Books we've loved in 2021

We're sharing some highlights from the reading we've done over the past year.

Three images of Wanda, age 8, reading chapter books.
Wanda reading in her favorite spot, our big green couch, under a big furry blanket.

My January-birthday daughter has spent pretty much all of 2021 as an 8-year-old, starting the year in the 2nd grade and now ending it in 3rd grade. These are mostly books that we discovered in 2021, with a few special holdovers we had read in earlier years but continued to be a big part of our lives this year. At the tail end is a small section of books that I read and loved—books that have helped me improve as her teacher and parent.

😻 High re-read books

We know a book is a real winner when it keeps getting pulled off the shelf again and again for re-reads. I've marked those books below with a special 😻 emoji.

Alibi Bookshop

We buy our books from Alibi Bookshop in Vallejo, California, owned by my dear friends Karen Finlay and Jon Burchard. I wish we could go in person more often, because we love our friends there and the ferry ride is beautiful, but it's a bit of a haul from San Francisco. That doesn't stop us: we buy books from them online, and you can, too! As I discover books we want, I load up my Alibi Bookshop cart, and then about once every other month I pull the trigger for them to ship. It's like the old Scholastic book deliveries I used to get so excited about as a kid, only the books are way better.

Books my daughter loved

Picture book cover, with jungle animals and a small boy carrying plant materials.
The Boy Who Grew a Forest, by Sophia Gholz

The Boy Who Grew a Forest

We read this together as a read-aloud
This is a lovely picture book, telling the true story of Jadav Payeng, a man who has dedicated his life to reforesting his home of Majuli in India. The forest he has planted has now grown to 1,360 acres. Wanda was moved by this book. The complex dependencies of ecosystems are one of Wanda's greatest passions and fascinations. This book inspired us to learn more about Jadav Payeng and his corner of the world.

Cover art with a king pushing some sort of small mammal in a shopping cart, facing down a group of badgers, one holding a coffee cup.
Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, the first in the book series, by John Dougherty

Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face

Wanda read this book on her own
This is a chapter book with lots of illustrations, and judging from the laughs that came from Wanda, a LOT of silliness. I know nearly nothing about it, but I gather it's full of absurdity, which is totally Wanda's bag. This is the first in a series, Wanda is reading the second one right now.

A Wampanoag man stands on a rock ledge, overlooking his village below, with European ships in the distance.
If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving, by Chris Newell

If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving

We read this together as a read-aloud
I've covered this book in its own blog post, which was posted before I had read it to Wanda. When we were done reading it, Wanda told me she really liked this book a lot. She liked that it was written and illustrated by Native people (that's a big deal to Wanda; she'll often interrupt books or movies when we're getting started with them to ask for details about who created them and what connection, if any, they have to the culture being represented). She especially appreciated that the book presented facts, but didn't tell her how to feel about those facts, giving her space to form her own feelings about what happened.

Book cover with a girl clutching a comic book to her chest, looking up at a squirrel flying above her.
Flora & Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

Flora & Ulysses

Wanda read this on her own first, then we read it together as a read-aloud
We first got this from the library, and then Wanda loved it so much she wanted her own copy, in hardcover no less. Kate DiCamillo is a famously beautiful writer, and we've enjoyed many of her books, but this is the one that Wanda has connected with.

Book cover with an anthropomorphic rabbit superhero wearing a hearing aid.
El Deafo, by Cece Bell

El Deafo

Wanda read this on her own first, then we read it together as a read-aloud
Wanda was charmed by this sweet, autobiographical tale about a hearing-impaired bunny's childhood experiences. There was a lot she could relate to in this tale, about being different, and learning how to get by in a world tailored for folks having a more mainstream life experience.

A boxed book collection of Timmy Failure.
Timmy Failure series, by Stephan Pastis

Timmy Failure series

We read this together as a read-aloud, and it's been re-read aloud and on her own many times since
Timmy Failure is Wanda's absolute favorite book series. She fell in love with these books in 2020, but they've remained very heavy in the reading rotation in 2021.

Book cover with a blue cartoon bear, with other cartoon woodland creatures partying in the background.
Super Happy Party Bears book 1, Gnawing Around, by Marcie Colleen

Super Happy Party Bears series

Wanda read this series on her own
We found this series at the library when Wanda was in Kindergarten. Twenty-four hours later, Wanda had read the whole eight-book series. They're simple chapter books, each one is about 125 pages, peppered with full-color illustrations. When she recently returned to the library for her first in-person visit since the pandemic (yay, vaccines!), she checked the whole series out again, and loved it as much as the first time. I haven't read it, but I gather it's completely ridiculous, and it looks adorable. Lots of giggles.

Book cover with a midnight blue boar-like creature's close-up face, with a small, winged, pale bear creature at its nose.
Willodeen, by Katherine Applegate


Wanda read this on her own
Wanda said she really liked the environmental messages in this one. She said that the story used magical creatures, but she could see the parallels with our natural world, and she felt it did a good job of getting people thinking about the interconnected nature of ecosystems.

Book cover with a person surrounded by household items.
How to Be a Person, by Catherine Newman

How to Be a Person

Wanda read this on her own
This is a great little guide book with simple, illustrated instructions on all sorts of aspects of modern life, from wrapping a present to plunging a toilet. Wanda thinks it's pretty useful.

Book cover with clocks.
Lift-the-Flap Telling the Time, by Usborne

Lift-the-Flap Telling the Time

Wanda read this on her own, and we read it together
Wanda is a math whiz, but if she has an Achilles heel, it's understanding time. We've used a number of different resources, and the one that she says really helped her was this book. It's published by UK-based Usborne, which is sort of an oddball publisher that is popular in homeschooling circles because of the generally high quality of their titles—the downside is that the company has opted for a gross-buckets MLM model to handle distribution. As MLM companies go, they seem to have a much better than typical track record, but still, I hold my nose a bit. They truly have some top-notch books, though!

Book cover with an orange cat.
How to Speak Cat, by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman, D.V.M.

How to Speak Cat

Wanda read this on her own
Wanda tells us about what she's learned from this book pretty often, and enjoys interpreting how our cats might be feeling.

The Land of Stories books.
The Land of Stories series, by Chris Colfer

The Land of Stories

Wanda read this whole series on her own, I haven't read them
This series is right in Wanda's sweet spot: well-known conventional tales, told unconventionally, with a lot of humor.

Book cover with two children, a small blue dragon, and an elderly man behind them.
The Unicorn Rescue Society, by Adam Gidwitz

The Unicorn Rescue Society series

Wanda read these books on her own
Wanda has only read the first two books in this series, and I don't know anything about them, other than that she wants to keep reading them and she recommends them.

Book covers for the Percy Jackson series
Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson series

We read this together as a read-aloud
This series about the adventures modern-day son of the Greek god Poseidon has been fun for us to read together. It doesn't come up in the stories much, but in the universe of the books, the half-mortal children of the gods all have ADHD, which was a fun, validating thing for Wanda. The books all have a great balance of drama, action, and silliness, which helped Wanda stay engaged through all the twists and turns of the stories.

Book covers with figures from Greek mythology.
Percy Jackson's Greek Gods and Percy Jackson's Greek Heroes, by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson's Greek Gods & Greek Heroes

Wanda read these two books on her own, and we've read some of the stories together as read-alouds
Of even greater value to us than the core Percy Jackson series are these two stand-alone companion books. These retellings of classic tales from Greek mythology, as told by the Percy Jackson character, were hilariously relatable for Wanda. She devoured these books, and has re-read the tales many times. She's often made connections between these stories and similarities she sees in other, non-mythology tales. These two books planted a seed of Greek mythology geekery that is bearing fruit all over the place.

Zeus the Mighty, by Crispin Boyer

Zeus the Mighty

Wanda read this on her own
Continuing the irreverent Greek mythology interpretation theme, Wanda loved this silly series of books, featuring residents of a pet rescue who think they're gods.

Book cover with a swirling design of dark blue, purple, and gold
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe

Wanda read this on her own
Wanda liked this book, and especially liked it for the Cuban representation. Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan has used his publishing industry clout to get a broader audience for voices and cultures that have been historically underrepresented, via his Disney-backed imprint Rick Riordan Presents, which I think is pretty darned cool. This book also has a sequel, Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe, that just arrived at our house yesterday.

Book cover with a small girl, holding a large key behind her back, facing a red dragon who is padlocked.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

We read this together as a read-aloud
I LOVED THIS BOOK. I went in cold, ordering it on the basis of the title alone. By the end of that ridiculous title, I'm already cheering. Sold. It's the first in a series, and we'll be starting the second book sometime in the coming weeks. Any description here won't do the book justice, I'm afraid. This book is full of rich, beautiful language, and feels like one of the great classics of literature.

A gas-masked WWI solder on a book cover.
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, from Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales books

We've read these together as read-alouds
There are 11 books so far in this series of historical graphic novels, we own six of them and have read four. They've been quite impressive. These deeply-researched books distill complicated events into digestible and even highly entertaining tales.

I want to shine a spotlight in particular on Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, which covers World War I. It was a complicated war, with complicated players, and complicated reasons. The book uses an ingenious strategy to make it easier to keep track of the players: each of the country's people are represented in cartoon animal form. The French are represented by roosters, the English are bulldogs, the Germans are eagles, and so on. It seems a bit ludicrous, and it is, but it works. It  still manages to convey the heavy weight of this profoundly destructive war; while it is funny, it is not a fun story. It's incredibly well-done.

Each book in the series has its own distinct, fresh way to tackle these very hard stories. I'm continually impressed by them. They've sparked deep, considered conversations about history and the world with Wanda. I've also found them to be great material for developing writing skills using The Writing Revolution techniques.

Book cover with an illustration of a crow in mid-squawk.
Science Comics: Crows, by Kyla Vanderklugt

Science Comics books

We've read these together as read-alouds, and Wanda has read all of them on her own, as well
We own all the books in this series, and they're all coming down off the shelf continually. It's common for Wanda to pause mid-sentence to go grab one of the Science Comics books to share something she learned from them that's relevant to some other discussion. Our favorite from this year's new books in the series is Science Comics: Crows. It's actually about all corvids, and it's a delightful delve into how truly brilliant these birds are.

A group of small children appear to be skipping along together with numbers and playing cards.
Math for Smarty Pants, by Marilyn Burns

Math for Smarty Pants

Wanda read this book on her own
I've already written about this wonderful book in its own blog post. It's not just for kids who already consider themselves math smarty pants—it's for helping any kids find that math is something they can enjoy.

A girl with brown and blue hair jogs along with a horde of cats, some wearing or carrying items.
Katie the Catsitter, by Colleen AF Venable

Katie the Catsitter

Wanda read this book on her own
I haven't read this one, but I gather that it's about a girl who is a catsitter, and somehow becomes responsible for something like a hundred cats, and each cat has its own special skills and abilities, and they join forces for something or other. It is ridiculous and it has a bajillion cats, so Wanda loves it. There's a book 2 coming out in a few months.

Winnie-the-Pooh characters appear on book covers.
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne, and The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet, by Benjamin Hoff

The World of Pooh & The Tao of Pooh

We've read these books together as read-alouds, and Wanda has read them on her own, as well
Wanda has enjoyed the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh as bedtime stories for a long time now, mainly read by her dad. But her attachment to the stories deepened in a big way this year. I suspect the cozy familiarity and gentle pace of the stories felt good in these odd, tumultuous times. I went out on a limb and bought The Tao of Pooh for her, and she has enjoyed considering the potential for a deeper reading of the stories. She didn't always agree with where Benjamin Hoff was coming from, which was even better. It's also inspired her to start writing some of her own Winnie-the-Pooh stories (with the personal challenge of showing those folks at Disney how to preserve the essence of the characters).

Five girls stand in a group at the door to their cabin on a book cover.
Lumberjanes, Vol. 1


We've read these together as read-alouds, and Wanda has read them on her own, as well
Oh, Lumberjanes! We adore this comic book series. We just received the final volume, number 20, in November. Wanda and I have been so excited to snuggle up together on the couch and read each one. They live in a special place in our house, the most special, the spot in the living room right next to the fireplace mantel. (It's a spot that was briefly held by some books by a certain famous author who has chosen to throw her considerable weight into dehumanizing trans folks. We moved those books to a bottom shelf in the back room of our house, right next to the cats' litter box.) Lumberjanes is hilarious, it's exciting, it's thoughtful, and every panel feels like a celebration. Lumberjanes has been a big part of Wanda's childhood, and I hope she looks back on those hours spent reading the comics together fondly for years to come. I know I will.

Book cover with a boy nose-to-nose with a dog with a clock in his body.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Phantom Tollbooth

We read this together as a read-aloud
I hadn't read this book since I was in the fifth grade. Wow, it holds up well! It was delightful to read. It's such a fun and clever celebration of learning. Much of that cleverness comes from wordplay, which limits it a bit as a read-aloud, but Wanda reads over my shoulder when I'm reading aloud to her, which helps. This is one we'll need to re-read again in a few years when she's ready to more fully appreciate it, and I won't mind that re-read one bit.

Book cover featuring woodland creatures in 19th-century clothes.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows

We read this together as a read-aloud
This is our current read-aloud; we're about halfway through it. I'd never read it before; all of my familiarity with the tale came from the Disney animated version from 1949, and a less-enchanting 1996 live-action version by Terry Jones. My goodness, it has swept me up! There's the obvious anthropomorphism of the animals, but I've been particularly struck by the effective use of anthropomorphism in describing nature itself, from the river to the weather. It contains some of the most densely powerful scene-setting I've read in some time, crafted so finely that it feels breezy and casual. This is another one that I hope we'll re-read again in the future.

Books I loved

Book cover with a child running away from an empty school desk
Why Don't Students Like School?, by Daniel T. Willingham

Why Don't Students Like School?

I've already written about this book in another post. It's been a huge help for me as I learn how to craft the most effective learning experience possible for Wanda.

Book cover for The Writing Revolution.
The Writing Revolution, by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler

The Writing Revolution

I've written quite a bit about how I'm using this book to help support Wanda's academic writing (but not her creative writing!). Here's the place to start, and here's a collection of all of my posts about The Writing Revolution.

Book cover for L.I.F.T.
L.I.F.T.: A Coach Approach to Parenting, by Kate Arms

L.I.F.T.: A Coach Approach to Parenting

This book arrived yesterday, so I've only just started reading it. Kate and I are both in a parenting group, where I have long valued her experienced voice. Already, this book is resonating strongly. So far, it has been a well-articulated description of the style of parenting we have found to be the most successful with our daughter. I've discovered that connection, acceptance, agency, and truly seeing my daughter to be the big keys to successful parenting, and that's all in alignment with what this book is throwin' down. Validation! I may do a whole post about this book in the future... for now, even though I've only read half of this book, I feel comfortable recommending it. I'm especially heartened by the author's assurance that in her experience as a parenting coach, she has found that parents who use this style seem to have an easier time staying healthily connected with their kids during their teenage years. Knock wood!

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