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Our best children's and YA books for 2021

November 22nd, 2021 By Services to Schools staff

Books and reading are a source of comfort and an escape for many a child (and adult!) during challenging times. Here's a round-up of Services to School staff picks for best children's and young adult (YA) books published in 2021.

A theme of resilience

A theme of resiliency runs through a number of the books in this year's list, offering readers the chance to walk alongside characters, who draw strength from empathy, compassion, humour, and friends. Such is the power of reading!

Hand holding a Christmas decoration globe reflecting books.
Image credit: Image by Atul Vinayak. Unsplash. License to use.

Note: Books with an asterisk (*) after the name of their publisher have been recommended by multiple staff members.

Picture books

Asiasiga ‘i Le Falemata aga i Te Papa | Going to Te Papa by Dahlia Malaeulu (Te Papa Press) *
Very simple but beautiful board book of treasures held in Te Papa that reflect Samoan culture. Bilingual, Samoan text first, honouring the culture.

Ming’s Iceberg by Kiri Lightfoot, illustrated by Kimberley Andrews (Scholastic New Zealand)
Ming is an adventurous little penguin who wants to find out what happens where the ocean meets the sky. She bravely jumps aboard an iceberg and heads off to find out, meeting an albatross and a big blue whale who help her along the way. Beautifully illustrated with a plucky main character and the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) in the background.

What Happened to You? by James Catchpole (Faber & Faber Limited)
A funny and honest book talking about a visible disability. Joe just wants to play but keeps being interrupted by others asking what happened to him. Aimed at young children, but a worthy read to start conversations about being different.

Junior fiction

Pony by R.J. Palacio (Puffin) *
I blimmin' dare you not to cry in this book — the story of Silas whose Pa was taken by three men from their home in the middle of the night. Silas is told to stay home, but of course, he can’t. The arrival of a small, boy-sized horse outside his house means he can go and look for his Pa. He’ll encounter mysterious figures, a little bit of magic, and he’ll have to be incredibly brave as he and his constant companion (who may be an imaginary friend) navigate terrifying terrain, genuinely nasty criminals and in the end, extraordinary kindness. A book to melt even the crustiest old cynical heart.

Junior YA

Exit Through the Gift Shop by Maryam Masters, illustrated by Astred Hicks (Pan Macmillan Australia) *
Anahita (Ana) has a few things to do before she exits. She is dying of cancer, but her attitude to this and her take on living her life is fierce and funny. Beware — reading this, you'll encounter the worst nemesis school bully (dubbed Queen Mean) ever encountered in print. Ana unfolds these encounters and her journey through chemo with humour and sage advice. A resoundingly uplifting, fast-paced read, riotously broken up with comic/creative text and illustration throughout.

Graphic novels

Delicates by Brenna Thummler (Oni Press Inc) *
This is a beautiful graphic novel with a colour palette you can lose yourself in. Marjorie is now part of the cool group at school and finds it difficult balancing her new status as one of the popular kids and her old friendship with Wendell the ghost. Admitting you are friends with a ghost is NOT cool, right? Meanwhile, budding photographer Eliza, desperate to snap a picture of a ghost herself, is left out by her peers. You'll get swept up in this web of characters who show us, as readers, what it means to be human. Delicates deals with the themes of compassion, bullying, acceptance, loss, and the feeling of being invisible.

The Sad Ghost Club by Lize Meddings (Hodder Children's Books) *
A sad ghost goes to a party but is worried it won’t fit in. When they spy on another sad ghost and get up the courage to start a conversation, they discover they have a lot in common and decide to start The Sad Ghost Club (which is a real thing, started by the author). Sensitively told in comic format.

YA fiction

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe (G.P. Putnam's Sons) *
Nora O’Malley is the type of psychologically damaged character you instinctively want to protect. Nora has had a lot of bad stuff go down in her life and with it, a lot of aliases (which the title alludes to). This is slowly revealed to the reader through frequent flashbacks all while Nora is being held hostage in a bank heist that has gone wrong. Throw in the fact she is held hostage with her ex-boyfriend (and still kind of best friend) and her new girlfriend and it’s — well — awkward to the extreme. Nora is going to have to use all of the con tricks she has learnt over her short life to come out of this alive. Contains topics of parental physical and psychological abuse, and teen sexuality.

Are You There, Buddha? by Pip Harry 2021 (Lothian) *
A slice of life that sweeps you up in all the anxieties and wonders of a middle schooler dreading her first period. This book speaks to the experiences that today’s youth are facing, including gender roles, mindfulness practices, and worries about climate change.

Katipo Joe: Spycraft by Brian Falkner (Scholastic New Zealand) *
The sequel to Katipo Joe: Blitzkreig takes Joe deep behind enemy lines in Germany to compete against other teenagers for a lead role in a propaganda movie … or at least that’s what they think the prize is. Brian Falkner once again keeps the pages turning with a mix of action and divided loyalties, where you're never quite sure who to trust. We love the mix of drama, action, fiction, and reality (with a glossary of facts and research included).

We Were Wolves by Jason Cockcroft (Walker Books)
Between the covers of this illustrated YA novel lies dark poetic beauty, authenticity, and grit, reminiscent of the best of Patrick Ness. A boy, who remains nameless throughout the novel, struggles to make sense of the world around him, with a father struggling from PTSD following his tour as a soldier in the Middle East. Surviving alone in their forest caravan when his father goes to jail, things quickly get out of hand. A powerful read to engage with and/or study.

Under the Radar by Des O’Leary (Cuba Press)
Follow up to Slice of Heaven, Sione and friends navigate their first senior year at Manawahe High. Changes are afoot. Sione is just trying to stay under the radar but his little brother is tempted by gang life. Great to read a story about real kids with real issues — the dialogue really rings true — told with a lot of humour. I loved the discussion about how the school houses got their names — very funny.

Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku (Huia Publishers) *
Exciting melding of adventure and te ao Māori with twins Tui and Kae sucked into Rarohenga, the Māori underworld, searching for their kidnapped Mum while encountering tūrehu, taniwha, and atua. A great combination of the legendary with the everyday world of battling teenagers.

If Not Us by Mark Smith (Text Publishing)
Hesse's a surfer (Mark Smith loves a surfer) and a caring and considerate young man. He lives in a beach town that prides itself on glorious beaches and surf, which has a coal-fired power station as the major employer and polluter in town. Hesse's mum is out to do something about the horrible pollution situation and Hesse gets drawn into the activism. This makes for awkwardness with his mates whose families rely on the business for livelihoods.

Then Hesse meets Fenna, an exchange student. She's sad and isolated, and he's a born rescuer. Before he knows what's happening, he and Fenna are developing a deep friendship that slowly blossoms. There is a lot going on relationships-wise, there's bullying, drama, and some downright dodgy behaviour among the people of the town. If you've got teenagers in your library, please buy this book. Read it and then sell it to them.

The Boy From the Mish by Gary Lonesborough (Allen & Unwin Children's Books)
This debut novel tells the story of Jackson and Tomas, two young Aboriginal men. Love, culture, and family are at the core of this story, which explores coming of age, masculinity, racism, and queer identity.

Non-fiction

Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes by Gavin Bishop (Puffin) *
Large format, stunningly illustrated pūrākau (Māori legends), from creation to migration. Written with passion and humour, a book for all New Zealanders to explore.

Everything Under the Sun by Molly Oldfield (Ladybird Books)
For lovers of trivia, this book has 366 questions asked by children from all over the world. The perfect book for children who just love to ‘dip in and out’ and explore fun facts. Based on Molly's popular podcast for children, of the same name.

Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen (Farrar Straus & Giroux) *
Autobiography of Gary Paulsen’s difficult childhood, the experiences that led to him writing the novels he did, and his influencers, particularly librarians! Powerful story.

Kia Kaha: A Storybook of Māori Who Changed the World by Stacey Morrison & Jeremy Sherlock and illustrations by Akoni Pakinga, Haylee Ngaroma, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, Jess Thompson aka Māori Mermaid, Josh Morgan, Kurawaka Productions, Miriama Grace-Smith, Ngaumutane Jones aka Ms Meemo, Reweti Arapete, Taupuruariki Whakataka-Brightwell, Xoe Hall and Zak Waipara (Penguin Random House New Zealand)
A collection of true stories about amazing Māori individuals, historic and contemporary, from many different walks of life, who have done great things. Portraits of each person by Māori illustrators complement the easy-to-read text.

New Zealand Disasters: Our Response, Resilience and Recovery by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivančić (Scholastic New Zealand)
This is so much more than just events from New Zealand’s history of natural and man-made disasters (although it does that well with both fact and narrative). It's also a comprehensive and up-to-date unpacking of 'the three Rs' of emergency management for upper primary and intermediate students.

North & South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres by Sandra Morris (Walker Books Australia)
This book looks at animals, habitats, seasons, and maps of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, month by month. The illustrations are detailed and engaging. Fabulous information.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (Penguin Random House)
Deeply personal essays from the wonderful John Green. He gives star ratings to various influences, events, and products of modern life, which makes for a sort of autobiography. Moved me to tears quite often as he reveals layer after layer of his life, beliefs, and loves. 5 stars.

The Calm Book by Alex Allan (Welbeck Children's Books)
The perfect book to help children in these stressful times! An engaging picture book for young children, which includes mindfulness tips, breathing exercises, and calming craft activities. Helpful for all children but especially those dealing with anxieties.

Poetry

Skinny Dip: Poetry — edited by Susan Paris and Kate De Goldi (Annual Ink)
Perfectly pitched for any school in the land, these collected poems are all set in schools, they ring true, and are incredibly quirky. Anyone who has worked in a school will find treasure to make them smile. My particular fave is 'The Caretaker', but kids and teachers across the land will totally relate to all of the poems. I can imagine them being used in so many ways in schools and am genuinely delighted this book exists.

Borrow these books or ones like them

If you're not already using our lending service, read about what we offer and what you can borrow.

Do you want to keep your ākonga reading during lockdown and over the summer break? We have an exciting extra reading offer for schools.

Find out more about our lockdown/summer reading offer

If you have any questions,

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Children's and YA literature — includes ideas for engaging students with reading.

Reading for wellbeing — read about the benefits of reading for pleasure.

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