Every year, the National Book Foundation nominates 20 books — five fiction, five nonfiction, five poetry, five young adult — for the National Book Award, which celebrates the best of American literature. And every year (okay, every year since 2014), we here at Vox read all 20 finalists to help you smart, busy people figure out which ones you’re interested in. Our thoughts on the 2016 nominees are below, with the winners noted in bold.
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
In The Association of Small Bombs, the small bombs of the title are bombs that kill only a few dozen people, bombs that don’t create any long-lasting outrage, bombs that are, as one character puts it, like a child throwing a tantrum, but “a tantrum directed at all things.” And the small bombs are also the characters of the novel, all packed so full of pain and grief and guilt and rage and resentment that they are primed to explode at any moment.
In 1996, a bomb goes off in a marketplace in Delhi. It’s only a small bomb, but it kills, among others, two little boys. The friend who’s with them escapes with some shrapnel in his arm. Over the course of the book, we track the fallout from the explosion, watching as it slowly and steadily ruins the lives of the survivors, the victims’ families, and the perpetrators. “A good bombing,” Karan Mahajan writes, “begins everywhere at once,” and his book makes it clear that it also reverberates everywhere at once long after the initial explosion.
Mahajan’s prose is elegant and incisive, his scope sweeping, and his sensibility cynically detached. Bleak and beautifully crafted, The Association of Small Bombs will stay with you.
— Constance Grady
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
The elderly hero of News of the World, military Captain Jefferson Kidd, travels the dusty roads of Texas in 1870 to read newspapers aloud in meeting halls and taverns in small towns. Local politics during Reconstruction are deadly serious, so Kidd prefers to share news from further realms — Philadelphia, London, India, the Arctic — that takes place far enough away to seem, he says, like a fairy tale.
Like the news Kidd reads, News of the World itself has a fairy-tale quality, set in a world where the Industrial Revolution hasn’t taken hold. Kidd is a veteran and widower whose life has recently begun to feel “thin and sour,” and he reluctantly agrees to take a 10-year-old named Johanna, kidnapped by Kiowa Indians in a violent raid four years earlier, back to her aunt and uncle in San Antonio. Johanna has forgotten English and loved her Kiowa family; this makes her one of many captured children, Paulette Jiles tells us, who return to white society in body but not in spirit.
It spoils nothing to say that as they travel through sometimes-hostile terrain, Johanna and Kidd form a bond stronger than the barriers of age, language, and culture between them, and that Johanna’s companionship gives Kidd — an upright, old-fashioned hero with a progressive soul — a newfound joy in life. We’ve seen this movie before.
But there is delight in a familiar story well-told, and Jiles’s spare, sparkling prose is what elevates News of the World. Laden with details that never feel like exposition, it roots Kidd and Johanna’s journey in a specific time and place, a frontier past that is foreign yet familiar, diverse with a current of racial violence around the edges. There’s darkness running through this deceptively simple gem of a novel, but it’s enough of a fairy tale that you can’t help but hope for a happy ending.
— Libby Nelson
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
The Throwback Special is a football novel in the way that The Art of Fielding is a baseball novel — which is to say, it’s not, really. It’s about middle-aged American masculinity, and tribalism, and ritual. Football just provides the organizing premise.
In 1985, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor accidentally shattered Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg during a tackle, ending his career. Now, every year, 22 men come together to re-enact the play that destroyed Theismann’s leg, in a ceremony that recalls a kind of ritual sacrifice. They stay in the same cheap hotel, choose their roles by the same elaborate lottery system, and rewatch the same footage of the play over and over again to prepare themselves. They also talk — about their failed marriages, their distant children, their disappointing careers.
Over the course of the book, the men blur into a solid mass of vague and seething discontent. They don’t matter all that much as characters; what matters is Chris Bachelder’s clean, precise prose, and the rambling philosophical digressions that punctuate the men’s rituals. You won’t care who Jeff is, but Jeff’s ideas about marriage — that its true purpose is to give you someone who will watch you, and who you must watch in return — are incredibly compelling.
— Constance Grady
Another Brooklyn: A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson
This is memory, goes the frequent refrain in Another Brooklyn, the first adult novel in 20 years from Brown Girl Dreaming writer Jacqueline Woodson. This refrain captures the spirit of Woodson’s dreamlike prose, which verges on hallucinatory in its consideration of the half-forgotten history of four black girls growing up in 1970s Brooklyn.
As told through the scattered recollections of protagonist August — whose memories are jump-started after an encounter with a childhood friend — Another Brooklyn dips in and out of time and place to weave a nonlinear coming-of-age narrative. An evocative wisp of a novel, it could easily be called “a meditation” on many things: female friendship, black womanhood and sexuality, death and memory, religion and morality, societal pressure and expectations, and more. It’s a whole lot of book in a deceptively small package, nibbling on the corners of big ideas without swallowing them whole.
Another Brooklyn is both withholding and generous, favoring evocative details and poetic language over more concrete world-building. That’s in keeping with the novel’s thematic fixation on the quality of memory, but also makes for a beguiling, fleeting reading experience that can feel like the words are slipping away as you read them. This is memory.
— Genevieve Koski
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead — WINNER
What’s most surprising about The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s hugely acclaimed novel about slaves seeking their freedom along the titular route, is what a page turner it is. Whitehead has always placed rich insight into the human condition right alongside more populist genre fare, but that he makes the flight of slaves into a genuine thriller, without sacrificing a sobering inquiry into a country that would allow an institution like slavery to exist for so long, is the novel’s greatest feat.
But Whitehead doesn’t stop at “thriller.” No, The Underground Railroad takes the form of a 19th-century picaresque — a vignette-strewn travel novel, featuring one character’s visits to several unlikely locales (think Gulliver’s Travels for an early version of the form). The protagonist is a woman named Cora whose journey on the Railroad is a literal one; trains come to underground stations to pick her up, and when she travels across state lines, she also subtly travels through time.
This lands her in worlds where black Americans have more opportunities and seem to have more freedom, worlds closely modeled on periods throughout the 20th century, and even in the world of the present. But at all times, slave catchers are on her trail, waiting to drag her back to the plantation to be punished for running.
Thus does Whitehead wed all of his best ideas together. Those in pursuit of Cora give the story the thriller-like pacing it needs, but they also represent the way that the legacy of slavery looms large in the American imagination, the way that it defines almost every interaction between white and black America to this day. It’s a potent, powerful idea, which Whitehead makes the best of at every turn.
The structure of The Underground Railroad similarly sets it apart from other historical fictions. Whitehead spends most of his time in Cora’s head, but short interstitial chapters dance among the others who become important to her story, from a white woman who helps her hide and proves unexpectedly kind, to the fellow slave who convinces her to join him on his travels.
But perhaps the most effective way Whitehead uses these shorter chapters is to explore the ways that white Americans could know — can still know — that slavery was a moral abomination, but also benefit from its existence, how they could keep from noticing the double exposure that was their lives by cropping out the unpleasant information.
Or, as one slave catcher, reflecting on the American character, thinks:
“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor — if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”
— Emily VanDerWerff
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Arlie Russell Hochschild's prose reads so fluidly, you might forget you're reading a work of sociology — but Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Right is as rigorously researched as it is carefully written, and the result is an imperative handbook for the Trump era and beyond. I can't think of a book on the topic I'd recommend with more urgency.
Hochschild, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, has won accolades and the respect of her peers for her previous books, including The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home and The Managed Heart: the Commercialization of Human Feeling. Curious about the rise of the Tea Party in 2011 — in which she identified a phenomenon she called the “Great Paradox” — Hochschild went about connecting with Tea Party supporters in the Louisiana Bayou. Eventually, over five years, she began to probe what she termed the “deep story” that animates the populist movement on the right.
“A deep story is a feels-as-if story,” writes Hochschild. “It's the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols.” Everyone has a deep story, she writes, and the subjects of her Tea Party research described a feeling that doubles as a metaphor: the feeling of being in line, moving toward the American Dream through hard work and right living, and then discovering that some people have been allowed to cut in front of you.
Strangers in Their Own Land's greatest accomplishment as literature is this: Hochschild tells the deep story halfway through the book, only after allowing us to discover it through her conversation partners' often startling life stories. Then, when she reiterates the deep story she's discerned back to them, they affirm it, and we understand it, too.
As an academic comfortably rooted in her liberal hometown and beliefs, Hochschild is the ideal narrator for this book, which by nature is aimed at people like herself — educated coastal liberals — as well as moderates and conservatives who find themselves baffled by the rise of Trumpism. The book’s aim is not to convert people from one viewpoint to another. But as Hochschild comes to understand her friends in the bayou, seeing them as people rooted in place and beliefs that defy easy explanation and caricature, they start to see her the same way.
So in that way, Strangers in Their Own Land is both an argument for and an example of a kind of principled empathy, one that stays firm in its own convictions but also is unafraid of people who might appear to be enemies. It's a rigorously researched story about understanding how many of the people we shout at and tweet about are much more like us than we might suspect. That example might just be the best hope for repairing America's pluralism during the rough years ahead.
— Alissa Wilkinson
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi — WINNER
A scholar of African-American history, Ibram X. Kendi kicks off this fiery book with equally fiery words from the past: an 1860 indictment from then-Sen. Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederacy, that “this Government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes … but by white men for white men.”
By foregrounding the overtness and literalism of historic racism in the US and abroad, and by using influential, prominent “tour guides” who he deems to be the most significant proponents of racist or anti-racist ideas in their day, Kendi is able to decisively quell the arguments that racism is a bygone byproduct of ignorance.
Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.
Crucially, Kendi’s writing style is plainspoken, detail-oriented, and straightforward. He proceeds succinctly through broad swaths of history and the racist historical texts that accompany it. Paying close attention to cause and effect, he explains the way racist ideas arose and evolved out of economic, geographic, political, sociocultural, and/or moral convenience.
His tour guides — Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, nominal abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and modern activist Angela Davis — all represent evolving ways of alternately perpetuating, assuaging, or resisting racist ideas. All of them work to show how three distinct patterns of thought regarding racism have kept America’s civil rights in check for centuries.
The historical examples Kendi uses illustrate his argument that assimilationists — those who traditionally have sought a middle ground between abolitionists and segregationists — have done just as much as segregationists to advance the muddle of racist apologetics that make up modern American culture. The doublespeak of assimilationist thought has essentially screwed black resistance again and again: “If Blacks did not violently resist,” Kendi writes of Nat Turner and other mid-19th century slave rebels, “then they were cast as naturally servile. And yet, whenever they did fight, reactionary commentators, in both North and South, classified them as barbaric animals who needed to be caged in slavery.”
Kendi admits that he is not writing to change the minds of those who produce and espouse racist ideas. Rather, in his honesty about how deeply he himself had held multiple racist ideas before embarking on the historical odyssey of this book, he gives the reader permission to accompany him on that eye-opening journey.
You may lose faith in many of your historical and literary heroes along the way — Jefferson in particular, whose support of slavery grew more firm over his lifetime as the economic profit he made from the institution grew. But in the midst of leaving Jefferson and his fellows open to judgment, Kendi leaves plenty of room for self-questioning, and for drawing connections between the racist apologetics of the past and those of the present. The process makes for a compelling, thoroughly enlightening, unsettling, and necessary read.
— Aja Romano
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 2015 novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen uses his newest work to once again explore the identity crisis, both personal and cultural, associated with the Vietnam War. Like its subject, Nothing Ever Dies is many things at once: part memoir, part travelogue, part history lesson, part philosophical musing, and part a prescient wake-up call to anyone seeking to wrap their head around the state of current global politics.
By taking the reader on a sweeping and sobering global tour of artifacts, places, art, texts, and monuments associated with Vietnam, Nguyen argues that our cultural need to reflect accurately upon our history and fully absorb its lessons is forever at war with the impossibility of ever fully knowing the truth, or retelling it accurately.
The American understanding of the Vietnam War requires an Orwellian double consciousness: an awareness of the Vietnam War as it happened and as we have culturally reframed it. The former picture is of a devastating, bloody war of attrition, a flexing of the US’s imperialist muscle against Communism. The latter picture, Nguyen argues, is one of heroic valor that united men across racial and class lines in battle, with that unification ultimately justifying America’s involvement in the conflict.
Cautioning that we cannot remember what we do not see, he lists the ways in which the US has failed to fully recognize its own role in Vietnam, let alone the Vietnamese citizens it ostensibly went to Vietnam to protect. The US memory of Vietnam, he says, “substitutes fifty-eight thousand American soldiers for three million Vietnamese,” as well as Cambodians, Laotians, and South Koreans.
He outlines — systematically and with clear, graceful prose — the many facets of “memory” that paradoxically complicate our attempts to remember Vietnam. He is patient, thorough, and meticulous in his attempt to explain the process and elements through which we normalize the spectacle of war and alternately humanize and demonize various parties. This work is deep and difficult, but it comes with countless revelations, such as when Nguyen describes the ultimate irony of nationalism’s hatred for identity politics:
“Nationalism is nothing more than an identity politics so triumphant that it can deny being about identity and politics, as nationalists accept both national identity and national politics as being simply natural.”
It’s fitting that Nothing Ever Dies has emerged at a moment when the US and most of Europe are fiercely questioning America’s ability to reconcile with the past. Nguyen might say that the only way we can truly acknowledge the past is to contend with how fallible our memories actually are.
— Aja Romano
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez
If you’re a reasonably woke student of the American past, you probably know that the United States has two original sins: slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. The thesis of The Other Slavery: The Undercovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America is in part that these stories and sins are not separate at all, that they are one and the same, and that the enslavement of American Indians from the 16th century onward had a lasting effect that didn’t die with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Andrés Reséndez, a history professor at the University of California Davis, has written a marshaling of damning facts and figures about enslavement and resistance that stretch back to Christopher Columbus. He spares few details in laying out the way the “other slavery” functioned, from the justifications used to reconcile slavery with Catholicism in the 16th century to the maneuvers used to preserve slavery in later centuries by basing it on economics, such as debt peonage.
The Other Slavery is a rigorous, academic work — it’s here to deliver a sweeping history, not to tell a single story — but it’s clearly and precisely written. It’s the kind of book that changes how you understand your country and its history. Human trafficking is sometimes referred to as “modern slavery”; Reséndez’s work proves it’s no more modern than the old-fashioned kind.
— Libby Nelson
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson
Journalists like to think of themselves as the writers of “the first draft of history.” But powerful people have an interest in making sure the truth stays hidden, and sometimes not even the most assiduous journalist can get through.
The rebellion that overtook the Attica Correctional Facility in New York in 1971 — and lasted for four days before state police and prison guards retook the prison in a horrific massacre — isn’t well understood by the public, because the state of New York spent four decades keeping it that way. Heather Ann Thompson’s book, then, is history as the first draft of history.
The result is a masterpiece of narration. Thompson spent years doing archival research and amassing sources, but Blood in the Water doesn’t feel like she’s laboring to pull it all together. Reading it feels like walking across a glacier: You can glide along without thinking, but when you do stop to think, you can barely fathom how far down it goes.
The pacing is cinematic: first a war movie, then a courtroom drama. I can’t describe a book that turned my stomach the way this one did as “entertaining,” but it was a deeply satisfying read.
Thompson takes a very light critical hand through most of the book — which means it’s not thickly spread with analysis throughout. But that’s for the best. This is not a book you should read to gain insight into our present moment; it’s a book you should read to become a better citizen, teaching yourself about an injustice people spent a long time trying to hide from you.
— Dara Lind
The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky — WINNER
The second most bleak thing about The Performance of Becoming Human is the way it renders our world as an Orwellian dystopia, all tortured political prisoners and corrupt capitalist bureaucrats. The most bleak thing is that it considers itself to be complicit in that dystopia.
In Daniel Borzutzky’s world, there is no such thing as pure, redemptive, transformative art. Poets, like apes learning to be human, “lunge and growl and snort and belch” as “ethnic avant garde poems drop from their prickly mouths.” Poetry is a commodity, a performative pose, a useful and unremarkable fixture of the great and monstrous social machine, and so is everything else: “the free-market poems absorb themselves then regenerate into billions of the blankest verses there ever were.”
Borzutsky’s language is purposefully rough, even ugly; he stays away from anything that might be described as lyrical. That deliberate roughness gives lines like this their force and power:
The sentences are collapsing one by one and the bodies are collapsing in your bloody hands and you stitch me up and pray I will sleep and you tell me of the shattered bus stops where the refugees are waiting for the buses to take them to the mall where they are holding us now and there is a man outside our bodies making comments about perspective and scale and light and there is light once more in your bloody fingers.
The repetitive clauses and the bloody images build upon each other relentlessly, creating a world in which we are all complicit and from which there is no escape and no redemption. The Performance of Becoming Human is not an easy book to read, but it is a powerful one.
— Constance Grady
Look by Solmaz Sharif
Look is surprisingly tender for a book of such ferocious poetry. Solmaz Sharif is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and in her debut poetry collection, she meditates on her family’s experiences in America’s surveillance state, the family members who died in the Iran-Iraq War, and the ripple effects of America’s wars in the Middle East. “It matters what you call a thing,” she insists, as she methodically dismantles the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.
Most tender and most lyrical of all is “Personal Effects,” the 30-page poem Sharif wrote about her uncle’s death in the Iran-Iraq War. “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it,” the poem begins, and as it continues Sharif examines all the ways in which writing about her uncle become a way of learning to ignore him all over again.
The project of this book is to struggle against the way the vocabulary of war distances itself from the violence of war, but as Sharif writes, she finds herself only creating more distance. And so she throws herself back toward the reality of her uncle and his death, struggling to reach it, until at last she arrives only at the physical reality of her uncle’s name:
Amoo, I think.
The word a moan
a blown kiss
the soft things it makes a mouth do.
Amoo, I thought
It matters what you call a thing, and in refusing to separate the memory of her uncle from his name, Sharif shows just how much it matters. This approach is what makes Look such a deeply human attempt to rewrite the vocabulary of war.
— Constance Grady
Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi
Air, trees, light, and time — these fundamental elements fill Peter Gizzi’s book of poetry, which is dedicated to the mind and the language we use to try to capture the world. (“Indicative transitive particular battles the void.”)
This volume’s title, Archeophonics, is a word not in the dictionary. But it would translate roughly to the “old language,” which Gizzi writes of many times, or perhaps to ancient speech sounds.
He does indeed play with sound. Sometimes, he creates non-grammatical arrangements that make one stumble. Sometimes, he invents words. (“Furlight” and “pencil-light” are now following me around.)
Throughout the volume is an undercurrent of uncertainty and aging: “was it wind or a creature / am I here or is it over.”
And when things come together just right, Gizzi creates some truly extraordinary moments, expertly describing mental states that cannot be defined with typical language:
“Today was the day of the amphitheater in mind. / The day of a dreaming speech where the light is dope and that’s all you can say. / When a feeling degrades and evolves into thought like 2AM dilated, revealed a star…”
— Susannah Locke
Collected Poems: 1974–2004 by Rita Dove
This 432-page tome collects seven books by one of the US’s most accomplished poets — and what a volume it is. Over her long career, Rita Dove has racked up a bevy of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal.
Her wide-ranging work covers topics from personal tales to national history and other cultural touchstones. She treats with equal thoughtfulness the Greek myth of Persephone and a half-drunk glass of water.
I’m a sucker for a good simile, and she crafts them in abundance. So here’s my list of the 11 best similes in Rita Dove’s Collected Poems:
- “When you appeared it was as if / magnets cleared the air” (p.15)
- “The camels stand in all their vague beauty — / at night they fold up like pale accordions.” (p.51)
- “The slap / of flesh onto flesh, a / liquid crack like a grape / as it breaks on the tongue.” (p.71)
- “the pruning shears / a mammoth claw resting / between meals” (p.92)
- “work is a narrow grief / and the music afterwards / is like a woman / reaching into his chest / to spread it around ...” (p.120)
- “She can think up a twilight, sulfur / flicking orange then black / as the tip of a flamingo’s wing…” (p.150)
- “they dropped excrement as daintily / as handkerchieves ...” (p.151)
- “…moon riding the sky / like a drop of oil on water…” (p.173)
- “We turn inland as if turning a page in a novel: / dry splash of the cicada, no breath from the sea.” (p.274)
- “There were equations elegant as a French twist, / fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf…” (p.296)
- “In Willendorf / twilight is brutal: no dim tottering / across flowery fields but blindness / dropped into the treeline like an ax.” (p.310)
— Susannah Locke
The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler
This is an intimate, personal, elegiac collection. Jay Hopler is writing about his response to his father’s death, and his struggle to deal with the rawness of his own grief when he sees it next to beauty — of the natural world or of his own poetry.
“It’s my father, for the love of Christ!” Hopler writes in “The Pallbearer.” His father is dead, and it seems vaguely offensive for the moon to still be present and beautiful, “a wet-black, gleaming sequin,” in the face of his grief. But the moon rises anyway — “that pushy, pushy / Moon” — and that is something we all just have to deal with.
At times, he seems as offended by the beauty of his own language as he is by the beauty of the world around him. He wants to tear it into shreds, but he can’t find a way. And so his father’s eulogy is titled “Eulogy (Currently in Revision)” and is followed by “Meditation on a Poem Currently in Revision,” which quietly negates the glorious, flamboyant imagery of the earlier poem, filling it with death: “No rogue Ferris wheel / Shrieking down streets / Warm with corpses.”
But as much as Hopler pushes against the beauty of his language, it is always there, sometimes betraying and sometimes redeeming, but always insisting on the force and reality of his grief.
— Constance Grady
Young People’s Literature
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
In The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon (Everything, Everything) pits the poetic against the pragmatic in an interrogation of the idea of love at first sight. Given that Yoon’s author bio states she “firmly believes that you can fall in love in an instant,” it may seem like the book’s ultimate stance on the matter is a fait accompli. However, The Sun Is Also a Star tugs on so many threads over the course of its single-day story that its conclusion winds up being far from neat.
Yoon’s central teenage lovers are the definition of star-crossed: Daniel is the romantic, poetry-loving son of striving Korean immigrants who run a black hair-care shop and expect their son to become a doctor; science-minded Natasha is Jamaican, brought to the US illegally by her parents when she was a child, and her family is facing imminent deportation unless she can somehow change their fate.
The Sun Is Also a Star uses as its organizing principle the Many-Worlds Interpretation, suggesting that Nicola and Daniel’s meeting is the result of a series of small, unknowable variables that coincided perfectly to bring them together. As such, it frequently steps outside of its central narrative — which sees Nicola and Daniel trading point-of-view recollections of their day together — to examine these variables in short chapters that consider the people (an immigration attorney) and situations (Korean immigrants’ monopoly on the black hair-care industry) that have informed Daniel and Natasha’s trajectory toward one another.
This look at the universe surrounding Daniel and Natasha’s whirlwind romance enlivens The Sun Is Also a Star, turning what could have been a standard Romeo and Juliet riff into a thoughtful, frank, and frequently beautiful consideration of how love is affected by fate, family, culture, society, and countless other factors we can only begin to imagine.
— Genevieve Koski
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
“Oh, my goodness,” said Louisiana. “I’m just all filled up with feathers and regrets.”
In some ways, this lyrical novel by veteran young adult author Kate DiCamillo is about failed hopes, waylaid plans, and how we cope with grief and loss; but it’s also about the unexpected moments of bonding and friendship that arise in between all the plans we don’t get around to carrying out.
The year is 1975, and Raymie Nightingale has decided to enter and win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest as a way to get her father to un-abandon her and her mother. Her plan immediately goes awry, starting with the two other girls she meets on day one of her awkward baton practice in preparation for the talent competition. Louisiana and Beverly each have their own urgent reasons for wanting to win the pageant; but when the three girls decide to help each other succeed, their plans carry them into entirely new adventures.
Raymie Nightingale is noticeably thin on plot compared to DiCamillo’s other novels, like Because of Winn-Dixie. Instead, the joy of this book is in its characters, and in DiCamillo’s lush, effervescent writing. Her creations are perfect portraits of children who balance their innocence and abundance of hope with a premature awareness of pain and loss. Raymie’s narrative point of view deliberately glances off issues of poverty, family dysfunction, abuse, and animal cruelty as the girls sidestep the harsh reality of their lives. Together, they weave a thread of magical realism into their adventures, a contagion that spreads until you want to believe in their fairy tale.
— Aja Romano
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
With his vivid voice and straightforward narratives of city life, author Jason Reynolds has drawn frequent comparisons to late, great young adult writer Walter Dean Myers. Like Myers, Reynolds writes books that can immediately hook young and reluctant readers with their authenticity — the language of someone who’s been in their shoes. In Ghost, the first of a four-book series that will look at the stories of track team members, we meet Castle Cranshaw, a.k.a. Ghost, a middle-schooler who’s able to outrun everything except his own anger.
Ghost has every reason in the world to be angry — most notably at his father’s attempt years earlier to kill Ghost and his mother, who narrowly escaped by running for their lives. With his father in jail, Ghost has since shared his mother’s financial hardships, endured bullying from classmates, and kept largely to himself. Though he doesn’t spell it out for readers, his nickname refers as much to invisibility as it does to the specter of fear that haunts him after the trauma of that terrifying night.
Ghost is so busy trying (and failing) to keep his head down that he hasn’t had a chance to explore his true potential — but there’s one thing he knows he can do, thanks to that night, and that’s run. When he impulsively crashes a community track team practice, he’s not prepared for the beckoning world of community, friendship, and responsibility offered to him by the team and its kind but firm coach. His story from there follows predictable lines, but is saved from feeling clichéd by virtue of Reynolds’s sleek, clean writing and his clear-eyed empathy for all his subjects.
One of the unspoken tensions of Reynolds’s novel is that the past and present are constantly colliding to threaten Ghost’s future. Ghost is so preoccupied with his life from moment to moment that he can’t possibly internalize the larger consequences and potential downsides of his choices in the long run; but we can, and so can the adults around him. Reynolds avoids allowing his plot to devolve into either sentimentality or melodrama by refusing to outline a broader happy ending for this tale and the characters in it. Instead, he positions readers so narrowly in Ghost’s point of view that we feel like we’re running the track with him — with all the ghosts of his past at our heels.
— Aja Romano
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin
When the Sea Turned to Silver is a follow-up and companion to Grace Lin’s bestselling When the Mountain Meets the Moon. Both books are works of fantasy and magical realism inspired by Chinese folklore; both are hero’s journeys woven from a rich tapestry of folk tales. But where the earlier novel’s quest was born out of hope, When the Sea Turned to Silver heroine Pinmei’s quest is born out of urgency and political upheaval in her small town.
Pinmei has always lived with her grandmother, a renowned storyteller, in peace in their quiet village; but that changes when a new emperor ascends to power. One night, Pinmei’s grandmother is captured by the emperor in hopes she can help him locate the mystical Luminous Stone that Lights the Night. To bargain for her grandmother’s life, Pinmei and her odd friend Yishan go on a quest to find the stone themselves. Along the way, the strangers they meet request to hear the stories Pinmei’s grandmother has taught them, and each one bears a strange resemblance to the present.
With every story, the past converges with the present, and mythical creatures converge with the characters around them, until it becomes clear that the stories themselves are guiding Pinmei and Yishan through their adventure, providing the answers that will help Pinmei find the stone, defeat the emperor, and save her grandmother — and perhaps the entire kingdom as well.
The genius of Lin’s narrative, the stories that wind around and through one another, is that with each passing tale, we can discern Pinmei finding her own voice. She progresses from a halting, tremulous wallflower to a confident storyteller to rival her legendary grandmother. Rich with vivid imagery and symbolism, full-color illustrations, and graceful, deceptively simple prose, When the Sea Turned to Silver reminds us that we need the stories of the past to light the way for us in the present.
— Aja Romano
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell — WINNER
Congress member John Lewis, who led the House sit-in for gun regulation this summer, is the last living member of the Big Six of the civil rights movement. That makes him more or less the closest thing America has to a real live superhero, and March is his origin story.
March is a trilogy of graphic memoirs that tell the story of Lewis’s time in the civil rights movement with storytelling assistance from Andrew Aydin and vivid and visceral illustrations by Nate Powell. The trilogy spans the early Woolworth sit-ins up through Bloody Sunday, when nonviolent protesters were beaten by police officers as they tried to march to Selma.
With the March books, Lewis has become a cult sensation on the Comic Con circuit. He’ll show up cosplaying as his younger self, with trench coat, cap, and a backpack full of all the supplies he carried in case he got arrested and had to spend the night in jail: two books, an apple, a toothbrush, and toothpaste.
Book Three, the final volume, is the darkest of the March trilogy, starting with the Birmingham church bombings and climaxing with Bloody Sunday itself. “I thought I was going to die,” says Lewis in one unforgettable panel, in a pool of his own blood, as police officers swing their batons around him.
— Constance Grady
Correction: An early version of this article said that the National Book Award winners would be announced on November 15. They will be announced on November 16. We apologize for the error.