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The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Books of 2021

Here’s to keeping it interesting. Pushing the envelope. Pushing boundaries. Pushing buttons. Here’s to children’s books that expand our assumptions of what a children’s book can be.

This year, I’m trying something new – I created a list of all the books mentioned in this post in Bookshop – an online shop that supports brick-and-mortar independent bookstores. I apparently might get a few cents as well, but that’s not why I’m doing it – I just figured it might be helpful to share a good place to purchase these books if you’re interested.

Previously . . .

The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2020, 2019, 2018201720162015201420132012

It Isn’t Rude to Be Nude by Rosie Haine

Tate | March 2

Why it’s unconventional: A few years back, scatalogical humor, already popular in other parts of the globe, began to make inroads to children’s literature. The next taboo frontier may be nudity. Slowly, we’re beginning to see books that address the human body in more honest, straightforward ways (the recent Bodies Are Cool hits on similar themes, with less nudity).

THAO: A Picture Book by Thao Lam

Owlkids | April 15

Why it’s unconventional: Autobiographical picture books are rare to begin with, but Thao Lam goes a step further with a bold use of typography and collage illustrations mixing photography with illustration to tell the story of her own name.

Is Was by Deborah Freedman

Atheneum (Simon & Schuster) | May 4

Why it’s unconventional: Deborah Freedman has been making invitingly experimental books for years, and her latest is no exception. A meditation (and that word could not be more fitting) on the nature of time itself: what was, what is, and what will be.

Alien Nation by Sandro Bassi

Levine Querido | April 13

Why it’s unconventional: One part Shaun Tan, one part Chris Van Allsburg, one part 21st century ennui – this wordless story about isolation and connection in a technology-saturated world (notice the “alienation” title pun) is one of the most visually stunning books of the year.

Magic Candies by Heena Baek, translated by Sophie Bowman

Amazon Crossing Kids | September 1

Why it’s unconventional: Many of the books on this list could also turn up on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book list come fall (I’ll post my predictions on that in a couple months), and this one might be the best candidate. But beyond the unexpected (and gorgeous) Red Nose Studio-esque three-dimensional illustrations, the story is something out of left field, full of talking dogs and couches. I really love this book.

Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press | September 21

Why it’s unconventional: You know how Radiohead put the song Morning Bell on their album Kid A, and then they put a completely reimagined and eerie version of the same song on their very next album (Amnesiac)? Lead singer Thom Yorke said they did this “Because it sounds like a recurring dream.” I kept thinking of this as I read Brian Selznick’s latest literary innovation.

A couple sentences won’t do Kaleidoscope justice, but here goes. A story of childhood friendship, love, and loss told through a series of fantastical reoccurring dreams. Experimental, inscrutable, and fascinating. I didn’t know what was happening, but each chapter was captivating. I couldn’t put it down. It’s the most “Have you read this book yet???” book of the year.

I Am Smoke by Henry Herz, illustrated by Merce Lopez Ascanoio

Tilbury House | September 7

Why it’s unconventional: The illustrations in this book violate what I thought was a hard and fast rule of art: Don’t Burn the Art. Merce Lopez Ascanoio throws this out the window, holding paper over lit candles to create the smoke elements in this story about the importance of fire and smoke to humankind. Oh, and did I mention smoke is the narrator? An unconventional stand out.

Sato the Rabbit by Yuki Ainoya, translated by Michael Blaskowsky

Enchanted Lion | February 23

Why it’s unconventional: Enchanted Lion is a publisher who appreciates the unconventional side of children’s literature, and Japanese import Sato the Rabbit is a perfect example of this. Just your average, everyday story about man who has decided to be a rabbit and his whimsically surreal life and adventures.

The Real Mother Goose: Hardboiled Humpty Dumpty and More Scrambled Nursery Rhymes by Clare Pernice

Simply Read Books | November 2

Why it’s unconventional: It’s what that creatively twisted girl you sat next to in high school was scrawling on the back of her notebook while she was supposed to be listening to the teacher. Just swap the notebook for a blackboard and I think you get the look and feel (and appeal) of this delightfully askew Mother Goose collection.

The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen

Candlewick Press | April 13

Why it’s unconventional: Sometimes a book creator becomes so well-known and respected that you almost forget that what they make can be completely unconventional (see above: Selznick, Brian). Such is the case with Jon Klassen and his latest book. The Rock from the Sky refuses to be anything other than what it is – an utterly gripping mix of surreal intensity and edge-of-your-seat mundanity. Almost nothing happens yet everything happens. And it’s funny! The result is one of the most unforgettable reading experiences of the year.

My Body in Pieces by Marie-Noëlle Hébert, translated by Shelley Tanaka

Groundwood Books | April 6

Why it’s unconventional: An unflinching YA graphic memoir that that touches on eating disorder and mental health. Illustrated in photorealistic graphite, it’s a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Sorry, Mrs. Cake by Kate Milner

Tiny Owl | June 17

Why it’s unconventional: Surreal illustrations and a talking cat push this story about a picnic that isn’t going as expected into unconventional territory.

The Dog Walk by Sven Nordqvist

Floris Books | October 12

Why it’s unconventional: It begins straightforwardly enough: a child takes grandma’s dog for a walk. Suddenly, everything changes – it’s like Alice in Wonderland and M.C. Escher teamed up to make a wordless picture book. An incredibly intricate and dreamlike journey.

Bear With Me by Noemi Vola

Eerdmans | August 24

Why it’s unconventional: Think black and white is boring? The wonderfully childlike artwork found in Bear With Me will set you straight. This story of a bear that won’t leave is told with heaps of humor and quirky life.


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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.

Comments

  1. Yes to all of this! And I might add the following too:

    – Off the Beaten Track by Maylis de Kerangal, ill. Tom Haugomat, translated by Helen Mixter
    – Black Sand Beach: Do You Remember the Summer Before? by Richard Fairgray
    – The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk, ill. Joanna Concejo, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
    – The Museum of Everything by Lynne Rae Perkins

    Each and every last one off the beaten track.

    • Travis Jonker says

      Wow – these are all great additions, Betsy! We need to collaborate on this list next year.

  2. Sato is one of my new favorites! Surreal but totally satisfying. I’m going to be studying it, drawing inspiration from it, and telling everyone else to read it for a long time. Just added a few others to my Bookshop cart. Thank you! This is always my favorite post of the year.

  3. Sharon Verbeten says

    What’s more unconventional to me is that there is no period after Mrs. in Sorry Mrs Cake! (Also, it is my dream to have a book on this list someday!)

  4. Oh my gosh, I love all of these! My brain exploded when I read about I AM SMOKE! I cannot wait to see those illustrations in person.