribute to the quiet joys of the natural world. A child-centered second-person text (“If you are a boy named Isamu”) follows young Noguchi through the market and along a nature walk. Wonder-filled digital illustrations reflect the experiences of this budding artist, whose real-life work incorporates similar themes. Review 9/21.

written and illustrated by Helen Yoon; Candlewick
(Preschool, Primary)

Sneaking into her father’s (drab) home office, a little girl begins playing with the supplies — tape, Post-it Notes, paper clips. Soon the book’s pages become a veritable whirlwind of color and patterns; of exuberant, joyful chaos. Yoon uses the drama of the page-turn beautifully in this hilarious paean to creative bliss. Review 11/21.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Too Small Tola
written by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu; Candlewick

In three episodic, scene-setting, and eventful chapters, small-but-mighty Tola helps family members and others in her contemporary Lagos, Nigeria, community. Amiable, imagistic writing, paired with frequent friendly illustrations, will engage newly independent readers in Tola’s family-and-friends-filled world. Warm-hearted, humorous, and welcoming. Review 3/21.

Firekeeper’s Daughter
written by Angeline Boulley; Holt
(High School)

In this gripping page-turner, recent high-school graduate Daunis Firekeeper reluctantly agrees to help investigate the meth trade that’s decimating her Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Native community. Boulley immerses readers in her setting and in contemporary Sugar Island Ojibwe tribal culture in a thriller both multifaceted and suspenseful. Review 5/21.

The Beatryce Prophecy
written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall; Candlewick

A prophecy and the girl predestined to fulfill it; a friendly monk and a power-hungry king; loyal friends, both human and goat; disguises, amnesia, and close-call adventure; a medieval setting illuminated by ornamental and emotion-filled art. This pairing of two-time Newbery and Caldecott medalists is a magical alchemy. Review 9/21.

Billy Miller Makes a Wish
written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes; Greenwillow
(Primary, Intermediate)

The summer after second grade, Billy (The Year of Billy Miller, rev. 9/13) wishes for excitement and gets more than he’d bargained for — an ambulance next door, a bat in the basement. And why is his mother tired all the time? Henkes is a master of characterization, deftly using telling details to build his relatable and memorable characters. Review 3/21.

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey
written and illustrated by Erin Entrada Kelly; Greenwillow
(Primary, Intermediate)

Worrier Marisol determines to face up to what frightens her — climbing the magnolia tree in her backyard — with the help of her supportive BFF. This approachable chapter book’s tension is built from expert accumulation of small moments and strong character development; frequent delightfully quirky line drawings add humor and personality. Review 5/21.

The Legend of Auntie Po
written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor; Kokila/Penguin
(Middle School)

In an 1885 Sierra Nevada logging camp, thirteen-year-old Mei shares her homemade pies — and tales of a Chinese Paul Bunyan–like auntie — while navigating fluctuating emotions, unrequited same-sex love, and acts of racism. Khor’s unique and multifaceted graphic novel boasts vivid dialogue, imaginative storytelling, and raw, surprising mixed-media art. Review 7/21.

written by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan; Little, Brown
(Intermediate, Middle School)

A boy and his mother are stopped at the U.S.-Canada border. When asked to state their citizenship, the mother insistently and repeatedly responds: “Blackfoot.” This graphic-novel adaptation of a short story by King retains its exhilarating complexity, dry humor, and sharp political edge through Donovan’s expertly rendered comic-panel interpretations. Review 11/21.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club
written by Malinda Lo; Dutton
(High School)

The lesbian subculture of 1950s San Francisco comes to life in the story of Chinese American high school senior Lily Hu, whose secret desires put her at odds with her family and the Chinatown community. This standout historical fiction combines meticulous research with tender romance to create a riveting bildungsroman. Review 3/21.

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance
written by Meg Medina; Candlewick
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Medina’s funny, heartwarming follow-up to Newbery winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears (rev. 9/18) finds the enterprising seventh-grader working at her school store and trying to avoid the school dance. As always, Merci’s irresistible spirit remains front and center. An engaging, insightful exploration of the complexities of friendship, family, and first romance. Review 5/21.

The One Thing You’d Save
written by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng; Clarion/HarperCollins
(Intermediate, Middle School)

In this profound ode to learning, teacher Ms. Chang builds community and empathy when she asks her class what one thing they’d save if their homes were on fire. Park’s sijo-inspired verse novel reveals much about the students’ personalities through their distinctive voices and creative answers. Sae-Heng’s grayscale drawings reflect an inclusive, modern urban landscape and school setting. Review 5/21.

Amber & Clay
written by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale; Candlewick
(Middle School, High School)

In this highly stylized tale of ancient Greece, two narrative threads — one in verse, one in prose — follow artistic enslaved boy Rhaskos, befriended by Sokrates; and “wild” aristocratic girl Melisto, who becomes an acolyte to the goddess Artemis. Schlitz incorporates a Greek chorus of additional voices as well as eighteen curated “exhibits” of relevant artifacts into an ambitious and original work. Review 3/21.

A Sitting in St. James
written by Rita Williams-Garcia; Quill Tree/HarperCollins
(High School)

The bitter, regal, and unforgettable Madame Sylvie is the doyenne of the Guilbert family’s sugar cane plantation in antebellum Louisiana in this sweeping and richly researched story of privilege and exploitation. Readers will find their expectations upturned on every page of this powerfully written family saga. Review 5/21.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Across the Rainbow Bridge: Stories of Norse Gods and Humans
written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love; Candlewick Studio
(Intermediate, Middle School, High School)

In five stories, full of riddles, trickery, bounty, and nature, Norse gods cross the rainbow bridge from Asgard to visit the world of humans. The immediacy and intimacy of Crossley-Holland’s narrative voice, with its strong, musical prose, is perfectly complemented by Love’s dark, textured illustrations, as monumental in style as geological features. Review 1/22.

Blancaflor, the Hero with Secret Powers: A Folktale from Latin America
written by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio García Sánchez; TOON

This comic-format retelling provides a fresh, funny take on the classic Latin American folktale, with contemporary language and a capable, kick-ass heroine, which will resonate with modern audiences. The sprawling, varied, energetic illustrations (particularly the interspersed double-page spreads) are a visual delight. Review 11/21.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Hello, Earth!: Poems to Our Planet
written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Miren Asiain Lora; Eerdmans
(Primary, Intermediate)

On gorgeously illustrated pages with blue skies, space, and oceans layered with landscapes that reflect balance and connection, short philosophical and scientific poems address Earth directly as a respected friend. “Do you think we can do it, / Earth? / Can we work as hard / for you / as we do for ourselves?” Review 7/21.


The People Remember
written by Ibi Zoboi, illustrated by Loveis Wise; Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
(Primary, Intermediate)

Through sumptuous art and lyrical text, and with the framework of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, Zoboi and Wise illuminate important moments and people in African American history. Despite all the hardships and struggles, “the people remember.” And through shared stories and experiences, their truth, hope, and optimism are passed along to future generations. Review 11/21.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message
written and illustrated by Michael Emberley; Dlouhy/Atheneum
(Primary, Intermediate)

In this informational picture book, readers follow the progress of a text message from conception in the brain to activity in the fingers to transmission from phone to cell tower to undersea cable…to Mom, traveling abroad on business. A spectacular interplay of illustrations, diagrams, and captions ensures you’ll never look at your phone the same way again. Review 11/21.

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art
written by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Evan Turk; Abrams
(Primary, Intermediate)

With a storyteller’s cadence, Levinson’s text provides an intimate look at Jewish American painter Shahn and his motivation to both create art and stand up to injustice. Variations in color, texture, and composition in Turk’s distinctively bold mixed-media art make for an endlessly perusable, visually astounding picture-book biography. Review 7/21.

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People
written by Kekla Magoon; Candlewick
(Middle School, High School)

Magoon’s account of the Black Panther Party is comprehensive and all-encompassing, putting it in context of previous centuries of oppression and going beyond the Party’s dissolution in 1982 to draw parallels with the current Black Lives Matter movement. A wealth of quotes, photos, and sidebars enriches this in-depth and compelling book. Review 9/21.

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown
written by Steve Sheinkin; Roaring Brook
(Middle School, High School)

This equally enthralling sequel to Bomb (rev. 11/12) takes us from the end of World War II into the Cold War, as escalating tensions between the United States and Russia bring the rivals perilously close to nuclear war. Sheinkin crafts an epic narrative with a large cast of characters, far-flung settings, multiple plot strands, and rising suspense, further evidence that one of our best nonfiction writers is also one of our best storytellers. Review 11/21.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
written and illustrated by Peter Sís; Norton
(Primary, Intermediate)

Sís weaves the exceptional story of Nicholas Winton, who arranged for the transport of 669 children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, with that of Vera, one of those children, following them until a powerful reunion many years after the war. Understated prose and ingeniously complex illustrations capture the heartbreaking emotion of the tale. Review 5/21.

Fox: A Circle of Life Story
written by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus; Bloomsbury
(Primary, Intermediate)

Halfway through this life-cycle story about a mother fox and her kits, she dies. What happens next is extraordinary: Thomas keeps her focus on the fox, explaining factually, yet reverently, the process of decomposition and the role of dead organisms in the full circle of life. Egnéus’s art, featuring dynamic animals and colorful landscapes, reinforces this affirmative perspective. Review 11/21.

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone
written by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson; Putnam
(Primary, Intermediate)

This powerful look at the life of pianist, singer, and composer Nina Simone is at its heart the origin story of a civil rights icon. Todd emphasizes how an accumulation of indignities and disappointments, combined with the movement’s “relentless, demanding” drumbeat, led Simone to eventually sing out against racism and injustice — all captured in Robinson’s consummate acrylic and collage illustrations. Altogether stunning. Review 11/21.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper; Carolrhoda
(Primary, Intermediate)

Poet Weatherford and painter Cooper are at the height of their respective powers in this account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and Black Wall Street destroyed. The late Cooper’s portraits of Black residents are particularly moving, seeming to break the fourth wall to implore the reader to remember their stories. Review 1/21.

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin; Candlewick
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Yevgeny’s 1960s Leningrad apartment is so small that he has to sleep under the dining table, whose underside provides a canvas for his nascent artistic ambitions. We now know Yevgeny as author/illustrator Eugene Yelchin, and this memoir of his young adolescence is a forthright, darkly humorous, and indelible portrait of an artist emerging. Review 9/21.


From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement
written by Paula Yoo; Norton
(High School)

In this extensively researched account — based on news articles, court records, documentary films, and her own interviews — Yoo retells the life story of Chinese American Vincent Chin, murdered in Detroit in 1982 by two white men. Suspenseful but never sensationalized, the book attends to both the facts of the case and the impact of its resolution, still felt today. Review 5/21.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.