Five favorite early chapter books

The competition in this category was fierce, and I struggled to narrow the list to these five.

Too Small Tola by Atinuke

Published by Candlewick

Too Small Tola: Atinuke, Iwu, Onyinye: 9781536211276: Books

Three charming stories about Tola, the youngest in a family living in Lagos, Nigeria, who works hard to prove that she can keep up with her older siblings.

Billy Miller Makes a Wish by Kevin Henkes

Published by Greenwillow

Billy Miller Makes a Wish: Henkes, Kevin, Henkes, Kevin: 9780063042797: Books

Billy makes a birthday wish that something exciting will happen, then feels guilty when his wish comes true in unexpected ways. It’s just the sort of thing that might happen when you’re eight. I liked this sequel even better than the Newbery Honor original, The Year of Billy Miller.

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old (Twig and Turtle, book 4) by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, illustrated by Paula Franco

Published by Pixel +Ink

Twig and Turtle 4: Make New Friends, But Keep the Old: Jacobson, Jennifer  Richard: 9781645950547: Books

I missed this series’ 2020 debut, but I’m glad I discovered Twig and Turtle this year and vicariously enjoyed their family’s experiences with tiny house living.

Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Pete Oswald

Published by Anne Schwartz Books

Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School: Jenkins, Emily, Oswald, Pete:  9780525644712: Books

I like to think of a parent somewhere turning off the computer, putting aside the newspaper, and reading another chapter of this book to their seven-year-old so they can find out how Harry deals with his fear of guinea pigs, his worries about making friends, and the other everyday problems of first grade.

Ways to Grow Love by Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Ways to Grow Love (A Ryan Hart Novel, 2): Watson, Renee: 9781432889494: Books

The first book about Ryan Hart, Ways to Make Sunshine, appeared on my end-of-the-year early chapter books list last year, and this one was every bit as good, with stories about Ryan’s summer between fourth and fifth grades. Her family faces some tough times, but good friends and a close-knit community help make it a happy summer for Ryan.

Five favorite graphic novels

Graphic novels continue to be extremely popular at my library. Here are a few of my favorites from this year.

Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez

Published by Roaring Brook Press Big Apple Diaries: 9781250774279: Bermudez, Alyssa, Bermudez,  Alyssa: Books

Alyssa Bermudez used her real diaries from seventh and eighth grade to write this memoir about her life in New York City from 2000 to 2002. The events of 9/11 as well as family difficulties forced her to grow up quickly during those years.

A Shot in the Arm by Don Brown

Published by Harry N. Abrams

A Shot in the Arm!: Big Ideas that Changed the World #3: Brown, Don:  9781419750014: Books

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu narrates this timely history of vaccination, including her own role in bringing the smallpox vaccine to England. The narrative ends in November 2020, just before the Covid vaccine was released, concluding “The world holds its breath…and hopes.”

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

Published by Kokila

The Legend of Auntie Po - National Book Foundation

This National Book Award finalist covered topics that included 19th-century logging camp history, LGBTQ issues, anti-Asian racism, white privilege, and folklore. This could just as easily have been on my Newbery contenders list and may also be considered for the Printz award.

Pawcasso by Remy Lai

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Pawcasso: Lai, Remy, Lai, Remy: 9781250774491: Books

Awww! Pawcasso is so cute! Can you blame Jo for pretending he’s her dog, even if it gets her into some trouble and almost costs her her new friends?

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd

Published by Graphix

Allergic: A Graphic Novel: Lloyd, Megan Wagner, Nutter, Michelle Mee:  9781338568905: Books

And then there’s Maggie, whose excitement about getting a new dog for her tenth birthday is quickly dampened when she discovers her allergies to anything with fur or feathers.

Five favorite chapter books

A few more chapter books that I enjoyed this year. These could also be Newbery contenders–one never knows.

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

A Place to Hang the Moon: Albus, Kate: 9780823447053: Books

I stand by my assertion that this funny, touching novel set in WWII Britain should only be read with a cup of tea beside a cozy fire.

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrated by Fahmida Azim

Published by Kokila Samira Surfs: 9781984816191: Guidroz, Rukhsanna, Azim, Fahmida:  Books

I knew almost nothing about Burma’s Rohingya refugees before reading this powerful novel in verse about Samira’s determination to pursue her surfing dreams.

The Lion of Mars by Jennifer Holm

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

The Lion of Mars: Holm, Jennifer L.: 9780593121818: Books

There’s some heavy stuff on this list, but Jennifer Holm provided us with some fun this year, imagining what it would be like to be an 11-year-old living on Mars.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

Published by Balzer + Bray

Ophie's Ghosts: Ireland, Justina: 9780062915894: Books

There were some good ghost stories this year (see my Newbery predicitions). This one was also excellent historical fiction with a surprising murder mystery.

Treasure of the World by Tara Sullivan

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Treasure of the World: Sullivan, Tara: 9780525516965: Books

In keeping with the “books as mirrors and windows” school of thought, I wish that this story about a Bolivian mining village and Samira Surfs had gotten more attention and maybe some Newbery consideration (maybe they have, but I haven’t seen them on any lists).

Five (or six) favorite picture books

Most of these are also part of my mock Caldecott slideshow, so don’t count them out to win some awards!

The Lost Package by Richard Ho, illustrated by Jessica Lanan

Published by Roaring Brook Press

The Lost Package: Ho, Richard, Lanan, Jessica: 9781250231352:  Books

There’s not a lot of text, so the illustrations really tell the story. I love how light and reflection is portrayed in many of the pictures, as well as the inner workings of the post office.

Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor

Published by Orchard Books

Mel Fell: Tabor, Corey R., Tabor, Corey R.: 9780062878014: Books

I’ve been reading this book to a lot of classes, and kids (and teachers) love it. The unique design and the animals Mel sees going down and on her way back up make it a hit. The slug always gets a laugh.

Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Loren Long

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers

Someone Builds the Dream: Wheeler, Lisa, Long, Loren: 9781984814333:  Books

This book celebrates workers in a year when we needed that more than ever. The gorgeous illustrations were inspired by Depression-era WPA murals.

Keeping the City Going by Brian Floca and Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham

Published by Atheneum and Roaring Brook Press

Keeping the City Going - Kindle edition by Floca, Brian, Floca, Brian.  Children Kindle eBooks @
Outside, Inside: Pham, LeUyen, Pham, LeUyen: 9781250798350:  Books

If the Caldecott committee decides to go with the most timely picture book, it could be one of these pandemic-inspired choices.

Sunrise Summer by Matthew Swanson, illustrated by Robbi Behr

Published by Imprint

Sunrise Summer: Swanson, Matthew, Behr, Robbi: 9781250080585:  Books

I loved this slightly quirky book that puts a new spin on “what I did over my summer vacation”.

Five Newbery predictions

I am grateful that there were so many diverse voices speaking in middle grade fiction this year. Here are a few of them that I’d love to see get a Newbery medal or honor.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books Starfish: 9781984814500: Fipps, Lisa: Books

There aren’t a lot of middle grade books addressing body image, and this novel in verse did a fantastic job of showing Ellie’s journey from shame to empowerment.

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson

Published by Scholastic

Playing the Cards You're Dealt: Johnson, Varian: 9781338348538:  Books

I know I need to finally let go of the fact that Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance didn’t win a Newbery three years ago, and I think giving this book some recognition would go a long way toward making that happen.

Red, White, and Whole by Rajani Larocca

Published by Quill Tree Books Red, White, and Whole: 9780063047426: LaRocca, Rajani: Books

I avoided this book for awhile because I thought it sounded like too much of a downer. It does deal with grief, but more than that, it is about love, connection, and embracing who you are.

Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff

Published by Dial Books

Too Bright to See: Lukoff, Kyle: 9780593111154: Books

Seems like I read more ghost stories than usual this year. In this powerful novel, a ghost helps the main character realize his true identity as a transgender boy.

Root Magic by Eden Royce

Published by Walden Pond Press

Root Magic: Royce, Eden: 9780062899576: Books

There are more than just ghosts in this amazing book that spans several genres: horror, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy.

Five Caldecott predictions

A common thread I notice about these books is that each one stayed with me long after I read it. None of them has a long story, and some are almost wordless, but the illustrations were powerful enough to convey a message that resonates.

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

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons for Young Readers Milo Imagines the World (Audible Audio Edition): Matt de la  Peña, Dion Graham, Listening Library: Books

Milo’s drawings show his changing perceptions of the people around him on the subway. Both he and the reader are in for some surprises as people–and their lives–turn out to be much different than our first impressions of them.

Bright Star by Yuyi Morales

Published by Neal Porter Books

Bright Star: Morales, Yuyi: 9780823443284: Books

Portraits of animals and children show the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, the environmental destruction of the current policies, and the hope for a brighter future. Yuyi Morales is overdue for a Caldecott.

Wishes by Muợn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai

Published by Orchard Books

Wishes: Van, Muon Thi, Ngai, Victo: 9781338305890: Books

The book amazed me, with its list of wishes (“The night wished it was darker. The bag wished it was deeper.”) and its lush, detailed illustrations that tell the story of a family escaping Vietnam in the 1980’s and connect it to today’s refugees.

Dream Street by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Published by Anne Schwartz Books

Dream Street - Kindle edition by Walker, Tricia Elam, Holmes, Ekua.  Children Kindle eBooks @

A celebration of the Boston street that cousins Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes grew up on, with unforgettable portraits of the residents and their dreams.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Published by Carolrhoda Books

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre: Weatherford, Carole Boston, Cooper,  Floyd: 9781541581203: Books

Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, Siebert: what award isn’t this masterpiece being considered for? The structure of the story is so well-done, and the illustrations are so haunting, with people that seem to be looking at you from the page. A posthumous Caldecott award for Floyd Cooper, who died over the summer, would be a fitting tribute.

Click here for my Mock Caldecott 2022 product on Teachers Pay Teachers with these books and 17 more.

The 12 books of Christmas, 2021

Just like last year, I find myself with a pile of books that I didn’t read or that I still have on hold at the library. I am dumping them all into one big post, wrapping it up, and tying it with a bow for your holiday enjoyment. Starting tomorrow, I will have posts of my favorite books in all different categories, just as I have done in years past.

Once Upon a Camel by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Once Upon a Camel: Appelt, Kathi, Rohmann, Eric: 9781534406438:  Books

An elderly camel tells stories about her adventurous life AND it’s illustrated by Eric Rohmann. It’s sitting unread on my bookcase, and I guess my excuse is that I’m not always a big fan of talking animal stories. This really does look charming, though, and looks like it would make a good read-aloud.

Willodeen by Katherine Applegate

Published by Feiwel & Friends

Willodeen: Applegate, Katherine: 9781250147400: Books

I actually started reading this and wasn’t super excited by it. It’s an allegorical tale about preserving the environment, and it felt a little too heavy on the allegory to me. Also, Katherine Applegate did such a great job with this theme in The Endling books that this almost feels unnecessary. Still, it is Katherine Applegate, and it appears that there were many, many readers who really enjoyed this book this year.

The Swag Is In the Socks by Kelly J. Baptist

Published by Crown Books

The Swag Is in the Socks: Baptist, Kelly J.: 9780593380864:  Books

I came this close to reading this book and still may get to it over vacation. I loved Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly Baptist, and this one looks really good, too: Xavier is a kid whose always been in the background, but when his great uncle starts sending him outlandish socks, he decides it’s time to step up and figure out who he really is.

Out of My Heart by Sharon M. Draper

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Out of My Heart: Draper, Sharon M.: 9781665902168: Books

I don’t often review sequels, and I guess I’ll use this as my excuse here, but this may be the book I feel most regretful about not getting to this year. I loved Out of My Mind, and I know a lot of kids have, too, plus books about kids with physical disabilities (in this case, cerebral palsy) are all too rare.

When I Wake Up by Seth Fishman, illustrated by Jessixa Bagley

Published by Greenwillow Books

When I Wake Up: Fishman, Seth, Bagley, Jessixa: 9780062455802:  Books

Okay, people, this sounds like a choose-your-own adventure picture book. How cool is that? I have it on hold at the library, but it was just released on December 14, so I didn’t get it in time to review this year.

Two At the Top: A Shared Dream of Everest by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Christopher Corr

Published by Groundwood Books

Two at the Top: A Shared Dream of Everest: Krishnaswami, Uma, Corr,  Christopher: 9781773062662: Books

These small press books can be tough to get my hands on, so I never got to read this, but it sounds fascinating. Told in the voices of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the narrative switches between their two stories until their lives intersect when they become the first to summit Chomolungma, or Mt. Everest.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (As Told to His Brother) by David Levithan

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother):  Levithan, David: 9781984848598: Books

I put off reading this book because I reasoned I didn’t really care for Skellig, written by (I thought) the same author. About a month ago, I realized the Skellig author is actually David Almond, not David Levithan. My bad, and it kept me from reading a book with a Narnia connection which I would undoubtedly have enjoyed.

Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Published by Greenwillow Books Da Vinci's Cat: 9780063015258: Murdock, Catherine Gilbert: Books

Here’s another one I stayed away from because of my prejudices: I didn’t much care for The Book of Boy (which actually WAS written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock) and felt like it had very little kid appeal. This book got a couple of starred reviews, though, and sounds like a good time-travel tale.

Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet History by Charlotte Nebres, illustrated by Alea Marley

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet  History: Nebres, Charlotte, Marley, Alea: 9780593374900: Books

Written by the young ballerina who was the first Black Marie (Clara to some fans) in the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, this sounds like an awesome Christmas picture book. Too bad it was released on December 21! What’s up with that, Random House?

A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman

Published by Pajama Press

A Sky-Blue Bench: Rahman, Bahram, Collins, Peggy: 9781772782226:  Books

Here’s another small press book that came out late in the year, which means I couldn’t get it in time to review (marketing departments at small presses, please send me review copies!). A young girl who has lost her leg to a landmine figures out a way to make going to school possible for herself. Can’t wait to read it.

The Welcome Chair by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

The Welcome Chair - Kindle edition by Wells, Rosemary, Pinkney, Jerry.  Children Kindle eBooks @

Rosemary Wells, Jerry Pinkney, a story of a chair passed from one immigrant family to the next: it seemed like a book I should love, but I read it weeks ago and never felt inspired to review it. It got great reviews, though, so don’t let me stop you from taking a look.

From the Tops of the Trees by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada

Published by Carolrhoda Books

From the Tops of the Trees: Yang, Kao Kalia, Wada, Rachel: 9781541581302: Books

Another one that I’m still waiting to get from my public library. The story is based on the author’s experiences at a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand following the war in Laos during the Vietnam War. As a four-year-old, Kalia has spent her whole life in the camp, but one day her father takes her to the tallest tree so she can see the world that is waiting for her. Sounds amazing.

Two holiday books for Christmas Eve

20 Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas by Mark Lee, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus

Published by Candlewick

Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas by Mark Lee: 9781536212532 | Books Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas: 9781536212532:  Lee, Mark, Cyrus, Kurt: Books

The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Published by Beach Lane Books

The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story: Winter, Jonah, Winter,  Jeanette: 9781665902137: Books
The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story: Winter, Jonah, Winter,  Jeanette: 9781665902137: Books

Summary: Santa and interlibrary loan brought me these two holiday books just days before Christmas. In 20 Big Trucks Before Christmas, two boys watch the holiday preparations in their town which require–you guessed it–twenty big trucks. A mishap hanging the star atop the tree inspires the donut truck driver to take the donut off his truck, decorate it with red and green lights, and use it to replace the star. When Santa arrives in a pickup, it’s time for the celebration to begin!

We’ve seen Rockefeller the owl already this year in The Christmas Owl. This version of the story, by the Winter mother-and-son team, focuses on the wild owl: “The owl didn’t have a name–and of course she didn’t: She was a wild animal.” Humans are necessary to help her when she’s trapped in the tree destined for Rockefeller Center, but after her stay at the wildlife rehabilitation center, she is “back in the wild, back in the trees, somewhere out there under the stars.” An author’s note tells a bit more of the story. Both books are 32 pages and recommended for ages 4-8.

Pros: Here are two illustrators that really should get more recognition. Kurt Cyrus’s lifelike pictures of machinery are always popular with kids, and Jeanette Winter, who is 82 years old and has written and illustrated dozens of books, has a beautiful folk-art style that’s perfect for Rockefeller’s story.

Cons: I wish I could have gotten these books a few weeks sooner so I could have shared them with kids before vacation.

Cuba in My Pocket by Adrianna Cuevas

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Cuba in My Pocket: Cuevas, Adrianna: 9780374314675: Books

Summary:  12-year-old Cumba has lived all his life in Cuba, but when the Bay of Pigs invasion fails, he and his family are in danger.  Cumba is being recruited to join the Young Rebels and possibly be sent to the Soviet Union for military training.  His parents manage to smuggle him out of Cuba to live with a cousin in Miami.  There he deals with homesickness, an unfamiliar culture, and the struggle to learn English, but he also meets some new friends who help him to find his way.  His 7-year-old brother Pepito keeps him apprised of the harrowing events back home in Cuba through letters.  Seven months after Cumba’s arrival, he is thrilled to learn that his family has found a way to join him, and in the final chapter he gathers with his new friends at the airport to welcome his family to the United States.  Includes an author’s note about her father, whose early life inspired this book.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Belpré honoree Adrianna Cuevas may be in line for another award with this engaging story that weaves in a lot of 20th-century Cuban history.  

Cons:  Pepito’s letters seemed like they were written by someone a few years older than seven.

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Published by Kokila

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water: Hannah-Jones, Nikole, Watson, Renée,  Smith, Nikkolas: 9780593307359: Books
The 1619 Project (Picture Book): Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones  and Renée Watson

Summary:  In the first poem, titled “Questions”, a girl gets an assignment to trace her roots and realizes she can only go back three generations. At home, she asks her grandmother for help.  Her grandmother gathers the family together and tells them their story, beginning with their ancestors in West Central Africa who were kidnapped in 1619 and forced on a hellish journey aboard a slave ship.  Those who survived were forced into slavery in tobacco fields, fighting to hold onto their memories of home.  Their descendants went on to become great people in their new country.  By the end of the story, the girl is ready to return to school and finish her story; the final poem is called “Pride”.  Includes notes from the authors and the illustrator and the website for the 1619 Project.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The award-winning authors have crafted an empowering collection of poems that doesn’t shy away from harsh histories, but also celebrates an African history that is often overlooked.

Cons:  I wish there were more resources listed; the 1619 Project website has books connected to the project, but no others.