The best children’s and YA books of 2021

·5 min read

From magical picture books and rollicking adventures to the conclusion of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series, standout reads for all ages


After months of sadness and uncertainty, there is pure enchantment to be found in the year’s best children’s books. For picture-book lovers, Scissorella: The Paper Princess by Clare Helen Welsh, illustrated by Laura Barrett (Andersen), is an extra-special story full of delicate filigree art. Mill worker Lotte, scorned by her siblings, cuts elegant puppets out of paper, trusting hard work over happy endings – until she’s invited to a ball, and meets a prince who loves puppets too.

In the luminous fairytale Frindleswylde by Natalia O’Hara, illustrated by Lauren O’Hara (Walker), a capricious winter spirit steals the light from Grandma’s lamp, and Cora must go to his icy kingdom to retrieve it – but will Frindleswylde freeze her heart first? Filled with pastel sweetness and frosty aquamarine light, this has a flavour of Hans Christian Andersen.

There is rousing inspiration for all ages in Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long (Puffin), as a girl urges her community to action via small kindnesses and courageous words (“I can hear change humming / In its loudest, proudest song …”). Lyrical text from the presidential inaugural poet marries thrillingly with Long’s rich paintings.

For five-plus, Once Upon a Tune: Stories from the Orchestra by James Mayhew (Otter-Barry) contains six absorbing tales, each the source of wonderful music, all brought to life by Mayhew’s compelling storytelling and exquisitely textured pictures. This gorgeous introduction to works such as Peer Gynt and Scheherazade explores musical context, and provides links to recommended recordings.

Fact fans of seven-plus will adore Listified!: Britannica’s 300 Lists That Will Blow Your Mind by Andrew Pettie, illustrated by Andrés Lozano (Britannica), a treasury featuring the fastest dinosaurs, the cleverest dog breeds and the sneakiest spy gadgets (including a microphone disguised as an olive). Funny and thought-provoking, with pages full of enticingly blocky illustrations.

In Every Leaf a Hallelujah by Ben Okri, illustrated by Diana Ejaita (Head of Zeus) and also for seven-plus readers, Mangoshi’s mother is ill, but there’s a flower in the forest that can save her – if Mangoshi can only find it … This meditative environmental fairytale conveys a sense of humanity’s deep reliance on the natural world.

For eight-plus readers, Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve (David Fickling) is a superbly weird tale of wonder, peril, tragedy and the thin places between worlds. Washed up on shore as a baby, Utterly Dark is adopted by the Watcher of Wildsea, who keeps a lookout for the strange, threatening forces of the sea. But when Utterly’s guardian is drowned, who will keep watch – and keep the island safe?

There are more seaborne thrills for eight-to-12 years in The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius (translated by Peter Graves, Pushkin), as the gorilla hero of The Murderer’s Ape returns in a sequel as intricately illustrated and adventurous as her first appearance. Finding a rose-shaped necklace hidden aboard their beloved steamer, Sally Jones and The Chief are swept off on a voyage from Lisbon to Glasgow and even further afield, falling foul of a terrifying gang and a smuggler determined to own the mysterious pendant.

Meanwhile, the acclaimed author of the Seeing Stone trilogy returns to the bloody, fertile ground of Arthurian legend in Arthur: The Always King by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Walker). This spectacular collection of stories for 10-plus moves enthrallingly from Arthur’s boyhood to the trials of his kingship, betrayal and death; Riddell’s intoxicating illustrations, full of golden light, glinting mail and memorable gore, elevate it to the sublime.

For 14-plus, Medusa by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill (Bloomsbury), is utterly transporting. Violated and cursed, Medusa lives on a remote island with only her sisters, her dog and the snakes of her hair for company. When a handsome boy arrives on the shore, Medusa refuses to show her face – but as they exchange stories from either side of a great rock, friendship slowly flowers between them. How will Perseus react, though, to Medusa’s entire truth? This dynamic feminist retelling is illustrated with stunning, polychromatic power.

Twenty years after Noughts and Crosses’s first publication, Malorie Blackman brings her unforgettable YA series to a tragic, triumphant close in Endgame (Penguin). In a world where black Crosses control most wealth and power, Britain’s first Nought prime minister is about to go on trial for the murder of gang lord Dan Jeavons. Sephy Hadley was also present when Jeavons was killed; now she’s under suspicion too, and her children are threatened. How will the weave of plotting and corruption unravel – and who will emerge unscathed?

Finally, When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Natalie Sirett (Stripes), follows Kai, Orla and Zak, who love the wild green patch in the centre of the concrete sprawl they live in: it’s their den, their garden, their refuge. But when Kai suffers a great loss, he no longer wants his friends’ company – or to safeguard their secret place. A moving, hard-hitting journey for teens through grief and acceptance, interwoven with powerful illustration and viscerally vivid verse.

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