Literally Cultured’s Best Picture Books of 2021

Last year I began my annual round-up of favorite picture books of the year with one book for each month, and needless to say, choosing only 12 books was an agonizing feat. So this year, since 2021 decided to throw us some curve balls and seemingly break all the rules…I decided to reward myself (and you) by including as many of my favorites as I deemed necessary!

The titles I have selected range across genres, authors, cultures, celebrations, and past and present moments and movements. While there is a wide variety in written content, these themes are present throughout…inclusion, representation, and hope. One of May’s selections, All of Us, illustrates this beautifully…

“Some build things up, some create art. Some help the earth, some heal the heart.

Hands, hearts, and minds, vibrant and strong. Different, the same, we all belong.”

— Kathryn Erskine, All of Us

January

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners

Written by Johanna Ho & Illustrated by Dung Ho

A young Asian girl notices that her eyes look different from her peers’. They have big, round eyes and long lashes. She realizes that her eyes are like her mother’s, her grandmother’s, and her little sister’s. They have eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea, crinkle into crescent moons, and are filled with stories of the past and hope for the future.

Drawing from the strength of these powerful women in her life, she recognizes her own beauty and discovers a path to self-love and empowerment. This powerful, poetic picture book will resonate with readers of all ages.

Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter

Written by Shani Mahiri King & Illustrated by Bobby C. Martin Jr.

Black lives matter. That message would be self-evident in a just world, but in this world and this America, all children need to hear it again and again, and not just to hear it but to feel and know it.

This book affirms the message repeatedly, tenderly, with cumulative power and shared pride. Celebrating Black accomplishments in music, art, literature, journalism, politics, law, science, medicine, entertainment, and sports, Shani King summons a magnificent historical and contemporary context for honoring the fortitude of Black role models, women and men, who have achieved greatness despite the grinding political and social constraints on Black life. Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, Sojourner Truth, John Lewis, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, and many more pass through these pages. An America without their struggles, aspirations, and contributions would be a shadow of the country we know.  A hundred life sketches augment the narrative, opening a hundred doors to lives and thinking that aren’t included in many history books. James Baldwin’s challenge is here: “We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.” Actress Viola Davis’s words are here, too: “When I was younger, I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice. I was taught so many things that didn’t include me. Where was I? What were people like me doing?”

This book tells children what people like Viola were and are doing, and it assures Black children that they are, indisputably, worthy of having a voice.

February

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Written by Carol Boston Weatherford & Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Celebrated author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Floyd Cooper provide a powerful look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation’s history. The book traces the history of African Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood district and chronicles the devastation that occurred in 1921 when a white mob attacked the Black community.

News of what happened was largely suppressed, and no official investigation occurred for seventy-five years. This picture book sensitively introduces young readers to this tragedy and concludes with a call for a better future.

March

Bindu’s Bindis

Written by Supriya Kelkar & Illustrated by Parvati Pillai

This charming picture book is about a little girl who loves her bindis (and the many creative shapes they come in!). The bindis are also a connection to her Nani who lives in India. When Nani comes to visit Bindu and brings the bindis to her, it is just in time to wear something new to the school talent show. Bindu and Nani work together to shine their brightest and embrace their sparkle, even when they stand out from the crowd.

Michelle’s Garden: How the First Lady Planted Seeds of Change

Written & Illustrated by Sharee Miller

Former First Lady Michelle Obama had an idea. A big, inspiring, and exciting idea! She would grow the largest kitchen garden ever at the White House. This wouldn’t be easy, since she’d never gardened before: Where should she start? What tools did she need? What would she plant?

Everyone needs help when they’re learning something for the first time, even the first lady of the United States. So she gathered the help of local students, the White House staff, and even President Barack Obama. Together, they wouldn’t just grow a garden—they would inspire a nation!

Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race

Written by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli & Illustrated by Isabel Roxas

Developed by experts in the fields of early childhood and activism against injustice, this topic-driven board book offers clear, concrete language and beautiful imagery that young children can grasp and adults can leverage for further discussion. 

While young children are avid observers and questioners of their world, adults often shut down or postpone conversations on complicated topics because it’s hard to know where to begin. Research shows that talking about issues like race and gender from the age of two not only helps children understand what they see, but also increases self-awareness, self-esteem, and allows them to recognize and confront things that are unfair, like discrimination and prejudice. 

Your Life Matters

Written by Chris Singleton & Illustrated by Taylor Barron

Empowering and validating, Your Life Matters reassures Black children everywhere that no matter what they hear, no matter what they experience, no matter what they’re told, their lives matter. Written by national speaker Chris Singleton, who lost his own mother in the 2015 Charleston church shooting, Your Life Matters teaches kids to stand tall in the face of racial adversity and fight for the life they dream of. Each page depicts a famous hero from Black history mentoring a child of today and encouraging them to use their mind, heart, voice, and hands in that fight. Hero-mentors in the book include: Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aretha Franklin, Katherine Johnson, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, and others. 

April

Amira’s Picture Day

Written by Reem Faruqi & Illustrated by Fahmida Azim

Just the thought of Eid makes Amira warm and tingly inside. From wearing new clothes to handing out goody bags at the mosque, Amira can’t wait for the festivities to begin. But when a flier on the fridge catches her eye, Amira’s stomach goes cold. Not only is it Eid, it’s also school picture day. If she’s not in her class picture, how will her classmates remember her? Won’t her teacher wonder where she is?

Though the day’s celebrations at the mosque are everything Amira was dreaming of, her absence at picture day weighs on her. A last-minute idea on the car ride home might just provide the solution to everything in this delightful story from acclaimed author Reem Faruqi, illustrated with vibrant color by Fahmida Azim.

We Move Together

Written by Kelly Fritsch and Anne McGuire & Illustrated by Eduardo Trejos

A bold and colorful exploration of all the ways that people navigate through the spaces around them and a celebration of the relationships we build along the way. We Move Together follows a mixed-ability group of kids as they creatively negotiate everyday barriers and find joy and connection in disability culture and community. A perfect tool for families, schools, and libraries to facilitate conversations about disability, accessibility, social justice and community building. Includes a kid-friendly glossary (for ages 3–10).

We Are a Garden: A Story of How Diversity Took Root in America

Written by Lisa Westberg Peters & Illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov

Long ago a strong wind blew. It blew people, like seeds, to a new land.

The wind blew in a girl and her clan, where herds of mammoths still wandered the frozen tundra. It later blew a boy and his family across frigid waters, and they spread across the new land. Over time, the wind continued to disperse newcomers from all directions. It blew in men who hoped to find gold, and slave ships, and immigrant families. And so it continued, for generations and generations. Here is a moving and tender picture book that beautifully examines centuries of North American history and its people.

We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know

Written by Traci Sorell & Illustrated by Frane Lessac

Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people’s past, present, and future. Precise, lyrical writing presents topics including: forced assimilation (such as boarding schools), land allotment and Native tribal reorganization, termination (the US government not recognizing tribes as nations), Native urban relocation (from reservations), self-determination (tribal self-empowerment), Native civil rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), religious freedom, economic development (including casino development), Native language revival efforts, cultural persistence, and nationhood.

May

All of Us

Written by Kathryn Erskine & Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

ME can be WE. YOU can come, too. In a lyrical text that travels the globe, National Book Award winner Kathryn Erskine shows young readers how the whole world is a community made up of people who are more similar than we are different. 

A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day

Written by Leah Henderson & Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Today is a special day. Eli knows it’s important if he’s allowed to miss one second of school, his “hard-earned right.”


Inspired by true events and told through the eyes of a young boy, this is the deeply moving story about what is regarded as the first Memorial Day on May 1, 1865. Eli dresses up in his best clothes, Mama gathers the mayflowers, Papa straightens his hat, and together they join the crowds filling the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, with bouquets, crosses, and wreaths. Abolitionists, missionaries, teachers, military officers, and a sea of faces Black, Brown, and White, they march as one and sing for all those who gave their lives fighting for freedom during the Civil War.

Enough! 20 Protestors Who Changed America (Updated Edition)

Written by Emily Easton & Illustrated by Ziyue Chen

America has been molded and shaped by those who have taken a stand and said they have had enough. In this dynamic picture book, stand alongside the nation’s most iconic civil and human rights leaders, whose brave actions rewrote history.

Join Samuel Adams as he masterminds the Boston Tea Party, Ruby Bridges on her march to school, Colin Kaepernick as he takes a knee for Black lives, and a multitude of other American activists whose peaceful protests have ushered in lasting change.

With a foreword from a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, this succinct text paired with striking illustrations is a compelling read-together story for little activists who are just starting to find their voice.

Also includes short bios about each protester to provide additional context about their respective movement and the form of protest they used.

I Affirm Me: The ABCs of Inspiration for Black Kids

Written by Nyasha Williams & Illustrated by Sóf’ya Glushkó 

Learn the power of language and love with this empowering alphabet book of affirmations to inspire and remind Black children of their inner power, strength, and worth. 

From A is for Afro, to J is for Justice, to R is for Rally, this alphabet book offers affirmations featuring Black children and role models to help children nurture and embrace their authentic selves and to enjoy the magic of childhood.

June

What is God Like?

Written by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner & Illustrated by Ying Hui Tan

Children who are introduced to God, through attending church or having loved ones who speak about God, often have a lot of questions, including this ever-popular one: What is God like? The late Rachel Held Evans loved the Bible and loved showing God’s love through the words and pictures found in that ancient text. Through these pictures from the Bible, children see that God is like a shepherd, God is like a star, God is like a gardener, God is like the wind, and more. God is a comforter and support.

And whenever a child is unsure, What Is God Like? encourages young hearts to “think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel loved, and what makes you feel brave. That’s what God is like.”

July

My Voice is a Trumpet

Written by Jimmie Allen & Illustrated by Cathy Ann Johnson

From voices tall as a tree, to voices small as a bee, all it takes is confidence and a belief in the goodness of others to change the world. Coming at a time when issues of social justice are at the forefront of our society, this is the perfect book to teach children in and out of the classroom that they’re not too young to express what they believe in and that all voices are valuable.

August

Tomatoes for Neela

Written by Padma Lakshmi & Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Neela loves cooking with her amma and writing down the recipes in her notebook. It makes her feel closer to her paati who lives far away in India. On Saturdays, Neela and Amma go to the green market and today they are buying tomatoes to make Paati’s famous sauce. But first, Neela needs to learn about all the different kinds of tomatoes they can pick from. And as Neela and Amma cook together, they find a way for Paati to share in both the love and the flavors of the day.

September

Change Sings

Written by Amanda Gorman & Illustrated by Loren Long

“I can hear change humming
In its loudest, proudest song.
I don’t fear change coming,
And so I sing along.”
 
In this stirring, much-anticipated picture book by presidential inaugural poet and activist Amanda Gorman, anything is possible when our voices join together. As a young girl leads a cast of characters on a musical journey, they learn that they have the power to make changes—big or small—in the world, in their communities, and in most importantly, in themselves. 

I Am Courage: A Book of Resilience

Written by Susan Verde & Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

I move ahead one breath at a time.
I act with bravery.
I am courage.
 

When we picture someone brave, we might think they’re fearless; but real courage comes from feeling scared and facing what challenges us anyway. When our minds tell us “I can’t,” we can look inside ourselves and find the strength to say, “Yes, I CAN!”

The People Remember

Written by Ibi Zoboi & Illustrated by Loveis Wise

The People Remember tells the journey of African descendants in America by connecting their history to the seven principles of Kwanzaa. It begins in Africa, where people were taken from their homes and families. They spoke different languages and had different customs.

Yet they were bound and chained together and forced onto ships sailing into an unknown future. Ultimately, all these people had to learn one common language and create a culture that combined their memories of home with new traditions that enabled them to thrive in this new land. 

Sumptuously illustrated, this is an important book to read as a family—a story young readers can visit over and over again to deepen their understanding of African American history in relation to their own lives and current social justice movements. By turns powerful and revealing, this is a lyrical narrative that tells the story of survival, as well as the many moments of joy, celebration, and innovation of Black people in America.

When We Say Black Lives Matter

Written & Illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Little one, when we say Black Lives Matter,
we’re saying Black people are wonderful-strong.
That we deserve to be treated with basic respect,
and that history’s done us wrong. . . .

Darling, when we sing that Black Lives Matter,
and we’re dancing through the streets,
we’re saying: fear will not destroy our joy,
defiance in our feet. 

In this joyful exploration of the Black Lives Matter motto, a loving narrator relays to a young Black child the strength and resonance behind the words. In family life, through school and beyond, the refrains echo and gain in power, among vignettes of protests and scenes of ancestors creating music on djembe drums. 

Your Legacy: A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History

Written by Schele Wiliams & Illustrated by Tonya Engel

Your story begins in Africa. 
Your African ancestors defied the odds and survived 400 years of slavery in America and passed down an extraordinary legacy to you. 
 
Beginning in Africa before 1619, Your Legacy presents an unprecedentedly accessible, empowering, and proud introduction to African American history for children. While your ancestors’ freedom was taken from them, their spirit was not; this book celebrates their accomplishments, acknowledges their sacrifices, and defines how they are remembered—and how their stories should be taught.

October

A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

Written by Mary Lee Donovan & Illustrated by Lian Cho

Welcome, friend. Welcome.

There are almost as many ways of making someone feel welcome as there are people on our planet. To welcome another is to give that person and yourself a chance at a new connection, a new friendship, and maybe even new eyes through which to view the world.

Journey around the globe as A Hundred Thousand Welcomes introduces the word for “welcome” in fourteen languages to illuminate a universal message of hope and acceptance. Mary Lee Donovan’s spare text is brought to life by Lian Cho’s boisterous, richly detailed illustrations.

The Me I Choose to Be

Written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley & Art by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt

What will you choose to be? 
A free spirit? 
A weaver of words? 
A star dancing across the night sky? 
A limitless galaxy? 

The possibilities are endless in this uplifting ode to the power of potential. With lyrical text by bestselling author Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and images by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt—the team behind CreativeSoul Photography—each page of The Me I Choose To Be is an immersive call for self-love that highlights the inherent beauty of all Black and brown children. 

The Real Santa

Written by Nancy Redd & Illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow

It’s not Christmas without Santa! But what does Santa truly look like? Does he match the figurines on the mantel, or the faces on our favorite
holiday sweaters? Does he look like you or like me?
 
Find out in this joyous and cozy celebration of family, representation, and holiday spirit! Destined to be a new classic, and perfect for any child looking to see some of themself in Santa Claus.

November

Born on the Water

Written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson & Illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

A young student receives a family tree assignment in school, but she can only trace back three generations. Grandma gathers the whole family, and the student learns that 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen and brought to America by white slave traders. 
But before that, they had a home, a land, a language. She learns how the people said to be born on the water survived.

And the people planted dreams and hope,
willed themselves to keep
living, living.

And the people learned new words
for love
for friend
for family

for joy
for grow
for home.

Our Table

Written & Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Violet longs for the time when her family was connected: before life, distractions, and technology pulled them all away from each other. They used to gather at the table, with food and love, to make memories, share their lives, and revel in time spent together. But now her family has been drifting apart, and with nobody to gather around it, the table grows smaller and smaller.

Can Violet remind her family of the warmth of time spent together, and gather around the table once more?

December

In the Spirit of a Dream: 13 Stories of American Immigrants of Color

Written by Alina Chau & Illustrated by Aida Salazar

In the spirit of a dream, many immigrants of color set out across continents, oceans, and borders, travelling to the United States in pursuit of opportunity. This book is a celebration of 13 American immigrants of color, from world-famous to local heroes, politicians, surgeons, athletes, activists and more.

The biographies include engineer and astronaut Anousheh Ansari; Paralympic athlete and entrepreneur Alejandro Albor; surgeon Ayub Khan Ommaya; jazz musician Candido Camero; dancer Conceiçao Damasceno; Sriracha inventor and businessman David Tran; basketball player Dikembe Mutombo; author Edwidge Danticat; politician Ilhan Omar; comic artist Jim Lee; environmental activist Juana Guttierez; cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Undocupoets, a group of undocumented poets.

Light for All

Written by Margarita Engle & Illustrated by Raúl Colón

Discover the myriad contributions that all immigrants have made as they come to join family or start their own lives together in a new country they call home. Coming with their hopes, dreams, and determination, generations of immigrants have made the fabric of this country diverse, vivid, and welcoming.

This vibrant and timely celebration demonstrates the thousands of immigrants who built America and the importance of having acceptance and light for everyone.

We Shall Overcome

Illustrated by Bryan Collier

“We Shall Overcome” is one of the most recognizable anthems of the Civil Rights movement, widely performed at protests and rallies to promote nonviolent civil rights activism. Now, these inspirational, empowering, legendary lyrics are brought to life with the stirring, evocative, and breathtaking illustrations from multi-award-winning talent Bryan Collier. 

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