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.

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon

Published by Candlewick Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to  the People: 9781536214185: Magoon, Kekla: Books

Summary:  The history of the Black Panther Party is divided into three parts: Kindling (1619-1965), Blaze (1966-1982), and Embers (1983-present).  Packed with photos and original sources, the story is sympathetic to the Party, but does not shy away from differences among the members which eventually led to its dissolution (and were at least in part caused by the FBI COINTELPRO project to destroy them).  There’s an emphasis on the young people and women who contributed so much to all aspects of the group, from the armed oversight of police to the social programs for Black communities.  The final section ties the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter and invites young people to start their own revolution.  Includes an author’s note, a list of key people, a timeline, a glossary, further reading, 32 pages of source notes, an 11-page bibliography, and an index.  400 pages; grades 7-12.

Pros:  This is a bit above the age group I usually review for, but I’ve been fascinated by the Black Panther Party since I read One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams and realized how much misinformation I had about the group.  This book is incredibly well-researched, yet also highly readable and accessible, and was chosen as a National Book Award Finalist.  The final section makes it relevant and inspiring for today’s young readers.  I hope it will win some awards: Printz, Sibert, and Coretta Scott King all come to mind.

Cons:  This book is seriously hefty, weighing in at three pounds or approximately twice as much as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani

Published by Kokila

How to Find What You're Not Looking For - Kindle edition by Hiranandani,  Veera. Children Kindle eBooks @

Summary:  Ariel’s 18-year-old sister Leah is in love with Indian-American Raj, causing a huge rift in their Jewish family.  When the couple elopes to New York City and cuts off contact with the family, Ariel feels caught in the middle.  It’s 1967, and both the family and the larger world seem consumed with prejudice, divided along lines of love and hate.  Ariel’s new teacher, Miss Field, provides some bright spots when she diagnoses Ariel with a learning disability called dysgraphia and tries to provide help beyond her parents’ admonitions to just try harder.  Ariel’s friend Jane is also supportive, using the detective skills she’s learned from Nancy Drew books to try to track down Leah.  When Ariel and Jane sneak off to New York to try to find the couple, a chain of unexpected consequences is unleashed that ultimately leads to a tenuous reconciliation with the family.  So many new experiences help Ariel to find her voice, both by speaking out and writing poetry, and she is amazed to learn the powers she has within her.  384 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Newbery honoree Hiranandani gracefully handles many different issues in an unusual second-person voice.  The themes of overcoming prejudice, finding your own voice, and kids sometimes understanding things better than the adults in their lives will all resonate with young readers.

Cons:  I’m not sure how I feel about the second-person voice.

¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines/El baile que atravesó la barrera de color by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Published by Candlewick ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines:  9781536206081: Robbins, Dean, Velasquez, Eric: Books ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines:  9781536206081: Robbins, Dean, Velasquez, Eric: Books

Summary:  In the 1940’s, young people danced in groups divided by race and ethnicity.  Millie danced to jazz in her Italian neighborhood, while Pedro danced to Latin songs in his Puerto Rican community.  But then a band called Machito and His Afro-Cubans started mixing things up, using jazz trumpets and saxophones with Latin maracas and congas to make what they called Latin jazz.  In 1948, New York City’s Palladium Ballroom broke the rules by opening its doors to everyone and hiring Machito to play for them.  It brought together Millie and Pedro, who danced a new dance called the mambo–and danced it so well that they became the best at the Palladium, the best in New York City, and finally, the best in the United States.  Includes an author’s note with more information on Machito, the Palladium, and the dancers mentioned in the text; also a list of resources.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The realistic oil painting illustrations and the brief text capture the movement and energy of the dancers, as well as the different groups that came together at the Palladium.  The back matter adds good informational value.

Cons:  No photos.

Fox: A Circle of Life Story by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Fox: A Circle of Life Story: Thomas, Isabel: 9781526600776:  Books
Fox: A Circle of Life Story by Daniel Egneus

Summary:  Look: you might see a bushy tail or a flash of orange.  Listen: a soft pad of paws.  A fox travels through the snow, hunting for food to take back to its den, where three cubs wait.  As the cubs get bigger, they go out on hunting expeditions, too.  On one trip, the fox is hit by a car and dies by the side of the road.  The cubs return home and are seen walking by the fox’s body as it slowly starts to decompose.  Birds and insects feed on the body, and insects lay their eggs there.  “Life is everywhere.  Death is not just an end but a beginning.”  Includes additional information on death, decomposition, and the cycle of life.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This beautiful book looks at death and decomposition from a scientific viewpoint, part of the cycle that allows new life to grow and flourish.  It doesn’t deal with grief (the young foxes seem unfazed by the death of their parent) but shows readers the natural process of death.

Cons:  Readers who may not have picked up on the foreshadowing of the “circle of life” subtitle may be shocked and dismayed by the death of the fox.  This is definitely a book to share and discuss one-on-one.

Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge by Gary Golio, illustrated by James Ransome

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge: 9781984813664: Golio, Gary,  Ransome, James: Books Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge: 9781984813664: Golio, Gary,  Ransome, James: Books

Summary:  When Sonny Rollins needs a place to practice his music that won’t disturb the neighbors, he heads for the bridge.  Climbing the steps to the walkway, he finds a place where he can blow his saxophone as loud as he wants.  Subway cars, tugboats, and seagulls add their distinctive voices to the song Sonny plays from New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge.  Includes additional information about Sonny Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a collection of quotes from interviews with Sonny, now 91 years old. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This would be a great resource for music teachers to introduce Sonny Rollins’s music.  The brief poetic text makes a quick but compelling read-aloud, there’s lots more information at the end, and the illustrations gorgeously capture the feeling of music on the bridge.

Cons:  There’s not much biographical information in the main story; the back matter provides more, but more research will be needed for a full picture of Sonny Rollins’s life and career.

Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Published by Levine Querido

Red and Green and Blue and White: Wind, Lee, Zelinsky, Paul O.:  9781646140879: Books
Red and Green and Blue and White: Wind, Lee, Zelinsky, Paul O.:  9781646140879: Books

Summary:  Isaac’s house is the only one on the block decorated in blue and white instead of red and green as he and his best friend (and neighbor) Teresa count down the days until Chanukah and Christmas.  Then one night a rock is thrown through the window of Isaac’s house.  The family is scared but determined not to let their fear make them hide their faith.  The next night, they light the menorah again.  When Teresa sees the lit candles, she draws a picture of the menorah with the words “For Isaac,” and hangs it in her front window.  Before long, others in town show the same support.  Their drawings get on the news, and a few weeks later, there are 10,000 menorah pictures hanging in windows all over.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about the 1993 real-life event in Billings, Montana that inspired this story.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This brief but moving story tells of the power of good triumphing over evil, a perfect theme for the holiday season.  The illustrations are filled with cozy comfort that’s in contrast to the broken glass on the cover.  

Cons:  Most reviewers recommend this for ages 4 and up, but I think the story would be better appreciated by an older audience, especially if you’re reading it to a group.