November 29, 2021

Favorite Children’s Books of the Year

(From 2021 Newsletter Book Selections)

By Leonard Chan

If you were to ask me to pick the best children’s book from our selection, I would have a tough time. There are so many good books that we feature in our newsletters each month and comparing the merits of each book with others is difficult.

Therefore, this article is only a list of books that I found to be most worthy of a second look with some explanation as to why I liked them so much.

Among the 65 children’s books that we’ve featured this year in our newsletters, I was only able to read and review 40 of them. Of these 40, I found all of them to be either good or very good.

Most of the books that were reviewed were either picture books or story picture books. No anthologies (books with more than one story), books older than five-years-old, activity books (such as origami or language), or books dealing completely with culture were reviewed for this article.

Two book that contain short biographies of famous Asian American were reviewed, but were not included in the process of ranking since they were seen to be more like anthologies than single story picture books.

And now for my top five favorite Children’s books from this year’s newsletter book selections –


By Muon Thi Van (Author) and Victo Ngai (Illustrator)

According to Victo Ngai’s end notes, this book contains only seventy-five words. This review will probably contain more words than the actual story. But wow, Muon Thi Van really made the best use of those words.

“Wishes” is a refuge story about a little girl and her family’s perilous journey out of Vietnam to a new land. It is written and illustrated in such a marvelous way that the story could be a stand in for a wide variety of similar real accounts.

If you’ve read Muon Thi Van other masterful children’s book “In a Village by the Sea” you’ll find this one to be just as wonderful. This is just the type of story that could help instill empathy in formative young minds – something that is sorely needed in our xenophobic times.

When Lola Visits

By Michelle Sterling (author) and Aaron Asis (illustrator)

I recently heard that smells are wonderful triggers for memory. “When Lola Visits” is the first children’s book that I’ve read that marvelously utilizes the sense of smell.

Michelle Sterling’s evocative words and Aaron Asis’ fanciful illustrations tell the story of a little girl’s experiences during a summer when her grandmother comes and visits from the Philippines.

You’ll be able to almost know the smell of cassava cake covered with smooth and glossy custard coming out of an oven even if you’ve never tried it before. I can definitely image the stone fruit (like peaches, nectarines, and apricots) ripening on the main character’s kitchen counter and the freshly opened can of tennis balls that she plays with, but I wish the author had also included some recipes for the wonderful sounding dishes that were described.

Even without the recipes this book is sure to heighten readers’ awareness of the scents around them, and help create and recall memories of their own.

Yang Warriors

By Kao Kalia Yang (author) and Billy Thao (illustrator)

When I found “Yang Warriors” online, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought it could have been a graphic novel from the description – after all, there were “little kid warrior heroes” in it. When I started reading this book, I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be a story picture book.

“Yang Warriors” takes place in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand and is based on Kao Kalia Yang’s actual experiences there. Even though this is based on a real story, it’s presented with story book imaginary with ghosts and scenes that look like they could have came out of a kung fu movie.

Although this is not a graphic novel, Bill Thao’s illustrations do utilize some graphic novel techniques. At the same time this book’s format allows him to occasionally present wonderful whole page and two page spreads.

As for the story, I found Kao Kalia Yang’s writing to be more than equal to the task. Her writing has turned me into a fan (note that one of the other books in this article is also written by her).

What impressed me was Kao Kalia Yang’s adoration for the group of kids she called “the Yang Warrior” and how their selfless simple but brave act helped to feed the younger kids in the camp.

This is truly a book that could help inspire children by letting them know that heroes can come at any age and that heroic acts can be as simple as just helping those around you.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: the True Story of the Oldest Man to Run a Marathon

By Simran Jeet Singh (author) and Baljunder Kaur (illustrator)

If this were just a story about a hundred-year-old man running a marathon, then that might be reason enough to read the book. However, it’s much more. Fauja Singh couldn’t even walk until he was five.

Just as the quotation about “a journey of a thousand li (or miles) begins with a single step,” Fauja Singh’s journey literally began with his first step. Fauja had different challenges throughout his life, but he worked hard facing each of them.

Each step along the way, he was reminded of what his mother would tell him, “You know yourself, Fauja, and you know what you’re capable of. Today is a chance to do your best.”

Everyone that I know that has read this book is left wondering, “Is he a real person and is he still alive?” As of this writing, yes to both – Fauja Singh really is a real person and yes, he is still going at 110-years-old.

“Fauja Singh Keeps Going” is a true inspiration for all those that read it and not just for children.

The Most Beautiful Thing

By Kao Kalia Yang (author) and Khoa Le (illustrator)

As I mentioned earlier in this article, there is a second book by Kao Kalia Yang that I found to be exceptional. That book is “The Most Beautiful Thing.”

Once again Kao Kalia Yang draws upon her own family’s experiences, but this time the story covers her early destitute life in America. The story follows the main character, named Kalia, as she remembers not having enough money for braces, food, or even an occasional ice cream. But at its core, “The Most Beautiful Thing” is a touching remembrance of Kalia’s grandmother.

Khoe Le’s beautiful and imaginative imagery show the grandmother in her flashbacks and of the stories that she would tell her grandkids. In some passages, Khoe Le matches Kao Kalia Yang’s poetic descriptions of things like the passing of time with images of Kalia’s hands getting bigger as her grandmother’s foot seems to slip from her grasp in a river like flow of time.

I recently heard this quote from the poet Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” In the case of this book, Kao Kalia Yang’s love for her grandmother comes shining through.


As I stated at the beginning there were a lot of very good books. I wish I could have a discussion with each of you about these wonderful books.

Keep reading and give us your feedback.