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Best Books of 2021!

Best Books of 2021!

As a librarian, it’s part of my job to know books, so I read a lot. As a global librarian, I am always looking for books that will speak to library users in the countries where I work. And, as a reader, I love that my job gives me an excuse to read (although there’s never enough time!). I am so thankful for audiobooks that I can “read” while I wash dishes.

Here are some of my favorite books from 2021, books for all ages that will take you on an around-the-world journey!

Picture Books

Atinuke. Baby, Sleepy Baby. This is my new favorite baby gift. Atinuke’s poetic text is good, but what sets this apart are Angela Brooksbank’s luminous illustrations.

Higgins, Ryan T. Norman Didn’t Do It!: (Yes, He Did). Norman is a porcupine. Mildred is a tree. They are best friends. A completely preposterous situation, but it works, and it made me laugh, while having a gentle message about including new friends.

Perkins, Mitali. Home Is in Between. One of the best picture books I’ve read that clearly captures the challenges and joys of living in a new culture. A book that will resonate with third-culture kids, immigrants, and those of us who call multiple countries home. 

Roth, Judith L. Hiding Baby Moses. I love the illustrations in this book. The people look like Egyptians I know, not caricatures from tomb walls. And the culture looks authentic too. A great addition to your picture book Bible story collection.

Yang, Kao Kalia. From the Tops of Trees. Kao is a young Hmong girl whose whole world has been a refugee camp in Thailand. Her dad finds a way to show her that there’s a big world beyond the camp fence for her to explore one day. Based on an incident from the author’s life, this is a hope-giving book.

Young Readers (up to age 12)

Appelt, Kathi. Once Upon a Camel. I might be prejudiced in favor of this imaginative book because it starts in Turkey where I lived for six years. But it’s also well-written, with a story within a story that begs to be read aloud. A storytelling camel saves two young American Kestrels in west Texas.

Atinuke. Africa, Amazing Africa – Not for research, this joyous book celebrates the uniqueness of every country in Africa. A great introduction for young readers.

Baptiste, Tracey. African Icons. Kids may not pick up this book on their own, but if they do, I think they will be drawn in. I never learned about the pre-colonial history of Africa. This title introduces the history of the continent framed by the stories of ten noteworthy people, some well-known, others less so.

Fleming, Candace. The Curse of the Mummy: Uncovering Tutankhamun’s Tomb. While much has been written about King Tut, this nonfiction book focuses on the intrigues of the search for the tomb, which of course includes talking about a possible curse. Excellent research presented in a book that reads like a novel, with great illustrations.

Greenfield, A. B. Ra the Mighty: Cat Detective. First in the Ra the Mighty series, Pharaoh’s cat and his dung beetle sidekick solve a twisty mystery in this hilarious chapter book for elementary-aged readers (and adults who love fun children’s novels; I plan to listen to the whole series as audiobooks.)

Guidroz, Rukhsanna. Samira Surfs. A novel in verse about a young Rohingya refugee in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. The story took me a bit to get into but, by the end, I loved Samira, her close-knit, caring family, and their Bengali and Rohingya friends and neighbors. 

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars Are Scattered. A beautiful, sad, yet hopeful graphic novel about the experiences of Somali Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, who has a developmental disability. They grow up in the Dadaab refugee camp, separated from their family and their homeland by violence. This is the in-between story we don’t often hear, the story of life after people have fled war, while they are waiting to find a new home. 

Mbalia, Kwame. Last Gate of the Emperor. Set in a futuristic Ethiopia when the Axum empire has explored the stars. With reality game-playing teens as the main characters, this is sure to be a hit with many middle-grade gamers as well as those who like non-stop adventure.

Schlitz, Laura Amy. Amber & Clay. A historical novel told in prose and verse, with nonfiction interludes.  Myth and history intertwine in this story set at the time of Socrates and told from the perspectives of multiple characters, including a few Greek gods.

Tsai, Luther. The Visionary Voyage. First in the Magic Mirror series by a Singaporean author, this resembles the Magic Tree House books in that a brother and sister travel through time. In this series, the books are all set in Africa and Asia. This title finds the children on the treasure fleet of Chinese admiral Zheng He. 

Venkatraman, Padma. Born Behind Bars. A multi-layered story about Kabir, a nine-year-old boy who has grown up in prison with his mother. When he ages out of the prison, he is targeted by human traffickers, but escapes and is befriended by a Kurava (Roma) girl living on the streets of Chennai, India. Together they work to survive and to find Kabir’s relatives. Grim yet hopeful.

Yang, Kelly. Room to Dream. This third entry into the Front Desk series has Mia and her parents traveling back to visit their relatives in China. Yang captures the essence of middle school as well as the realities of third-culture kids who find out that even though they feel out of place in their new country, they also no longer fit in “back home.” 

Yelchin, Eugene. The Genius under the Table. A middle-grade illustrated memoir that introduces the bleakness of life in Soviet Russia yet still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. It reminded me of when I got to visit the USSR in 1989, which is history for young readers today. 

Teen Books (ages 12 and up)

Elhillo, Safia. Home Is Not a Country. A compelling novel in verse about a young Sudanese-American girl and the losses that come from growing up between countries. Infused with magical realism, the story is both particular to the Sudanese diaspora and universal in addressing issues faced by third-culture kids. 

Hur, June. The Forest of the Stolen Girls. A YA historical mystery/thriller set in 15th century Korea. Well-written, intense, fascinating. Recommended for anyone who likes K-Dramas. Her forthcoming, The Red Palace, is even better.

Adult Fiction and Nonfiction

Benn, James R. Road of Bones. In this 16th Billy Boyle book, Billy and Kaz solve a mystery inside Soviet Russia, while giving us glimpses of life under communism during WWII. Both fascinating and frightening. 

Gentill, Sulari. A Few Right-Thinking Men. An interesting start to a mystery series set in Australia in the 1930s. I also read a later book in the series, Shanghai Secrets. The books can be a bit edgy but are fun, with quirky, gritty characters. They give readers a glimpse into the tensions in East Asia as the world was moving towards World War II.

Grimes, Nikki. Glory in the Margins. Grimes serves as her church’s resident poet, writing a verse to go with each week’s sermon. A beautiful, thought-provoking, faith-inducing book.

King, Laurie. Castle Shade. In this 17th novel starring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, they find themselves in Romania in the 1920s. As always, the historical setting is fascinating, which, in this case, includes hints of vampires. A fun mystery.

Jones, Rachel Pieh. Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus. One of my favorite books of the year. Although the locations and the details of our stories differ, she captures so much of my own experiences with my Muslim friends.

Jones, Rachel Pieh. Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa. The subtitle says it all. The death of Tonelli was one of the triggers that led to Jones and her family having to leave Somaliland, so the author wanted to learn more about this fascinating, enigmatic woman. Tonelli has been compared to Mother Theresa, a comparison she denied. A nuanced, engaging biography.

Massey, Sujata. The Bombay Prince. I always find the Perveen Mistry mysteries delightful. Set in India in 1921, for me the history and characters are as fascinating as the mystery itself.

Perkins, Mitali. Steeped in Stories. A book with so many layers. Perkins looks at ten classic children’s stories that she rereads frequently as an adult and parses out a virtue and vice from each, discussed through the lens of her Christian faith. As a writer of color from India, she also discusses the problems that can be found in how these older stories portray race and ethnicity. A well-thought-out approach to both appreciating and recognizing the problems found in classic stories. I recommend this to all lovers of children’s literature.

Taylor, Patrick. An Irish Country Yuletide. A novel about a country doctor that I can easily picture as a BBC miniseries. Perfect for a cold December night, accompanied by a steaming mug of hot chocolate (or Irish tea).

Trinchieri, Camilla. The Bitter Taste of Murder. A slowly unwinding mystery set in Italy with well-developed characters and mouth-watering descriptions of food. A good police procedural novel.

Warren, Tish Harrison. Prayer in the Night. This doesn’t fit my global theme, but it speaks to a global reality: learning to trust God in the dark. Many authors write about this, but few as well as Warren. I read this slowly and wanted to turn right around and read it again.

About the Author: Libby is an IDEAS Associate and professional librarian. She currently resides in Jordan and works with libraries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Enjoy other blogs by Libby, such as How a Professional Community in Jordan Weathered the Pandemic.