Best Graphic Novels 2021 | SLJ Best Books

With a range of grade levels (kindergarteners to high schoolers) and genres (fantasy and horror, among others), there’s something for everyone in these 17 comics picks.


Graphic Novels

Becker, Harmony. Himawari House.
illus. by author. First Second. ISBN 9781250235565.
Gr 9 Up –During a year in Tokyo, Japanese American Nao reconnects with the country she left as a child, wrestles with remastering her mother tongue, and bonds with her roommates, fellow exchange students on journeys of their own. Becker’s graceful, expressive illustrations convey the frustration of language and cultural barriers—and the joy of surmounting them.

Brown, Don. A Shot in the Arm.
illus. by author. Abrams. ISBN 9781419750014.
Gr 5 Up –Narrated by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-century English poet and advocate for inoculation, this well-executed graphic exposé chronicles vaccination innovations throughout history—including the COVID-19 vaccine. Decisive yet playful, the book presents information succinctly; the artwork is brilliantly rendered, with blue and sepia tones adding a nostalgic wash to the clean, clear layouts.

Fung, Rosena. Living with Viola.
illus. by author. Annick. ISBN 9781773215488.
Gr 4-8 –Middle school student Livy’s worries are so intense, they take the form of Viola, a sinister imaginary twin who sneers at Livy’s every misstep. Fung’s busy, vibrant illustrations immerse readers in Livy’s mindset—her woes and fears yet also her passions and joys as she forges connections. A refreshingly forthright and reassuring depiction of anxiety.

Howard, Abby. The Crossroads at Midnight.
illus. by author. Iron Circus. ISBN 9781945820687.

Gr 7 Up –Howard holds readers spellbound with this collection of horror comics. While the ghouls and monsters are grotesque, it’s her ability to plumb feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and alienation that sets this work apart; her grimly realistic black-and-white images and deft use of shading ramp up the scares and heighten the emotion.

Khor, Shing Yin. The Legend of Auntie Po.
illus. by author. Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9780525554882.
Gr 5-8 –Thirteen-year-old Mei comes face to face with the power—and limitations—of stories as she and her father, Chinese workers at a lumber camp in the 1880s, navigate anti-Asian sentiment and laws. With expressive, muted watercolors, this multifaceted work of historical fiction creates a delicate and beautiful balance in its depiction of nuanced characters, interpersonal conflicts, and systemic racism.

King, Thomas. Borders.
illus. by Natasha Donovan. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316593069.
Gr 7 Up –When a mother and son refuse to renounce their Blackfoot nationality while attempting a road trip across the Canadian-U.S. border, they find themselves recognized as citizens of nowhere. King and Donovan’s golden-hued story of Indigenous endurance is a simple yet powerful reminder of the impact of colonial history.

Lewis, John & Andrew Aydin. Run: Book One.
illus. by L. Fury & Nate Powell. Abrams ComicArts. ISBN 9781419730696.
Gr 8 Up –Following the events of the “March” trilogy, civil rights activist Lewis continues to make good trouble. Decades of social progress are threatened by a retaliatory wave of white supremacy, and Lewis’s nonviolent methods are causing the movement to challenge and maybe even abandon him in favor of direct action. Fury and Powell’s black-and-white artwork captures the frustrations of the long road to justice, as well as the power of a strong moral stance.

Liniers. Wildflowers.
illus. by author. Toon. ISBN 9781943145539.
K-Gr 3 –In the wake of a plane crash on a seemingly deserted island, three sisters explore the area only to find a series of mysteries and phenomena. Who left behind written messages for them to discover? Why are the plants and animals so strange? This wondrous, colorful journey celebrates the imagination of childhood.

Lloyd, Megan Wagner. Allergic.
illus. by Michelle Mee Nutter. Scholastic/Graphix. ISBN 9781338568912.
Gr 3-6 –Excited about adopting a new puppy, Maggie is horrified to realize she’s allergic to dogs—and a host of other animals. As she searches for a pet that won’t trigger an allergic reaction, she struggles to find her place in her family and discover a friend group. Warm artwork and colors turn a serious medical topic into a cozy journey for companionship.

Mckinney, L.L. Nubia: Real One.
illus. by Robin Smith. DC Comics. ISBN 9781401296407.
Gr 8 Up –Living in a world hostile to her and her community, Black teenage superhero Nubia is forced to balance her need for self-preservation with her desire to stand up for those in trouble. Rose-colored artwork belies Nubia’s often less than rosy struggles. This poignant, relatable story reminds readers of the sometimes necessary risks of trying to build a better world.

Nguyen, Trang & Jeet Zdung. Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear.
illus. by Jeet Zdung. Dial. ISBN 9780593353639.
Gr 4-6 –Inspired by the Nguyen’s own experiences as a conservationist, this warm, realistic story follows a young girl named Chang as she attempts to return a sun bear called Sorya to the wild. Fusing traditional Vietnamese art with manga styles, the lush scenes, stylish overlays, and varied block paneling meld with fact-filled passages for an inventive and engaging blend of fiction and nonfiction.

Rivera, Lilliam. Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story.
illus. by Steph C. DC Comics. ISBN 9781779500519.
Gr 7 Up –Jessica has a lot going for her, but she and her family have a secret: They are undocumented immigrants. ICE raids in her neighborhood cause her anxiety to escalate, and Aztec gods appear to her in dreams, guiding her by turns toward constructive and destructive solutions. Colors radiate off the page and communicate each scene’s emotional tone in this work of self-discovery.

Smith, Niki. The Golden Hour.
illus. by author. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316540377.
Gr 4-7 –New friendships and photography help Manuel cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks after witnessing gun violence at school. Evocative artwork uses stark color changes and panel bleeds to convey emotion. Depicting resilience, vulnerability, and a blossoming queer romance, this is a stunning portrayal of self-discovery in a rural setting.

Stanley, Stan. The Hazards of Lov e: Vol. 1.
illus. by author. Oni. ISBN 9781620108574.
Gr 8 Up –After being tricked by a hairless cat, queer, nonbinary teen Amparo becomes trapped in the beautiful yet dangerous Bright World. Expressive art, with angular and dramatic linework, pops on stylish black pages and backgrounds. Rich colors, lush details, and haunting characters conjure up an unforgettable world.

Vandorn, Kaeti. Monster Friends.
illus. by author. Random/Graphic. ISBN 9781984896827.
Gr 2-5 –Following a frightening experience exploring a cave, Reggie, a shape-shifting monster, withdraws from the world, but everything changes when he meets a new pal while house-sitting. Vandorn’s expressive illustrations bring to life a sweetly surreal setting, and her gentle story is threaded with a subtle yet potent message: With a good friend by one’s side, even the most daunting problems can be resolved.

Waldo, Steph. Tiny Tales: Shell Quest.
illus. by author. HarperAlley. ISBN 9780063067837.
K-Gr 2 –In an effort to make friends and fit in with his peers, a shell-less snail seeks a shell. Cheery, earth-tone digital illustrations deftly communicate emotions, while back and front matter and bold block panels help new comics readers find their footing. The greater message of found family is triumphant.

Xu, Wendy. Tidesong.
illus. by author. HarperAlley/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780062955807.
Gr 5-8 –When Sophie is sent to her great-aunt’s home to learn magic in preparation for an important exam, she makes a bad first impression. Awkward, inexperienced, and plagued with self-doubt, she pales in comparison to her cousin Sage and to Lir, the water dragon she befriends, but her family and new friend help set her on a path to self-discovery. Gorgeous manga-style artwork and a heartfelt narrative bring this book’s magic to life.

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