31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Science Fiction Titles for Kids
Science Fiction gets its own list in the 31 Days, 31 Lists series separate from Fantasy? What’s up with that? Well, my friends, the reason is simple. For fun, why don’t you go through the Newbery Award winners sometime and compare the number of Fantasy and Magical Realism books vs. Science Fiction. I’m not saying that Science Fiction is completely absent. We owe a lot to When You Reach Me, The Giver, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, A Wrinkle in Time (sorta), and The Twenty-One Balloons (arguably the first Science Fiction Newbery Award winner), but that short list doesn’t even compare to the number of Fantasy and High Fantasy titles that have won. The message is clear. Fantasy rules and Science Fiction drools. Well, not on my watch! Today, I’m giving all my love to those quirky sci-fi (yes, I know science fiction fans hate that term) titles of 2021, both in picture book and older reader form. There weren’t a ton, but what there was was magic:
2021 Science Fiction for Kids
Invasion of the Unicorns by David Biedrzycki
Lord help me, I never thought I’d put a picture book about a stuffed unicorn on one of my lists. But then, I guess I never thought that someone would actually manage to come up with a more than halfway interesting story about a unicorn in the first place. Biedrzycki has been around for years and years, and his books always have fun with a kind of comic-book form. To my mind, it’s all led to this moment. Invasion of the Unicorns marks a seminal point in his career. In this tale, an alien, that just happens to resemble a stuffed animal in the shape of a unicorn, comes to Earth on a scouting mission. The goal? To determine whether or not humans are worth conquering or not. Eyeing a claw machine the unicorn climbs in and ends up in the arms of a little girl. Tea parties, unnecessary baths, and a menacing family dog (who appears to NOT be one bit fooled by this extraterrestrial interloper) follow. There’s a lot to enjoy about this book, above and beyond the premise. Note Biedrzycki’s use of color. At the beginning, things are black and white, the unicorn itself providing the only hues. It’s only when the unicorn’s own opinions about Earthlings change that things improve, most notably in a fun snow section. Plus there’s a potentially evil llama at the end and I’ve got nothing but respect for evil llamas.
The Rock From the Sky by Jon Klassen
[Previously Seen on the Funny Books List]
He’s back. He never left us, but after the phenomenal success of I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen continued to make his own particular brand of droll little books. And I liked them, sure, but nothing had quite risen to that level of adoration I held for his first big hit. Until now. I tell you now, in all honesty, that this is Jon Klassen’s best book since Hat Back, no question. Looking at the cover you may feel that you are viewing a small, pared down animalian version of Waiting for Godot. Yet its feel is far more Looney Tunes than Beckett. Split into about five different stories, this title is all about timing, subversion, and quiet hilarity. Or maybe not so quiet. My kids were laughing their fool heads off the first time I read it to them. Why is it here on this Science Fiction list? Because while it’s subtle, there’s a bit of a science fiction element to the storyline. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s definitely there. This book is a joy to have in your bookshelf. I’m still working on perfecting the voices I read for it. The intonations and inflections require something special. I’ll say this though: This is one of my favorite books in years. There’s really nothing else quite like it.
Stella’s Stellar Hair by Yesenia Moises
Huh. A heckuva thing. Sort of takes the old loving your hair motif we’ve seen before and ties it directly into science. In this tale, Stella lives in space with her family. Stella wants to wow everyone with her hair but nothing feels quite right. In seek of inspiration, she visits each of her Aunties, one on each planet, to see what might work best for her. The amount of thought that went into the backmatter, and how each hairstyle corresponds to one of our solar system’s planets, is actually pretty keen. And my goodness it’s HARD to find multicultural science fiction picture books.. It probably doesn’t hurt at all that the art is sumptuous. An eye-popping bit of art paired alongside a clever premise, chock full o’ facts. What’s not to love?
This Book Can Read Your Mind by Susannah Lloyd, ill. Jacob Grant
[Previously Seen on the Readalouds List]
When Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was released, it instigated a whole host of interactive picture books like never before. It was not a new idea. I mean, The Monster At the End of This Book pretty much covered similar bases back in the 70s. Still, the combination of interacting with a physical book and the sudden and massive change to our day-to-day lives by the internet (something that, at its heart, you really CAN’T hold in your hands) meant that Pigeon was a phenomenon, where before it would merely have been a quirk. Since its publication in 2003, however, the number of interactive picture books has slowly decreased. They never quite go away (The Book With No Pictures being the most recent phenomenon) which explains why we still see books like Lloyd and Grant’s. I’m giving this one credit, though, because it takes the old “Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant” idea and manages to create a legitimate science fiction-based storyline with a beginning, middle, and end out of it. As readalouds go, this book works a bit better than others because it’s asking children not to THINK certain things. Other books ask them to do, or not to do, physical activities like pressing dots or turning pages. This one is entirely intellectual, setting it apart from its fellows. Jacob Grant’s art is, naturally, the best possible combination. A bit more farts than I think are strictly needed, but well worth a storytime inclusion, you betcha.
Middle Grade Fiction
Another Kind by Cait May, ill. Trevor Bream
Currently in the running as my 10-year-old daughter’s favorite graphic novel… heck, favorite BOOK, of the year. I’m not even kidding about this. At lunchtime at school she and her friends take on different characters and parts and play their roles. My daughter tends to play Sophie because, according to her, she has the best Irish accent out of the lot of them. The plot is indeed (as some reviewers have pointed out) not entirely dissimilar from X-Men. A group of “irregularities” including a were-bear, a selkie, a yeti, an alien, a will-o-the-wisp, and a gorgon/Cthulu type kid are on the run. A “collector” of irregularities wants to own them all, and it’ll take all their smarts to keep their makeshift family, such as it is, together. There’s a truly lovely section in here that explains different pronouns, which I enjoyed, and the whole book really moves at a marvelous clip. May and Bream are experts at exposition. Unlike some comics, this doesn’t saddle you with an info dump at the start, but introduces the characters’ backstories a bit at a time when they can fit into to the overall patchwork of the storytelling. Altogether a class act through and through, and awfully nice on the eyes.
Earth Boy by Paul Tobin, ill. Ron Chan
Benson Chow has always dreamed of leaving Earth to join the Galactic Rangers, but no one on Earth has ever qualified. When Benson becomes the first, he meets with strong anti-Earth sentiments, faithful friends, and opportunities that make him use his smarts like never before. Now THAT is how you do a graphic novel, folks! It’s a smart takedown of prejudice in an otherworldly setting, but it doesn’t feel any less real. Meticulously rendered, cleverly written, and wonderfully imagined, this futuristic tale completely sucks you in. I absolutely loved the solution to Benson’s problems at the end, and everything that happens get set up neatly well in advance. It’s just a really smart book. My sole objection is that with all this story to cram in, the text ends up being pretty small. Otherwise, it’s good to go.
Einstein: The Fantastic Journey of a Mouse Through Space and Time by Torben Kuhlmann, translated by David Henry Wilson
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
A small mouse is so distraught when it realizes that it has missed an important cheese festival that it dives deep into discovering the secrets of time travel. But when it gets caught in the past, will Einstein himself help with the calculations? This is where “early chapter” and “bedtime reading” fare sort of blurs and runs together. If you’ve seen Kuhlmann’s previous books (Armstrong, Edison, etc.) then you know what to expect. I think I once called him a Steampunk Beatrix Potter, and I’d stand by that. In this book he sort of combines the H.G. Wells version of The Time Machine with some literal explanations of Einstein’s theories. There are a lot of detailed explanations of these in the back of the book, which kids and parents can totally skip if they want to (or, if they’re a certain kind of kid, obsess over). The art is luminous. I also kind of love that at the beginning it takes place in what appears to be the late 80s/early 90s, which is sort of cool.
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
[Last Seen on the Middle Grade Fiction List]
When Petra escaped Earth with her family for a new life, she had no idea what would happen when she awoke from her cryo-sleep. Now it’s 300 years later and she’s the only person left with memories and stories of the past. What went wrong? And how can she survive? Oh, I like this one very very much! You might not be able to tell from the cover but this is straight-up science fiction with a Latine heroine. It even works in a couple classic Southern American folktales along the way (including a rendition of Blancaflor that you may have already seen on my Fairy/Folk/Religious Tales list). I was surprised to find that I could never quite figure out where it was going or what was going to happen next. Higuera keeps you guessing and so I was completely unprepared for a huge twist that happens not too long before the end. If you’re looking for something completely different and completely enthralling, this is your best bet.
Lemonade Code by Jarod Pratt, ill. Jey Odin, lettered by Crank!, designed by Sarah Rockwell, and edited by Robin Herrera and Shawna Gore
I don’t suppose I quite realized when I became a parent the frequency with which my white middle-aged female self would be attempting to read rap lyrics in graphic novels to my kids. Lemonade Code makes this painful occurrence happen quite frequently and even has its own accompanying Spotify page. The book is a nice deep dive into some serious science fiction concepts. Our antihero, Robbie Reynolds, has created the ultimate lemonade stand. Any flavor you want, no matter how weird or gross, can be turned into a lemonade. Meanwhile, new neighbor Daphne Du-Ri has set up her own, very simple, lemonade stand across the street. You do realize, this means war? But “war” in this case is going to culminate in nanobots, other dimensions, deep deep coding, and quite possibly the end of the world. Some of the jumps between panels happen so quickly that it can take some getting used to (I had to reread the ending several times to figure out exactly what was going on) but the storyline itself holds together well. There are at least two mistakes in the text, so FYI there, but otherwise this rather delightful tale of misguided revenge is a lemonade-flavored delight.
Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas
[Last Seen on the Middle Grade Fiction List]
Trouble has no memory of his past but he knows one thing: He’s a shapeshifter, the only one in the galaxy, and now he’s just stowed away on a spaceship to who knows where. Wowzah. Talk about economics in writing. This book knows how to do character development in a shockingly short amount of time. What could feel like you’re watching a play (since, for a lot of this book, the characters are on a very small spaceship) instead manages to keep the action hopping. Trouble is such a likeable character, and I was getting a real Guardians of the Galaxy vibe from his motley crew. This is space scoundrel lit at its best. Highly recommend!
Interested in other Science Fiction titles? Then check out these beauties from years past:
And here’s what else we have happening this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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