The very best books of 2021, picked by authors and illustrators

Published on: 10 December 2021

BookTrust's Emily Drabble asked authors and illustrators including Waterstones Children's Laureate Cressida Cowell, BookTrust President Michael Morpurgo, BookTrust’s Writer in Residence Dapo Adeola and former Laureates Anne Fine and Julia Donaldson the impossible question: pick just one favourite published in 2021...

Illustration by Erika Meza of a girl carrying a pile of books to a library desk against a yellow background.Illustration: Erika Meza

Cressida Cowell, author and Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2019-2022, and Anjan Sarkar, illustrator

Cressida: I’m going for Barbara Throws a Wobbler by Nadia Shireen. It’s is a wonderfully laugh-out-loud picture book that will also get your toddler thinking about their emotions and how to deal with them. Nadia Shireen has created a truly splendid hero in the magnificent Barbara, and I can't decide whether I am more prone to 'the Tizzy' or 'the Huff' in her 'Useful Guide to Bad Moods'.  A joyous book with glorious illustrations, which is not only a pleasure to share and read aloud but also helpful when a child is struggling with dealing with strong emotions.

Anjan: I could choose this just for the title and cover alone, but it’s also a great book that is a funny and serious study of wobblers. Furthermore, my mum’s name is Barbara, so that’s ace.

Children's Laureate, Cressida CowellChildren's Laureate, Cressida Cowell

Michael Morpurgo, author

Every Leaf a Hallelujah by Ben Okri and illustrated by Diana Ejaita is a sublime book of our times. Rarely has our natural world been written about so lyrically and with such love for trees and the people who live around them. Quite remarkable. Unforgettable.

Michael is BookTrust President and a former Children's Laureate.

Julia Donaldson, author

I’m choosing A Poet for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri. The poems in this collection date from 2000 BC to the present. Among the 366 – one for each day of the (leap) year – are old favourites and new discoveries, and what I particularly appreciate is that the focus is as much on the poets as the poems, with interesting and lively biographical notes accompanying each poem. A brilliant bedside book to dip into or to read aloud.

Julia is a former Children's Laureate.

Anne Fine, author

I’m choosing A Tale of Two Dragons by Geraldine McCaughrean. Her writing is as rich as ever, yet perfectly pitched for the age group. Here, Peter Malone has done her proud with his wonderful and varied illustrations. A magical combination for a picture book story that will delight any young child.

Anne is a former Children's Laureate

Author Anne FineAuthor Anne Fine

Dapo Adeola, illustrator 

I’m going for Stuntboy by Jason Reynolds and Raul the Third published by Knights Of.

This book is more akin to an experience than a read. Jason manages to take the somewhat overlooked everyday experience of inner city children in an apartment block and infuse it with fantasy and imagination on an epic scale and Raul’s drawings bring all of it to life with such amazing energy. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Dapo is our current BookTrust Writer-Illustrator in Residence.

Joseph Coelho, poet

Grandpa’s Gift by Fiona Lumbers is a gorgeous invitation to stop and notice the beauty that is always all around you.

Joseph Coelho was the featured author for our BookTrust Represents virtual author visit this autumn 2021.

Patrice Lawrence, author

Mine is The Forgettery by Rachel Ip, gorgeously illustrated by Laura Hughes.  It's a tender beautiful book about a child, called Amelia, who travels with her Granny to the place where lost things go, including her Granny's memories.

Patrice Lawrence is the author of Rat, one of our Bookbuzz selections for the year.

Author Patrice Lawrence

Ed Vere, author and illustrator 

I’ll choose I Talk Like a River, words by Jordan Scott, pictures by Sydney Smith. This is a beautiful book. A poem in words and pictures. I keep being astounded by Sydney Smith’s art… this book is his best yet.

Ed is a former BookTrust Writer in Residence, and created the letter, poster and bookmark for our surprise Christmas packs sent to vulnerable children this year.

Karl Newson, author

It's Little Glow by Katie Sahota and Harry Woodgate. I love this book! It's words and illustrations invite the reader along on celebrations of light and love around the world and remind us of all those magic moments we share.

Karl is the author of I Am a Tiger, BookTrust’s Time to Read book for 2021. 

Candy Gourlay, author and former BookTrust Writer in Residence

I absolutely, positively GUARANTEE that baby readers are going to adore The CAT and the RAT and the HAT by Em Lynas and Matt Hunt, with words that bounce and surprise and delight, and Matt Hunt's hilarious, eye catching illustrations. And because I'm greedy, may I also nominate the heart warming Noah's Seal by Layn Marlow – Layn's great big paintings of ocean and sea spray just makes me want to look and look and look. And then there's the sailing granny, and little Noah in his sun hat, who makes his own seal out of sand – I just love it!

Candy is a former BookTrust Writer in Residence. She recently judged the 2021 Lifetime Achievement award. 

Author Candy GourlayAuthor Candy Gourlay

Duncan Beedie, illustrator 

I’m choosing The Broken Raven by Joseph Elliott, Walker Books. Elliott's second instalment of the Shadow Skye saga is every bit as engaging as The Good Hawk (which would have been my pick for last year.) It's an arrestingly original fantasy, steeped in the rich history and folklore of the Hebrides with a fiercely courageous heroine at its centre. Calling it a 'Game of Thrones' for younger readers would do a crude disservice to Elliott's talent, but expect treachery, heroism, and a fair amount of bloodshed!

Duncan illustrated the BookTrust Storytime-shortlisted I Really Really Need a Wee.

Katrina Charman, author

I loved Fiona Barker and Howard Gray’s Setsuko and the Song of the Sea published by Tiny Tree Books. It is such a beautifully illustrated picture book and a wonderful story of friendship and taking care of our oceans.

Katrina is the author of BookTrust Storytime-shortlisted The Whales on the Bus, illustrated by Nick Sharratt.

Piers Torday, author

My book of the year has to be The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, whose moving cry for action grabbed us all in the middle of a very bleak winter lockdown, and gave us hope. A superb story, simply and brilliantly told, for any age, shortlisted for several awards and bound to win many.

Piers recently judged the 2021 Lifetime Achievement award.

Author Piers TordayAuthor Piers Torday

Clare Weze, author

I'm choosing Julia and the Shark, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, because the voice of the main character is so believable, fun and compelling. She could have taken me anywhere, into any adventure, and I'd have followed.

Clare is one of the authors featured in the Happy Here anthology, which BookTrust sent to all primary schools in 2021 to help promote diversity in the classroom.

Alexandra Sheppard, author

I’m going for Grown: The Black Girl's Guide to Glowing Up by Melissa Cummings-Quarry and Natalie Carter. Grown was written with Black girls in mind at every step of the way and it truly shows. This handbook covers everything from dealing with racist microaggressions to money management, self care and faith. The writing style is warm, loving, funny and accessible - like a knowledgeable big sis in book form.

Alexandra is one of the authors featured in the Happy Here anthology, which BookTrust sent to all primary schools in 2021 to help promote diversity in the classroom.

Onjali Q Raúf, author

It's so incredibly hard to choose just one single book from the plethora of awesome tales that have been published this past year, so I'm just going to go with the last story to make me cry big, fat tears of happiness! And that is the one and only Michael Rosen's Sticky McStickStick. Never shying away from the hardships, struggles and endless tests of patience experienced following his heroic comeback from the claws of Covid-19, and aided along by Tony Ross' as-ever touching, humorous illustrations, Michael's trademark honesty and uplifting take on an incredibly difficult experience, feels personal and unforgettable on every level. A must for anyone - of any age - wanting to understand what triumph after a serious illness sounds and feels like. (And yes. You will definitely want to go out and adopt a walking stick of your own too...)

Onjali is a former BookTrust Writer in Residence.

Author Onjali Q RaúfAuthor Onjali Q Raúf

Alex Wheatle, author

Liz Kessler’s When The World Was Ours had me in bits.

One of the most powerful historical novels I have read for many a year.

Anna James, author

I'll go for Front Desk by Kelly Yang - it’s a smart, charming and inspiring book about what happens when Mia's family moves from China and start managing a motel in California - and how that impacts Mia's dreams of being a writer.

Nicola Davies, author

James Catchpole's extraordinary and essential story of his own experience as a child with a ‘disability’ - What Happened To You. This is that rare perspective - disability from the inside - movingly reported and an essential read for every classroom and family

Nicola is a former BookTrust Writer in Residence.

Author Nicola DaviesAuthor Nicola Davies

Smriti Halls, author

Opening brilliantly with Plato’s allegory of the cave for teens (yes, really) my pick is Femi Fadugba’s The Upper World. This YA novel is a totally original, furiously fast-paced read. Set on the streets of South London, it’s a medley of time travel, deadly gang feuds and physics (thankfully, a woefully poor grasp of GCSE physics did not stop me enjoying it). It pulls together philosophical ideas and a pacy dual narrative into a fantastic page-turner of a story. I was gripped.

Smriti is a former BookTrust Writer in Residence.

Alex Willmore, illustrator 

I would like to recommend NO! said Rabbit by Marjoke Henrichs. It's a wonderfully sweet and relatable story with the most beautiful illustrations. Perfect for bedtime reading.

Alex is a judge for the BookTrust Storytime shortlist, and illustrator of The Runaway Pea, BookTrust's Time to Read book for 2020.

Chitra Soundar, author 

I loved reading The Dream Team: Jaz Santos vs. the World by Priscilla Mante because I loved a story about girls playing football while also dealing with growing up, family struggles and more. And I learnt a lot about making pizza.

Chitra has worked to put on many workshops for BookTrust Represents.

Author Chitra SoundarAuthor Chitra Soundar

Allen Fatimaharan, illustrator 

I’m choosing Treacle Walker by Alan Garner. Joseph Coppack lives alone in an old house with an old chimney. One day he is visited by a rag-and-bone man. What follows is a fantastic tale which plays with ideas of time, place, magic and wonder. Beautifully written with some brilliant vocabulary. I loved it!

Katherine Rundell, author  

A book I loved this year was The Very Merry Murder Club, a collection of thirteen fantastic short mysteries, edited by Serena Patel and Robin Stevens. It’s a collection of such flair and warmth, from a brilliantly diverse selection of writers. From the first sentence of the first story, Shoe-dunnit by Elle McNicoll— ‘Ballerinas are extremely difficult to kill’ — you know you’re in very good hands.

Katherine is a former judge of the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement award.

Sarah McIntyre, illustrator

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep, by Philip Reeve. I love the way Philip weaves a whole new mythology for a remote set of islands, with delightful contrasts between fustily-organised beach-combed collectibles and the weird and wild objects thrust onto the shore by the tempestuous god of the sea. I imagine a perfect way to spend a year would be painting a little wooden seaside chapel with this tale's vivid motifs and characters - if anyone would like to sponsor me for this, I am well up for it.

Sarah is a former BookTrust Illustrator in Residence.

Illustrator Sarah McIntyreIllustrator Sarah McIntyre

Liz Pichon, author

The Magic Of Sleep by Vicky Woodgate. As someone who’s been struggling with sleep recently, I found this book fascinating and really packed full of interesting FACTS. I wanted to recommend a non-fiction book too as I used to love reading these kind of books, when I was a kid and I’d have loved this one too.

Axel Scheffler, illustrator

No One Is Angry Today by Toon Tellegen , illustarted by Marc Boutavant (Gecko Press). Wonderful whimsical warm  witty and wise stories by Dutch writer Toon Tellegen about a  squirrel and his  many friends including ant, elephant and toad . Amazingly beautyful and atmospheric pictures by Marc Boutavant. 

AM Dassu, author 

My favourite book this year is Otherland by Louie Stowell because it's a hugely uplifting fantasy story, with two adorable and different main characters from diverse backgrounds, and fairies as you’ve never met them before – sassy and hilarious! Myra and Rohan must pass a set of challenges to save Rohan’s baby sister from the Fairy Queen. I haven't laughed so much while reading! And the genius is that underneath the terrifying adventure, it is a tender story, full of warmth and love. It's a total winner!

AM Dassu is author of Boy Everywhere which won the Little Rebels Award 2021.

Author AM DassuAuthor AM Dassu

SF Said, author

Change Sings: A Children's Anthem by Amanda Gorman and Loren Long (Puffin). My favourite moment of 2021 came from the brilliant Amanda Gorman, America's National Youth Poet Laureate, who lit up the Presidential Inauguration back in January with an astonishing performance of her poem The Hill We Climb. Now she has published Change Sings: an equally astonishing picture book, beautifully illustrated by Loren Long. Aimed not only at children but at people of all ages, it's a hugely positive and and inspiring exploration of the possibilities of change, and it's my favourite children's book of 2021.

SF Said is a former Lifetime Achievement Award judge and author of Varjak Paw, one of the 100 best books of the last 100 years.

Sita Brahmachari, author 

I’m choosing In Her Element by Jamila Gavin illustrated by Jacinta Read (published by Pop up festival as #10storiestomakeadifference.) This is a truly beautiful story told through the eyes of Sophie who has cerebral palsy. An exquisitely written and illustrated novella infused with empathy, lyrically told it  flows with the magic of longed for dreams coming true.

Sita is a former BookTrust Writer in Residence.

Rob Biddulph, author and illustrator

Over the last couple of years, laughter has become an increasingly precious commodity, so it's no surprise that my children's book of the year delivers lots of it. It's Kitty Quest, the brilliant debut from Phil Corbett. I'm just glad no-one witnessed me reading it, because (apologies in advance if you're eating) I laughed so much that snot bubbles happened. I know! Disgusting, right? But I defy anyone to tackle this razor-sharp, fantastically illustrated graphic novel without convulsing with laughter at least once every thirty seconds. The best medicine, indeed.

Rob is the creator of HomeTime lockdown series Draw With Rob and was the Storytime prize winner 2020.

Author and illustrator Rob BiddulphAuthor and illustrator Rob Biddulph

Mike Barfield, author 

I’ve been a comics fan since the time I could read. Both Cat Kid Comic Club and Dog Man - Mothering Heights by Dav Pilkey were eagerly anticipated and didn’t disappoint. However, I was delighted to have my fellow Blue Peter Award winning collaborator, Jess Bradley, start a new series of fun graphic novels this side of the Atlantic Ocean with her school-set book, Super-Dweeb and the Pencil of Destiny. The fun story is packed with Jess’s trademark colourful cartoons and lots of crazy but cute monsters, including a giant green radioactive squirrel. What more could anyone need or ask for?’

Mike is the author of A Day in the Life of A Poo, A Gnu and You, which won the Blue Peter Book Award for Best Book with Facts 2021.

Libby Walden, author  

My choice would have to be My Beautiful Voice by the exceptional Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys.

The artwork and narrative voice create a wonderful, encouraging picture book that all children should read. It’s about the courage of finding your voice and discovering the beauty in poetry and storytelling. It’s so beautifully told and features one of the best teachers in literature – everyone needs a Miss Flotsam in their lives!

Libby is the author of This Is Owl which won the BookTrust Storytime Prize 2020.

Jacqui Lee, illustrator

This year, I picked up Alone! by Barry Falls and immediately fell in love with the story and illustrations. The main character is a bit of an introvert (relatable!) and we follow his struggles as his lovely, quiet house is invaded by a series of increasingly loud and messy visitors. This is one of those books that I wish I could time travel with and give to 5 year old me.

Jacqui was the illustrator of This Is Owl which won the BookTrust Storytime Prize 2020.

Nadia Shireen, author and illustrator

The Little Wooden Robot and The Log Princess. This is a sweet fable about a little wooden robot on the hunt for his sister, er, the log princess. It’s the first children’s book by Tom Gauld, one of my favourite cartoonists. His work looks so elegant and controlled, but it is also full of warmth and wit. I really hope this book is the first of many.

Author and illustrator Nadia ShireenAuthor and illustrator Nadia Shireen

What was your favourite book of the year? Share it with us on Twitter @BookTrust!

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