Every year, the National Book Foundation explores titles across fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young adult books, and selects 25 works to be eligible for a National Book Award. For the past 10 years, the Vox staff has read them all, and we’re here to share our thoughts on this year’s nominees and winners.
The winners were announced on the evening of November 15. Our reviews of the 2023 nominees and winners are below!
Blackouts by Justin Torres — WINNER
This experimental novel, which is essentially an extended deathbed conversation between two gay men, is a triumph in its blending of history and fiction. Its title references both the literal and symbolic: the way in which history is redacted, in which words, context, and knowledge are blocked out in books and photos, and in which memories, identities, and struggles are erased by the state, society, and time. Those are precisely the kinds of impulses that journalism and contemporary forms of media have been struggling with since the dawn of the Trump era and, in many cases, a post-truth world.
The final moments of an intergenerational friendship (between a young narrator and a dying older man named Juan Gay) take the reader through a recap of history, both history that is recorded and which is about to be forgotten. The intimate spaces in which these conversations happen also force some uncomfortable and personal reckonings with sexuality, masculinity, racial identity, intergenerational trauma, class, and love — enriching and also discomfiting for readers who may not wrestle with these questions every day. —Christian Paz, senior politics reporter
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
In the near future, long-term prisoners have a choice, of sorts: serve out their sentences — from 25 years to death row — or elect to spend three live-streamed years marching from city to city fighting other inmates to the death in a new kind of entertainment called “hard-action sports.”
This fantastic, whirling novel rockets us around the horrific reality of Chain Gang All-Stars — the name of this UFC of incarcerated people murdering each other with hammers and corkscrews — where we meet everyone from nicknameless star Loretta Thurwar and her lover-teammate Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker to their milquetoast puppetmasters, the activists outside the arenas, and the long-suffering scientist who inadvertently invented a taser-like device that lights up the body with the worst pain humanly imaginable. (It’s called, neatly, “the Influencer.”)
Unsettlingly enjoyable to read, this book is a protest. From reality TV watchers to the racist, rapaciously capitalist carceral state, this unsparing, endlessly humane story puts modern American life through the looking glass — and shows us that we’re just barely on the other side. Adjei-Brenyah’s world-building and imagination for future tech are hugely inventive, but some of the book’s most harrowing parts — descriptions of prisoners in dangerous meat-processing plants, in solitary confinement, in the hands of violence-loving prison guards — exist right now and didn’t need to be created at all. As one character says, “I thought of how the world can be anything and how sad it is that it’s this.” —Meredith Haggerty, senior culture editor
Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal
Aaliyah Bilal’s debut short story collection is a glimpse into a world I haven’t seen represented much in fiction before — that of Black Muslims in America. Each of the 10 stories approaches the Nation of Islam with nuance and heart, and Bilal doesn’t shy away from highlighting powerful, jubilant aspects of the community alongside searing critiques, all delivered with great attention to subtle emotional details.
My favorite of the stories, “Nikkah,” centers on Qadirah, a young woman who signs up for a Muslim dating site to vet potential husbands while grappling with the impending marriage of a close friend, her parents’ relationship and personal histories, and her own sense of place in the world. “First there was Shahir,” she writes, “a man twice her age who asked her repeatedly to send full-bodied photos of herself, and another man whose avatar was a picture of Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and who claimed to be a wealthy oil-man, descended from the house of Saud, who promised to make her his bride if only she sent along her banking information.”
Something Bilal does well is flit slyly between perspectives — the narration will stick with one character in the closest of third or even first person, before all of a sudden dipping into the consciousness of another, or zooming out to give the reader context the characters themselves might not even have. It’s an elegant way of showing this community from a kaleidoscope of directions, and makes the collection a sleek, meaningful read. —Alanna Okun, senior culture editor
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
Paul Harding’s This Other Eden is an almost otherworldly account of a small, mixed-race island community’s displacement. Uniquely told, this novel draws from the story of the historically supplanted, minority-led community: Malaga Island, located off the coast of Maine. This epic tale — and it must be called such because of its poetic nature — begins on Apple Island founded by Benjamin and Patience Honey and follows with their descendants almost a century later. Along with one storm comes another in Matthew Diamond, a wealthy, ‘plain white’ schoolteacher who rows ashore and offers to teach the islanders. His presence draws racist outsiders who seek to wash their hands of the island’s residents and even of the island itself. This story is masterfully written in a way that feels familiar but completely original. Harding takes readers on an almost biblical ride that will get them to contemplate the ideas of love, legacy, and loss. —Tonika Reed, network operations project coordinator
The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen
The End of Drum-Time has the feeling of a lost Thomas Hardy novel, only set among reindeer-herders instead of shepherds. Each page is laced with stories of uncontrollable lust and dashed reputations, with tales of a natural landscape that will take your breath away with its beauty in the same moment that it takes your livelihood away with its indifference.
Pylväinen’s novel takes place in 1851, in a remote village in the Scandinavian tundra, so far north that “what counted as day was just twilight stretched thin.” There, Norwegian and Swedish settlers work the unyielding soil, while native Samí navigate their reindeer herds through shifting political borders. Pylväinen’s breathless, exquisite prose rushes fast as meltwater through a story of reckless lovers and desperate religious passions to an ending that feels like a flood in its inevitability and destructive force. This is a book as beautiful and unforgiving as the land it describes. —Constance Grady, book critic
The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk — WINNER
I remember the first time I meaningfully engaged with Native American history in seventh grade, beyond the stereotypical (and inaccurate) pilgrims and Thanksgiving schlock fed in elementary school every year. I was sitting in my Texas history class, still novel as I’d recently moved from Maryland, but the course didn’t start with the creation of the state. It started with the Indigenous groups that lived on the lands that would become known as Texas. That perception shift, to me, meant the whole world.
But there’s so much our school systems and curricula miss when it comes to how we present the histories of Native peoples in the United States.
Historian Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) masterfully webs together a challenge of the nationalist, oversimplified narratives Americans know so well. Through 500 years of Indigenous histories — yes, the plural — Blackhawk shines a light on what has been erased. Indigenous peoples are still alive, and their survival throughout brutal times defined the very nature of this country. Their presence and example influenced governance, social norms, treaties, public lands, and even the revolution that gained the US its independence.
Given how much the book covers, it’s a hefty read. It picks up in the back half in terms of its flow and surprise factor, but I found nuggets on every page. I could have spent weeks poring over the bibliography, running back and forth between Blackhawk’s synthesis and other sources. There’s so much to learn and absorb. It’s my hope that this book gets into the hands of every history teacher in this country. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor
Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice by Cristina Rivera Garza
You can never know a person — only estimations of them. You have your own perceptions, but when they’re gone, what they leave behind is all you have to piece the missing parts together.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s older sister, Liliana, was murdered more than 30 years ago while she was in college. For decades, it crushed Rivera Garza’s family: Do they deserve to eat? How could it have been prevented? Should she ever have gone to university in Mexico City?
Thirty years later, Rivera Garza tries to find closure through what can only be described as a quest. There are newspaper clippings that cover the death, a femicide not uncommon in the papers, but Rivera Garza goes a step further to request public records and dive through the letters and diaries Liliana left behind.
But Rivera Garza didn’t write a run-of-the-mill true crime story. Rather, she explores the beauty of her sister’s life, through Liliana’s own words as well as those of her college classmates. From her middle school years to her time in university, Rivera Garza highlights what was left unsaid in Liliana’s life. It’s powerful reading Liliana’s own words as she faces the struggles we all do — watching your friends grow up, first loves gone awry, the desperate desire to find true freedom — in conjunction with Cristina’s lyrical prose. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor
Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe
Ordinary Notes is a series of short essays — sometimes raw, sometimes devastating, but always gripping — about representation in relationship to race and identity. Through short anecdotes and observations, Christina Sharpe elucidates many ways in which white supremacy renews itself, often even through frameworks, voices, and historical representations that are meant to challenge or dismantle it. Sharpe converses with history, with current moments, with other writers, with art, with her family, and with her own experience to demonstrate how hollow such representations often are — for example, the use of a unified “we” to insist upon a singular response to the brutality of anti-Blackness. “The architectures of violence fracture we,” she writes.
The past and present frequently overlay each other, often in harrowing conversation that reasserts anti-Black frameworks. The notes themselves are frequently unresolved, without reaching for easy conclusions about the subjects Sharpe is thinking through. She instead skillfully breaks down, in one brief but vivid example after another, the need for greater awareness of “the complex representational terrains in which we move and on which we struggle” relative to anti-Blackness. Yet Sharpe also positions Black tenderness as healing and therapy amid this struggle — not a remedy, but necessary and intentional solace. As she puts it: “care as shared and distributed risk, as mass refusals of the unbearable life, as total rejections of the dead future.” —Aja Romano, senior culture writer
We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir by Raja Shehadeh
We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir by Raja Shehadeh is a highly relevant and intergenerational true account of the tumultuous relationship between the author and his father, Aziz. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the expulsion of Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. After being forced to leave Jaffa upon the creation of Israel, Aziz dedicated his life to advocating for the right of return of Palestinians. His work advocating for the right of return was dangerous and caused much upheaval in his own life, as well as in Shehadeh’s, which his son portrays emotionally throughout his memoir.
From the outside, one would assume that a father and son would get along if they fight for the same cause, but Shehadeh chose a different approach to show how that work can damage a relationship, which is something we don’t see much. Writing about his feelings and regret after his father was killed makes this memoir more about grief and how it’s intertwined with oppression — and Palestinians often go through both. —Rajaa Elidrissi, Vox video researcher
Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant
Wildfires are getting bigger and lasting longer, and can belch pollutants high into the air and thousands of miles away. They are nasty, brutish things, and one comes away from journalist James Vaillant’s fourth book feeling a mix of awe and terror at their sheer size and force. Vaillant traveled to a remote area of Alberta to survey the damage from the May 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, the costliest disaster in Canadian history. Hot, hurricane-force winds whipped the flames into an inferno that did billions of dollars of damage, consumed the homes of 88,000 people, and spurred an unprecedented evacuation effort. It took two months to wrestle the fire under control and over a year to fully extinguish it.
This is as much a history book as it is a glimpse into our hotter and drier future. Fort McMurray is at the heart of Canada’s oil industry, which spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, fueling the conditions that allowed such a large area to be so thoroughly consumed. The book was released in June 2023, just as Canadian wildfire smoke turned the sky above much of the eastern US an eerie grayish-yellow and prompted air quality advisories. Vaillant’s writing is captivating, the descriptions of the fire crackle with energy, and the sense of looming apocalyptic dread will make you sweat. —Avishay Artsy, senior producer, Today, Explained
from unincorporated territory [åmot] by Craig Santos Perez — WINNER
In the language of the CHamoru, the preferred choice of indigenous CHamoru activist Perez’s Pacific Islander community, “Åmot” translates to “medicine.” Born and raised in Guåhan (the original CHamoru name for Guam), Perez uses this volume of poetry, his fifth in the unincorporated territory series, to ponder what healing looks like. What medicine can serve as a remedy for post-colonialism, environmental and climate collapse, rising extremism, and late-stage capitalism?
Perez seems to offer answers in community, heritage, connection. “tell me again / our words for rice ... tell me again / how rice / was once ceremony.”
He alternates a softer yearning for family and community with nods to the fraught legacy of Guåhan’s colonization. It’s a powerful framework, this back and forth — this poetry both slaps and slaps back: Rice becomes a motif, but so does rampant abuse at the hands of the Catholic church; so does military destruction. In this way, the work of remembering, of holding together the collective experience of trauma, becomes an active practice. Weaving becomes a dual practice of weaving together threads but also fragments of memories of the Japanese invasion during the war. The CHamoru’s cultural love of Spam, a running theme with Perez, becomes a metaphor of assimilation. The endangerment of the Micronesian kingfisher becomes an allegory for life on Guåhan as an American defense outpost.
“isn’t that what it means / to be / a diasporic chamoru,” he asks,
“to feel foreign
in a domestic sense …
to feel foreign
in your own homeland” —Aja Romano, senior culture reporter
How to Communicate by John Lee Clark
Despite the title, there are no instructions on communication here, except those John Lee Clark illustrates by example. His poems are sometimes spare, sometimes muscular, and always tactile, demanding that the reader experience the world through hands, feet, fingers, lips; they dance across languages and senses, synthesizing symbols and words to get at the essence of things. It is a remarkable collection; for every incisively funny piece that had me laughing into the page, another came along that choked me with sorrow.
Clark, a DeafBlind polyglot who has spent a lot of time thinking about language and how human beings communicate, organizes the book into types of poems; there are mind-expanding translations from ASL and the touch-based language Protactile; there are erasures that transform antique ableist poetry into vivid new arrangements. In prose poems and verse, Clark also tells stories of his childhood and family, of love and loss, of being seen and unseen — or rather, felt and not felt — by the people around you.
He writes before the book’s section of “slateku,” a poem form created within the number of characters one Braille slate will hold, that in Braille, “often you are aware of writing two things at the same time.” That is also an apt description of reading How to Communicate: Layers of articulated meaning lie on top of one another, even in the briefest of lines. —Kim Eggleston, copy editor
suddenly we by Evie Shockley
Evie Shockley is a vivid poet, immediately drawing on evocative images in her poetry to color in the lines of a scene. Her smooth ability to succinctly call upon a feeling — “grief blows through / the body ~ a cold wind / after rain”, “your laugh is a country road, open / made of gravel and shade, / much traveled, before this dark day” — is her greatest strength in suddenly we, in which the works detail the Black experience from top to bottom, the joy of it all and how art lends itself to such a way of being, despite all the accompanying pain. She inserts images of slave ships in one of the earliest parts of the collection, “we:: becoming & going”, giving new context to poems that personify the middle passage. suddenly we is a stunning set of poems, successfully playing with the form to create a beautiful tapestry of Black history and experience. —Melinda Fakuade, culture editor
Tripas by Brandon Som
In this, his second volume, Brandon Som continues his exploration and excavation of a multicultural, transnational experience, both lived and imagined through the eyes and memories of his Chinese and Chicano family members. Through close, detailed imagery, he evokes the sense of meaning and profundity in small things, from the plaiting of a braid to a pair of shined shoes:
Con leche, con piña,
she poured flavors R
lit like church glass.
Som’s attention to language becomes part of the living rhythms of his poetry — he relives a diacritic on a chalkboard; a woman attaching an exaggerated accent to his name; the “pulp and slur of syllables.” At the same time, he allows for gaps between language and communication, between memory and meaning. “the name / I couldn’t sign but signed me,” he writes of his Chinese name. Writing of the racist era of Mexican American repatriation, he asks:
Could I sign my name
that crossing, that chiasmus
of exile, or simply share
a night’s receipts—its archive
of saladitos, pack of Pall Malls,
tins of potted meat?
Language in this configuration may be obscure, not always known or knowable, but it’s also still a gateway toward connection — even and especially if the connection is fraught. One feels his poetry, in its thick details and constantly surprising figurative, pulling you by the gut toward unknown destinations. But you are held along the journey, as he is held, by family, by memory, by the words themselves. —Aja Romano, senior culture reporter
From From by Monica Youn
Monica Youn fixates in this volume on the metaphor of containers and containment — first boxes and later cocoons — that serve as metaphorical vessels for gender, for racial identity, for assumed and actual experiences. The main character, a version of Monica herself, seems to wrestle with her own containment as she deals with a constant surge of racist microaggressions. In school, they follow her back and forth from the playground to the classroom:
Her hand shot up. Anyone except
Monica? No? She took stock.
And later, from the classroom to the bedroom:
She dated an initiate
of a college secret society,
then unearthed his cherished
stash of yellow-fever skinflicks
As these instances accumulate, Youn’s poetry turns more imagistic, from the hallucinogenic “Study of Two Figures,” written from the point of view of Dr. Seuss’s imaginary Japanese child, to an extended, raw sequence depicting magpies as allegory for Asian American identity, an exercise that yields observations on everything from cultural crossover to genocide. The volume culminates with an extended narrative sequence, In the Passive Voice, that finds Youn reckoning with anti-Blackness within Korean culture while simultaneously grappling with white supremacist anti-Asian violence. Her voice undertakes a tonal shift as well, from wryness to something more complex. There’s sheer terror here — the undeniable fear of life amid rising hate crime and anti-Asian violence — but also a moving, ultimately uplifting determination to move beyond the passive into active resistance. —Aja Romano, senior culture reporter
The Words That Remain by Stênio Gardel; translated from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato — WINNER
Brazilian author Stênio Gardel’s debut novel is deceptively slim and surprisingly tender — surprisingly so because the subject matter is tough.
Raimundo, 71 years old, illiterate, and gay, is holding on to a love letter from his childhood sweetheart. He can’t read the letter, and he hasn’t seen the sweetheart since their fathers discovered them together when they were 17 and violently beat them. Now, in his old age, Raimundo has decided to learn to read so that he can confront the letter at last.
In Laobato’s translation, Gardel’s rhythmic, incantatory prose flickers between past and present tense and first and third person as Raimundo’s conflicted thoughts careen across the page. As violent and unwelcoming as the past is, he finds redemption in the present with a chosen family you never see coming. The sweetness of their bond makes the whole book not only bearable but beautiful. —Constance Grady, book critic
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung; translated from the Korean by Anton Hur
Imagine if the Brothers Grimm wrote short-story versions of Black Mirror and you’ll have a good sense of what it’s like to read Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny. A spine-piercing bird-beast, an accursed rabbit statue, and a golem made from a woman’s bowel movements are a few of the grotesque creatures that haunt the pages of this South Korean writer’s dark and unsparing world. There is a timelessness and subtlety to Chung’s narrative voice that makes you feel like you’re reading a fable passed down through generations, rather than contemporary fiction. She weaves the modern and the ancient in dreamlike prose. —Marin Cogan, senior correspondent
Beyond the Door of No Return by David Diop; translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Beyond the Door of No Return is a stunning and adventurous novel by David Diop, and has been translated from French by Sam Taylor. This story chronicles the fantastical tragedy of Michael Adanson, a French botanist who traveled to Senegal in his youth and until his death was haunted by his experiences there. The story begins after Adanson’s death in 1806. Among his possessions, his grieving daughter Aglaé finds a series of letters bound in a red leather folio he intended just for her. These letters reveal her father’s secrets and passions in a way that shows how memory can be strange, beautiful, and introspective. Adanson’s pursuit of and obsession with a woman deemed a ‘revenant’ invites the reader to wrestle with belief as a concept, whether with regard to religion, methods of storytelling, or even personal belief in oneself to write and rewrite your own narratives. This is a contemplative novel that demonstrates love is bound up in memory — though, like flowers, memories fade. —Tonika Reed, network operations project coordinator
Abyss by Pilar Quintana; translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Despite the narration from a rather precocious 8-year-old girl in Colombia, don’t mistake Abyss for children’s literature. Through the voice of Claudia, Pilar Quintana’s prose is simple and innocent yet haunting in what it accomplishes. Claudia’s perceptive ability to catch on to glimpses of darkness through her own secret language captures the distinct dread of discovering things you wish you’d never stumbled upon.
In the way that all kids do, Claudia notices subtle things about her family and their struggles: her dad’s quiet, monstrous anger and her mother’s propensity toward deaths and suicides, especially those of celebrities. As Claudia introduces you to the history of her family, you witness moments that seem innocuous at first, but as they accumulate they hint at something deeply wrong. Claudia absorbs these changes, though they’re largely hidden from view. Beneath all the mundane is a dexterous approach to discernment, loneliness, and fear.
The titular abyss is more than a physical space. It’s an internal darkness that calls to Claudia that she must confront. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor
On a Woman’s Madness by Astrid Roemer; translated from the Dutch by Lucy Scott
Even as our protagonist Noenka worries she is incapable of truly loving others, she forges relationships of striking intensity — and on terms decidedly of her own choosing. Even as she’s weighed upon by ancestral and modern strictures (caught in the “tangled web of [her] devotion” to her parents, understandably untrusting of other races “until the Black Queen of Africa is wearing her crown again”) Noenka boldly charts her path through mid-century Suriname.
The poetic writing can occasionally feel as impenetrable as the lush vegetation that fills several sets — but as deliciously, sensuously dense too. Read this first-ever English translation of a queer classic if you want to feel both the suffering and the promise of a life that is one’s own. —Caroline Houck, world politics senior deputy editor
Young People’s Literature
A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat — WINNER
Coming-of-age stories don’t go out of fashion. Every generation of writers and artists wants to explore the heady chemical soup of puberty as it plays out in boys and girls becoming adults. You’d think the public would get tired of hearing about it, but readers of all ages are perennially drawn to tales of first loves, first drinks, and first experiences of all stripes.
Dan Santat’s A First Time for Everything spins the coming-of-age novel into a graphic memoir of his trip to Europe as a 13-year-old in the 1980s. Dan the character is an only child with a secret passion for drawing, a mother who has lupus, and girls at his LA-area school who seem lightyears older (and meaner) than he will ever be. His parents, though protective, practically shove him aboard the plane taking a group of teens on a European tour. Once there, his world opens up and — predictably — the “firsts” come fast and furious.
What’s less predictable and more enjoyable is the way the story unfolds from Dan’s perspective. As an adult reading this (and incidentally an adult who experienced the ’80s), the moments of cringe, revelation, and danger feel viscerally real. The art and the story propel the reader into Dan’s reality, and since everyone reading it is going to be 13, is 13, or was once 13, the universal feelings of wanting to belong, of being on the outside of everything, of craving and fearing experience of the world hit you in the feels. —Elizabeth Crane, style & standards senior editor
Gather by Kenneth M. Cadow
Gather is a stunning debut by Kenneth M. Cadow. In this novel, a 10th grader named Ian who lives in rural Vermont is under pressure. He’s strained by the challenge of holding on to the home that has been in his family for generations, his mother’s recovery from opioid addiction, and the overall crushing weight of poverty. His dog Gather serendipitously comes into his life, becoming a beacon of hope and another support system.
Anyone who has endured what it’s like to witness someone they love recover from addiction, struggled to afford necessities, or relied on public programs like school lunches will find themselves nodding in agreement as they absorb the words from each page. It’s not always the easiest read, but Cadow masterfully describes difficult experiences through melodic language I’ll be thinking about for a very long time. Having grown up in a low-income household, I couldn’t help but think of how much I would’ve appreciated this novel when I was in high school. I’m still grateful I have it now. —Gabby Fernandez, senior audience strategy editor
Huda F Cares? by Huda Fahmy
Huda F Cares?, inspired in part by its author and artist Huda Fahmy, is incredibly charming.
This graphic novel about one 15-year-old Muslim girl’s trip to Disney World with brand new contact lenses and three of her often-fighting sisters is heartfelt, thoughtful, and very funny. Huda herself is both bookish and feisty, a fact represented by two tinier Hudas that float at her shoulders, angel and devil style — although neither is so evil (or so purely good). Instead, the little Hudas seem to stand in for the two wolves inside most teen girls: the bold and occasionally impulsive one who wants to make her own way in the world, and the more timid one, concerned about fitting in and getting along.
For Huda, fitting in can feel like an uphill battle, from the glasses she thinks keep her from looking “normal” to the religious signifiers she finds meaningful but sometimes othering. It’s not easy to set down a prayer mat in the middle of Epcot, no matter how secure you are in your faith! And no one wants to explain to some gross, handsy white guy why you’re sweating in your abaya when what you really want is for him to shut up.
Fahmy’s jokey style mixes beautifully with a story of learning to be both strong and joyful, and that maybe, just maybe, it’s not so bad to hang out with your sisters. —Meredith Haggerty, senior culture editor
Big by Vashti Harrison
There’s a time on playgrounds, in classrooms, on courts, and other places meant to be nurturing when children learn the painful impact words can have on their self-esteem. Vashti Harrison illustrates these heartbreaking moments and the power to overcome them in her debut picture book, Big. The book follows a young Black girl who is born in an encouraging environment. She’s told to “dream big” and is surrounded by words like “caring,” “considerate,” and “smart,” none of which have anything to do with her physical appearance. As she grows up, the word “big” becomes cutting, as both her peers and adults focus on her size, humiliating her and damaging her sense of self. Through minimal narration and illustrations, Harrison creatively tackles fatphobia, malicious beauty standards, and adultification in a tender way. Big is an important reminder that children, on playgrounds, in classrooms, and everywhere else, deserve to be accepted for who they are. —Gabby Fernandez, senior audience strategy editor
The Lost Year: A Survival Story of the Ukrainian Famine by Katherine Marsh
The Lost Year opens in March 2020, with middle school kid Matthew grounded from his beloved Nintendo Switch right about he’s about to beat Zelda: Breath of the Wild, enduring virtual school and stuck at home with his single mother; his great-grandmother, GG; and boxes of GG’s memories. Learning about GG’s past, and her links to the Ukrainian famine that killed millions in the 1930s, turns into a quest that Matthew finds as compelling as any video game — a quest that author Katherine Marsh crafts into a moving narrative rich with details and pathos.
Through alternating points of view, the reader and Matthew meet three ancestors living nearly a century ago: Helena, the daughter of immigrants to New York; Mila, the pampered daughter of a high-ranking Soviet official living in Kyiv; and Nadiya, a girl from the Ukrainian countryside whose appearance on Mila’s doorstep, near death from starvation, sets the events of the novel in motion. For many young readers, fiction is a first encounter with the horrors of the world. Marsh has taken a lesser-known historical tragedy and imbued it with depth and complexity, creating characters that linger long after the narrative has reached its conclusion. —Libby Nelson, politics & policy editorial director
Updated November 15, to reflect the winners of the 2023 National Book Awards.