Best books of 2021 for kids, young adults and families tell stories about ourselves

My superb editor, Jessica Banov, interviewed me and published this lovely article on  NOVEMBER 12, 2021.

You can read the article here and see the splendid graphics she laid out (that I can’t copy well) at this link:


For decades, Chapel Hill-based children’s book reviewer Susie Wilde has read thousands and thousands of books — for babies, children, young readers and adults. And at the end of each year, after going through an estimated 5,000 books, she names her favorites in a showcase known as the Wilde Awards, a presentation that allows Wilde to celebrate the literature put out into the world with her playful, upbeat vibe. Wilde, who has written children’s book reviews and columns for The News & Observer and The Chapel Hill News since the early ‘90s, also has published her awards in The N&O since at least 2003.

But more than just identifying books that entertained her over the year, she also looks for what she calls “important” books — those that may have a message, or those can teach readers something revelatory that will stick with them after they put the book down. “Everything I know about the world I know from children’s books,” Wilde said.

THE FINAL YEAR FOR THE WILDE AWARDS Wilde — pronounced Will-dee — is back for her 25th Wilde Awards, and she says these will be the final ones. She has moved to Greensboro, and while she certainly won’t stop reading children’s books, or teaching young readers about them, the Wilde Awards in its current incarnation is retiring. Wilde will present this year’s awards Nov. 18, at 6 p.m. virtually from Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

As usual, in determining the Wilde Award list, Wilde asks questions about the books she is considering: Does it engage children, and their parents? Does it have strong characters, compelling tension and a satisfying resolution? Will it promote discussion and conversation?

“I look for excellence in both writing and illustration,” Wilde said. “I also look for what books are going to be loved and reread,” Wilde said. “I’m looking for that book that gives kids the ‘read again.’ “My granddaughter at 2, I was reading to her last night, and she said ‘Again.’ And I thought, ‘It was that magical thing that happens, that recommends a good book,’ ” she said.

MORE DIVERSITY IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS Over the years, she has seen the industry for young readers change, with more books connected to movies and celebrity-written titles. Even the color palette seems “louder.” Wilde calls it a “more confusing marketplace.” At the same time, authors are doing more to better reflect today’s society with increased diversity. In the book world, this is known as “own voices,” where books about underrepresented groups are written by authors with that same identity. As a result, Wilde said, there are more books about and from people from all races, as well as LGBTQ+ authors.

“So I’ve read five books this year that are really telling history from an African American point of view,” Wilde said. “There’s a bunch of retellings that are amazing. There’s one about the (1921) Tulsa Race Massacre. They’re just strong and powerful and giving a more balanced view of our world.” She cites as another example a book on this year’s Wilde Awards list — “When We Say Black Lives Matter,” by Maxine Beneba Clarke, which is a book for families to read. That the books can be read together as families also resonates with Wilde. She says parents don’t realize there’s a limited time to share books and read together with their children. “I was so nurtured by reading aloud as a child and then reading aloud to my children,” Wilde said. “Eventually, they grow older. In my experience, my kids went to high school, and they just didn’t have time and had too much homework. … So it’s a precious little time that we get. We build so many experiences.”


Here’s a preview of some of the books Wilde will highlight as the best books of 2021. For a full list and to register for the livestream, go to

▪ “One Sheep, Two Sheep” by Tammi Sauer, Troy Cummings (Illustrator) (Abrams)

▪ “Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race” by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, Isabel Roxas (Illustrator) (Rise, Penguin)

▪ “When We Say Black Lives Matter” by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Candlewick)

▪ “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith (Illustrator) (Penguin)

▪ “Bodies Are Cool” by Tyler Feder (Dial)

▪ “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” by Carole Boston Weatherford, Floyd Cooper (Carolrhoda Books)

▪ “Nina: A Story of Nina Simone” by Traci N. Todd, Christian Robinson (Illustrator) (Putnam)

▪ “Frankie & Bug” by Gayle Forman (Simon and Schuster)

▪ “Just Like That” by Gary D. Schmidt (Houghton Mifflin)


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