A Novel Prescription: Standout 2021 Picture Books (International Edition)

You might have seen my post about the best Australian picture books published in 2021. This was inspired by this blogpost of 2021 Picture Book Picks, chosen by picture book creators. I love how Anitra acknowledges that creators read a LOT of picture books, and are in a unique position to choose gems otherwise missed.

Now it’s time for a Best of the Rest post: the best international picture books, chosen by emerging and early career Australian picture book creators, two American authors and a literary award judge.

2021 Standout Picture Books (International Edition)

Inda Ahmad Zahri

Inda Ahmad Zahri (@inda_binda), author of CBCA Notable book, SALIH, NIGHT LIGHTS and forthcoming 2022 title TWICE, recommends IN MY MOSQUE by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly (HarperCollins Australia):

Cover of 2021 picture book IN MY MOSQUE

IN MY MOSQUE is a warm, vibrant introduction to a Muslim’s place of worship. Seen from the eyes of children, the mosque is a place where family and friends gather in awe, are enlightened by prayer and strengthened by love. An incredible addition to the growing pool of diverse books that aids understanding between cultures.

Charlotte Barkla

Charlotte Barkla, author of FROM MY HEAD TO MY TOES, I SAY WHAT GOES and ALL BODIES ARE GOOD BODIES, recommends IF THE WORLD WERE 100 PEOPLE by Jackie McCann, illustrated by Aaron Cushley (HarperCollins).

This non-fiction picture book is a clever way to put the world — and world issues — into perspective. The book translates the world’s population of 8 billion people into a village of 100. It goes through the number of people who would be male or female, and what their ages would be. It breaks down where we’d all live and what languages we’d all speak, as well as looking at social issues such as the number of people with access to the internet, enough food to eat, and access to clean water.
By translating these global statistics into a manageable 100-person group, it makes it easier to digest — both for kids and adults! A clever conversation-starter for young kids, and a mindful reminder of where we fit in the world.

Sandy Bigna

Studying children’s literature at the University of Canberra and then working as a children’s librarian in the public library service inspired Sandy’s love of children’s and young adult literature. Her young adult manuscript EXPOSED was shortlisted for the Matilda Children’s Literature Prize in 2020 (Harper Collins Australia). Other highlights of Sandy’s writing life have included being awarded two Varuna Residential Fellowships to work on her young adult manuscript SCAR, and the publication in 2004 of her collection of short stories, SECRETS. Sandy recommends WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU by James Catchpole & Karen George (Faber & Faber ~ Allen & Unwin in Australia):

Cover of 2021 picture book WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?

This is a thought-provoking and engaging story about a young boy named Joe who is playing an imaginary game of pirates at the park. He also happens to have one leg. When some other children start asking Joe questions about what happened to his leg, Joe deflects the question by asking what they think happened to his leg. Will the other kids finally realise that perhaps all Joe really wants to do is play pirates? This story gently shines a light on the importance of accepting each other’s differences. I love this book for its humour, the sweet engaging illustrations, and the diverse characterisation. I also love books that encourage empathy and kindness. This book does so with charm and sensitivity and would make a wonderful Storytime choice.

Robin Currie

Robin Currie, author of forthcoming HOW TO DRESS A DINOSAUR (Workman, Hardie Grant Publishing), recommends SATURDAY AT THE FOOD PANTRY (Albert Whitman & Co):

Cover of 2021 picture book SATURDAY AT THE FOOD PANTRY

Molly and her mom don’t always have enough food, and sometimes Molly’s stomach grumbles at night. One Saturday they visit their local food pantry. Molly’s happy to help pick the food they will eat until she sees her classmate Caitlin, who’s embarrassed to be at the food pantry. Mom says,“Everybody needs help sometimes.” 

This is an honest story of a family needing help and a child’s way of offering to something to others in return. In my ordained ministry, I shared space with the food pantry and saw this exact scenario play out many times, but never understood the emotions of those needing help until Molly and Caitlyn shared their experience in this story. Thank you, Diane O’Neill, for taking one of your life challenges and making it accessible to everyone in a gentle and – ultimately – happy way. This one is a must for schools and libraries.

Kirsten Ealand

Kirsten Ealand, Winner of 2021 Write Links Mentorship and Runner Up for 2021 CBCA – NSW Branch Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program, recommends BLUE FLOATS AWAY by Travis Jonker, illustrated by Grant Snider (Abrams Books for Young Readers):

COVER of 2021 picture book BLUE FLOATS

BLUE FLOATS AWAY is a story about an iceberg – Blue, who breaks off from his parents and floats away. It’s a beautiful meditation on change. Blue didn’t want to go, but when he did “he began to see things. New things. Beautiful things.” Blue’s story is also the story of the water cycle as he goes from ice to water to gas to precipitation to snow. So much is included in this deceptively simple, clever picture book. I loved it!

Mia Macrossan

Mia Macrossan is a former CBCA  children’s book of the year judge and retired teacher-librarian. She founded the Last Tuesday Children’s Book Club for adults who love to read and discuss children’s books, and reviews for Magpies, Reading Time, 4MBS Radio and StoryLinks. She recommends THERE’S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE, by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins Australia):

cover of 2021 picture book THERE'S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE

Oliver Jeffers continues to delight and surprise with his original works. THERE’S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE is spooky from the get-go as you accompany a young girl through her haunted house. But the ghosts are all friendly, smiling, drinking cups of tea, or playing peekaboo. The only person who is a little disquieting is the little girl herself – is she perhaps…

This lavishly produced work of art, with interactive transparent pages, spare text perfectly placed and the mood and tone just right for young readers, provides much hilarity as well as a delicious frisson. Great fun for everyone.

Rebecca Marshallsay

Bec Marshallsay (@becmarshallsay), author of forthcoming 2022 picture book FACING THE WAVE (Larrikin House), recommends RED LORRY, YELLOW LORRY by Michelle Robinson, illustrated by Jez Tuya (Anderson Press ~ Walker Books Australia):


RED LORRY, YELLOW LORRY is a busy book bustling with enough trucks, lorries, and cars to satisfy even the most eager junior car enthusiast. Robinson uses the ‘red lorry, yellow lorry’ tongue twister as the base for a fun adventure told through original use of repetition and rhyme. The rhythm of the story echoes the chug of the lorry engines in a satisfying way. The written story is matched with clever visual storytelling that offers something new to see every read.

Rory H Mather


cover of 2021 picture book I LOVE MY TUTU TOO!

I LOVE MY TUTU TOO! is the new book by Ross Burach – author/illustrator of THERE’S A GIRAFFE IN MY SOUP and I AM NOT A CHAIR! Readers will enjoy this counting story which is told in playful monorhyme. Ross effortlessly pairs a humorous text with wonderful illustrations that make this sweet book a true joy to read and which inspired this author to attempt his own monorhyme story – before deciding it is perhaps best left to the experts like Ross.

Diane O’Neill

Diane O’Neill’s debut picture book, SATURDAY AT THE FOOD PANTRY, illustrated by Brizida Magro, was Parents Magazine’s October 2021 book club selection and one of Chicago Public Library’s best picture books of 2021. She highly recommends DEAR MR. DICKENS by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Albert Whitman & Co).

cover of 2021 picture book DEAR MR DICKENS

I loved DEAR MR. DICKENS. I teared up more than once—the story of Eliza Davis, who wrote to Charles Dickens, touched me. I first discovered Dickens’s books when I was twelve and have been a fan ever since. I love Dickens, both for his way with language and, especially, for his advocacy for people who are poor. But I have been upset by the anti-Semitic flavor of some of his work; a college friend of mine who was Jewish told me that she refused to read any of his books. I was thrilled to learn about Eliza Davis’s correspondence with Dickens about this anti-Semitism. Eliza, who was Jewish herself, felt hurt by Dickens’ words, and she spoke up. 

Churnin draws the reader in immediately, asking what they would do if a famous person they admired did or said something unfair, and then tells Eliza Davis’s story. Churnin does an excellent job of portraying Dickens’s stature and fame in his day, and she describes the horrible discrimination Jewish people faced at that time. I admire Eliza Davis for her courage and persistence. Both children and adults will treasure this book, and be prompted, like Eliza Davis, to speak up and not be intimidated by anyone’s fame or prestige.

Sandhya Parappukkaran

Sandhya Parappukkaran (https://www.instagram.com/sandhya_librarybagbooks/), author of CBCA Notable book, THE BOY WHO TRIED TO SHRINK HIS NAME, and forthcoming 2022 title AMMA’S SARI recommends HAIR TWINS written by Raakhee Mirchandani and illustrated by Holly Hatam (Little Brown Books for Young Readers ~ Hachette Australia):

cover of 2021 picture book HAIR TWINS

HAIR TWINS is a picture book which exudes pure joy. While sharing the Sikh tradition of not cutting their hair and wearing patkas and turbans, what shines in this narrative is the special bond between the father and daughter. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, during and even after reading the beautiful words by Mirchandani. Hatam’s illustrations are fun and perfectly adorable. I loved that the story was inspired by the author’s husband and daughter and their photograph at the back of the book makes it all the more special. 

Dimity Powell

Dimity Powell, author of OSWALD MESSWEATHER and forthcoming 2022 title THIS IS MY DAD, recommends SHU-LIN’S GRANDPA by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Yu Rong (Barry Otter Books ~ Walker Books Australia):

cover of 2021 picture book SHU LIN'S GRANDPA

SHU-LIN’S GRANDPA is about a significant, relatable subject, cultural diversity and its impact on social acceptance and ‘fitting in’, told with grace and magnificent artwork. The sweeping double gate fold out illustrations make this a collectable and timely picture book addition.

Ali Stegert

Ali Stegert, author of BOOGIE WOOGIE BIRD (illustrated by Sandra Severgnini, published by Redback Publishing, 2022) and THE REMARKABLES (Chicken House Books, 2023) recommends I DREAM OF POPO by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo (Roaring Brook Press~Macmillan):

cover of 2021 picture book I DREAM OF POPO

I DREAM OF POPO is a poignant immigration story. Both author and illustrator capture the heart-rending experience of leaving behind loved ones, here a beloved popo or grandma, and learning to love them from afar. The creators subtly convey the ambivalence and confusion experienced by child immigrants. The nostalgic glimpses of Taiwan are sure to charm anyone who’s ever visited the tiny island republic. #TissuesRequired

Brent Wilson

Brent Wilson (@brentdraws), illustrator of 2021 ABDA Award finalist KOALAS LIKE TO . . . and GET ME OUT OF HERE, recommends TEN LITTLE DUMPLINGS by Larissa Fan, illustrated by Cindy Wume (Penguin Books Australia).

cover of 2021 picture book TEN LITTLE DUMPLINGS

TEN LITTLE DUMPLINGS is a very personal work based on the author’s own family. Larissa Fan’s tale of hope is made wonderfully accessible through simple storytelling and the vibrant and playful illustrations of Cindy Wume. Each page is rich with culture and colour and, for those with a keen eye, a cheeky mouse to find!

Zewlan Moor

Zewlan Moor (@byronbiblio), Highly Commended for the 2021 ASA Mentorship, and author of a forthcoming title with Windy Hollow in 2023, recommends TEN DELICIOUS TEACHERS by Ross Montgomery, illustrated by Sarah Warburton (Walker Books) and EYES THAT KISS IN THE CORNERS by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho (HarperCollins).

I couldn’t choose just one, so I have two different but excellent picture books.

cover of 2021 picture book TEN DELICIOUS TEACHERS

Perfect meter, perfect rhyme. Perfect book about a crime! Introduce your child to the joy of age-appropriate crime fiction via this reverse counting book where the staff of the school are picked off one by one. TEN DELICIOUS TEACHERS has been nominated for various awards in the UK.

cover of 2021 picture book EYES THAT KISS IN THE CORNERS

This lyrical picture book embraces a feature that many Asian children have been teased about, eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea. Flowing, expressive illustrations reflect this inheritance, passed down over generations. This includes pictures of Asian myths, including the Monkey King. My son, fan of the new Netflix adaptation, was delighted with this. At the end of the book he looked at my eyes and asked me shyly if he has eyes that kiss at the corners too. This one has been a longstanding New York Times bestseller, and we’re looking forward to the companion book, EYES THAT SPEAK TO THE STARS, due out soon.

I hope you enjoyed this 2021 wrap-up of standout picture books from overseas. I love reading books from other cultures, including diverse stories from the UK and US. Maybe we’ll see some books in translation next year.

Look out for these books as you buy gifts throughout the year. Keep an eye out for the published and forthcoming titles from our curators as well. Many of them are rising stars!

And remember, if you don’t see their book at your local public or school library, request a library purchase. Librarians are keen to buy books patrons want. And Australian authors and illustrators are paid a stipend for books held in libraries. It’s also better for the environment. Win-win!

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