Best Nonfiction 2021 | SLJ Best Books

A whopping 35 books were selected for this year’s Best Nonfiction list---our longest yet. From STEM works to eye-opening historical accounts, these titles will fill all of your curricular needs.



Amescua, Gloria. Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua.
illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh. Abrams. ISBN 9781419740206.
Gr 1-5–Striking pre-Columbian illustrations provide a vivid play-by-play of the life of Luz Jiménez, who modeled for Diego Rivera and others, but whose ultimate mark was in helping to preserve the stories, language, and traditions of her culture. Essential reading about the impacts of colonialism.

Baptiste, Tracey. African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History.
illus. by Hillary D. Wilson. Algonquin. ISBN 9781616209001.
Gr 6-10–This spellbinding and impeccably researched collection spotlights 10 historical figures, including writers, kings and queens, and military leaders from the African continent. Wilson’s majestic portraits are the perfect complement to a compendium that fills egregious gaps in the curriculum.

Barone, Rebecca E.F. Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica.
Holt. ISBN 9781250257802.
Gr 3-6–Four incredible expeditions to the South Pole test men’s mettle as two races, one in 1911 and one in 2018, showcase the risks and triumphs of Antarctic adventure. Meticulous detail, clever juxtaposition of time periods, and well-placed images support a suspenseful and satisfying narrative.

Binford, Warren, comp. Hear My Voice/Escucha mi voz: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States.
illus. by various. Workman. ISBN 9781523513482.
K-Gr 4–More than 60 children at the U.S. border, from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Mexico, give voice to their dreams, current torturous conditions, and lives, shown in evocative but brutal illustrations by 17 Latinx artists, including Yuyi Morales and Raúl the Third. These untold stories can no longer be ignored.

Delargy, Flora. Rescuing Titanic: A True Story of Quiet Bravery in the North Atlantic.
illus. by author. Wide Eyed Editions. ISBN 9780711262782.
Gr 3-6–On the fateful night of the Titanic disaster, the captain and crew of the Carpathia risked their safety to respond to the urgent SOS, saving hundreds of people who would otherwise have perished. Striking illustrations enhance this poignant tale of courage in the face of calamity.

Epstein, Nadine. RBG’s Brave & Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone.
illus. by Bee Johnson. Delacorte. ISBN 9780593377185.
Gr 3-6–Epstein, with the collaboration of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, profiles 33 Jewish women who “transcended what was expected, allowed, or tolerated for a woman of their time.” Whether reading from cover to cover or just browsing, kids will find inspiration in the lives of these brave and brilliant women.

Fleming, Crystal M. Rise Up! How You Can Join the Fight Against White Supremacy.
Holt. ISBN 9781250226389.
Gr 6 Up–This engaging narrative examines policing, immigration, pop culture, and sports; how these elements are inextricably linked to the roots of racism; and how racism manifests. The history of resistance to white supremacy is encapsulated in this propulsive volume that also discusses ways young activists can take action.

Fox, Kate Allen. Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees.
illus. by Turine Viet-Tu Tran. Capstone. ISBN 9781684462773.
PreS-Gr 2–Beneath the surface of the Earth, one of the world’s largest living organisms is linked by a system of roots, covering 106 acres in 47,000 Aspen trees that are all but identical. Fox takes lessons from the natural world that are all but unfathomable and creates a perfect tale, gorgeously evoked in the illustrations, that is sure to inspire readers to learn more about the environment and their role within it.

Garcia Esperón, Maria. The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas.
tr. by David Bowles. illus. by Amanda Mijangos. Levine Querido. ISBN 9781646140152.
Gr 5 Up–The Aztecs called the land from the Andes all the way up to Alaska the Sea-Ringed World. In this vibrant, accessible work, Garcia Esperón conveys in lush language the sacred tales that uncover the heart of these two continents. Mijangos’s striking art, rendered in a limited palette, will mesmerize.

Gottesfeld, Jeff. Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
illus. by Matt Tavares. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536201482.
Gr 3-5–This homage to the nameless fallen soldiers and the sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery is not just about a monument. It’s a moving, poetic message of selflessness and citizenry that we don’t often find in picture books.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole & Renée Watson. The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.
illus. by Nikkolas Smith. Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9780593307359.
Gr 2-5–An illustrated work on the 1619 Project for young readers, this adaptation begins with a school assignment and quickly immerses readers in beauty and terror. This stunning work offers a glimpse into the history of the Black American experience before and after the slave trade; the elevated language and breathtaking artwork will have a lasting effect.

Jahren, Hope. The Story of More (Adapted for Young Adults): How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here.
Delacorte. ISBN 9780593381120.
Gr 7-10–Esteemed geochemist Jahren breathes life into the social history and science of climate change by focusing on the latter half of that term: change. This popular science treatise begins with developments over time, from ancient history to the present, in human population, food production, and energy generation and consumption before devoting the final segment to the impact of all this change on our planet.

Judge, Lita. The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom.
illus. by author. Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781250237071.
Gr 3-5–In poetry and prose, Judge discusses the science, chemistry, and growth of trees—particularly, how they live in community and communicate with one another. The research is thorough, the illustrations lovely, and the poetry lyrical.

Kiely, Brendan. The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege.
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy. ISBN 9781534494046.
Gr 8 Up–This important work on white privilege and allyship is a combination of personal narrative, social and political history, and data-based argument. Addressing a vital topic, Kiely’s engaging work starts a much-needed conversation about systematic racism and the privilege afforded to white people, while spurring readers to action.

Klein, Naomi. How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other.
adapt. by Rebecca Stefoff. S. & S./Atheneum. ISBN 9781534474529.
Gr 4-8–This detailed exploration of the climate crisis outlines the ways in which capitalism, fossil fuel consumption, and discriminatory ecological policies have contributed to the Earth’s current environmental catastrophe, while also celebrating the incredible contributions of activists around the globe. Unflinching, illuminating, and empowering.

Langeland, Deidre. Meltdown: Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima.
Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781626727007.
Gr 4-8–Following the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, a massive tsunami rocked the coast of Honshu, causing nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to destabilize and melt down. This triggered a race against time for plant employees to prevent a global disaster. A well-researched and gripping exploration of a tragedy.

Loveless, Gina. Puberty Is Gross but Also Really Awesome.
illus. by Lauri Johnston. Rodale. ISBN 9781984895059.
Gr 5 Up–A modern, gender-inclusive book that discusses various aspects of puberty, from bodily changes to mental health. With straightforward language and a visually appealing layout, this book makes a great health addition for library collections. Teens and tweens will enjoy the comic-book style illustrations and body-positive messaging in this must-have puberty survival guidebook

McCann, Jackie. If the World Were 100 People: A Visual Guide to Our Global Village.
illus. by Aaron Cushley. Crown. ISBN 9780593310700.
Gr 2-5–Through clear, colorful, inviting infographics and short text that poses big questions about life on Earth, McCann distills the vast world of statistics down to a human scale. Readers will be stirred to discuss the questions raised, conduct additional research, and take informed action. A terrific find for social studies teachers seeking to promote inquiry and active citizenship.

McDivitt, Lindsey. A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation.
illus. by Charley Palmer. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802855022.
Gr 2-5–Palmer’s powerful paintings complement this inspiring story of sacrifice and loss, devotion and learning, and patience and hard work. McDivitt and Palmer deftly chronicle the ongoing global fight against racism; Mandela’s journey makes for a powerful reminder of the ability to change.

Madison, Megan & Jessica Ralli. Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race.
illus. by Isabel Roxas. Penguin Workshop/Rise. ISBN 9780593519394.
Toddler-Gr 1–Children and adults can come together to appreciate this book that takes apart the meanings of race and skin color at the foundational level. It’s a stepping stone on the path to understanding what it means to be human, with cheerful art and easy-to-understand language.

Magoon, Kekla. The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy.
illus. by Laura Freeman. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780062912510.
Gr 1-4–Magoon effectively describes Thurgood Marshall’s accomplishments, from his childhood to his ascension to the Supreme Court. More than a biography, this is a road map to good citizenship, from dinner table discussions of segregation and unfair laws to consistency in showing up and “doing the right thing.” Accessible, engaging, and powerful.

Magoon, Kekla. Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People.
Candlewick. ISBN 9781536214185.
Gr 7 Up–Through well-documented research and passionate writing, this compelling treatise tells the history of the Black Panther Party. Magoon offers absorbing and balanced background and commentary on the party’s founders, including their principles as well as the party’s policies and activities, such as providing badly needed social services in Black communities.

Maraniss, Andrew. Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke.
Philomel. ISBN 9780593116722.
Gr 9 Up–Though this biography of baseball player Glenn Burke, credited with inventing the high five, starts off on an inspirational note, it also examines the ways in which the homophobic practices of MLB in the 1970s and 1980s brought down his career, sending his life into a tailspin. A captivating sports narrative and a heartrending portrayal of the effects of homophobia.

Marcus, Leonard S., ed. You Can’t Say That! Writers for Young People Talk About Censorship, Free Expression, and the Stories They Have to Tell.
Candlewick. ISBN 9780763690366.
Gr 7 Up–Introduced by a brief history of the struggle over intellectual freedom in the United States, this anthology documents conversations with authors whose books for young people have been frequently and famously banned. Each conversation is prefaced with an engaging summary of the author’s life and work. Those studying freedom of speech will find important primary sources and gain insight into the harmful impact of censorship on individuals and society.

Morris, Sandra. North and South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres.
illus. by author. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536204599.
Gr 2- –The soft, textured illustrations and unflinching narrative reveal how the seasons in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres impact animals’ lives. This informative and engrossing text ends with extensive back matter, including suggestions on how to aid in conservation efforts.

Nelson, S.D. Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies.
illus. by author. Abrams. ISBN 9781419731938.
Gr 5 Up –Nelson (Standing Rock Sioux) presents the parallel stories of the two leaders and sworn enemies, from childhood to their deaths. With his breathtaking renderings and taut writing, in addition to archival photos and other revelatory primary sources, Nelson sets the historical record straight in this thoroughly researched and gorgeous volume.

Newell, Chris. If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving.
illus. by Winona Nelson. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338726374.
Gr 2-5 –A much-needed, truthful exploration of the Thanksgiving myth that finally addresses its impact from the perspective of the Wampanoag and other tribes who lived in Plimoth thousands of years before the colonization and decimation of their people. Newell (Passamaquoddy Tribe) and Nelson (Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa) have created a resource that should be part of every school’s curriculum.

Reynolds, Jason & Ibram X. Kendi. Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You.
adapt. by Sonja Cherry-Paul. illus. by Rachelle Baker. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316167581.
Gr 4-8 –The dark history of racism is made accessible here by Cherry-Paul, an educator who has distilled the work of Kendi and collaborator Reynolds for middle grade readers, giving young antiracists the tools needed to question and dismantle racial inequity. The urgency of the writing compels readers to purposeful action.

Sandler, Martin W. Picturing a Nation: The Great Depression’s Finest Photographers Introduce America to Itself.
Candlewick. ISBN 9781536215250.
Gr 7 Up –This remarkable work, featuring 140 stunning photographs from the U.S. Farm Security Administration’s attempt to document the Great Depression, makes for an important visual record of the era. Along with brief highlights about the photographers and project administrator Roy Stryker’s vision to “introduce Americans to America,” this monograph also demonstrates the power of photography and belongs in all history collections.

Sheinkin, Steve. Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown.
Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781250149015.
Gr 6 Up –With entertaining background stories and unbelievable facts, Sheinkin’s latest engrossing narrative covers the U.S. and Soviet arms race up through the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a nonfiction history lesson disguised as a gripping spy thriller that readers won’t be able to put down.

Sorell, Traci. We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know.
illus. by Frané Lessac. Charlesbridge. ISBN 9781623541927.
Gr 4-6 –Students at the Native Nations Community School share presentations about the history, present, and future of Indigenous communities. Lyrical text and jewel-tone illustrations offer a stirring portrayal of the ongoing fight for Native American recognition and rights.

Taylor, Barbara. Inside Animals.
illus. by Margaux Carpentier. Wide Eyed Editions. ISBN 9780711255081.
Gr 3-6 –Educational and entertaining, this title teaches readers about animals. Yes, it’s well organized and promotes a curiosity about different parts of animals’ bodies in different species. But it’s also absolutely thrilling. Chunks of information highlighting important features fuel this winner for strong readers and reluctant ones, too.

Todd, Traci N. Nina.
illus. by Christian Robinson. Putnam. ISBN 9781524737283.
K-Gr 5 –Todd describes how a child with a passion for all music, faced with inequities and injustices, raised her voice. Readers get a strong sense of Nina Simone’s talent and impact as a vocalist, musician, and activist. Triumphant, candy-colorful illustrations support the melodious text and reveal details about the era.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre.
illus. by Floyd Cooper. Lerner/Carolrhoda. ISBN 9781541581203.
Gr 3-6 –In 1921, a white mob massacred the Black denizens of the Greenwood community in Tulsa, OK (aka Black Wall Street). The incomparable duo relate the events leading up to the massacre, as well as its aftermath. Heart-stopping and heartbreaking.

Wong, Alice, ed. Disability Visibility (Adapted for Young Adults): 17 First-Person Stories for Today.
Delacorte. ISBN 9780593381670.
Gr 7 Up –In this young adult adaptation of her adult title, editor Wong compiles pieces written by a diverse range of people living with a disability. The well-written works introduce issues of equity and facts of life for disabled people that will be eye-opening for many readers. An essential read that amplifies voices of the disability community.

Yelchin, Eugene. The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.
illus. by author. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536215526.
Gr 5 Up –The Newbery Honor–winning author delivers a heavily illustrated memoir about his family life in 1970s-era Soviet Union and his first steps toward a career in art and writing. Despite a childhood filled with want and struggle, the budding artist was never lacking in love and humor, which he depicts with charm and a little bit of bite in this genius work.

Yoo, Paula. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement.
Norton. ISBN 9781324002871.
Gr 8 Up –Yoo’s work of narrative nonfiction chronicles the brutal 1982 murder of Vincent Chin and the ensuing civil rights trial—the first federal prosecution of a hate crime committed against an Asian American. Readers will be riveted by the multiple accounts from Chin’s family and friends, as well as from the lawyers, defendants, and eyewitnesses. Well researched and hard to put down, the work demonstrates how this horrible event connects with today’s rise in racism and violence against Asian Americans.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing