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We read all the 2022 National Book award nominees. Here’s what worth checking out.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

All of the 2022 National Book Award finalists, read and reviewed

A look at this year’s best in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature.

Every year, the National Book Foundation nominates 25 books to be eligible to win a National Book Award. The nominations highlight fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young adult books. For the past 9 years, the Vox staff has read them all, and we’ve shared our thoughts on what’s worthy.

The winners were announced on Wednesday, November 16. Our musings on the 2022 nominees and winners are below.


Fiction

A book cover with an anatomically correct heart with an arrow through it.
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty.
Penguin Random House

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty — WINNER

Tess Gunty’s debut novel features the misfit residents of an affordable housing complex in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a dying post-industrial city in the Midwest. At its center is Blandine Watkins, an ethereal child of the foster care system with a terrifying brilliance and an affinity for Christian mystics. Or maybe its true central character is Vacca Vale, with its crumbling infrastructure and its unspoiled park, under threat from a proposed economic revitalization effort. Over the course of a week, the residents intersect in ways that reveal the extent of their alienation.

While the story has elements familiar to a certain microgenre of literary fiction (the quirky child genius, the multi-character viewpoint, the build-up to a cataclysm, etc.), Gunty wields these elements with such freshness and sophistication that the book feels thrilling and new. As a daughter of the Rust Belt who’s read enough literary fiction about elite New Yorkers to last a lifetime, I couldn’t get enough of the world she built. Gunty’s writing is impressionistic and original — a technicolor kaleidoscope of the earthly and otherworldly. —Marin Cogan, senior correspondent

The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones

Sometimes the sun warms, sometimes the sun stings, and sometimes the sun just flat-out burns. In this novel, Gayl Jones sweeps readers away to the isle of Ibiza and pours upon them all three of these sensations in the most artistic of ways.

Amanda, an older expat on the island of Ibiza and a “self-proclaimed” divorcee, is an erotic novelist turned travel guide writer. Jones colors the life of this peregrine traveler in a way that maintains her anonymity while providing slices of herself to the reader throughout the text. Gathered like little treats for later, Jones sweetly provides payoff for each inciting action in glorious and unconventional ways.

This novel takes a generous and sometimes scathing look at the various manifestations of an artist’s life, dreams, and liminal station. Kaleidoscoping from dreams into reality, to giving readers a choice in deciding the protagonist’s fate, you never know what’s coming next — but isn’t that just the thing to keep somebody going? —Tonika Reed, editorial coordinator

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak is a book of shape-shifting. Kochai constantly experiments with form and voice, deftly stepping between photorealism and fantasy to create a vivid, surreal short-story collection that is both a modern parable of American imperialism and a testament to Kochai’s skill as a writer. Afghanistan — particularly the province of Logar, where Kochai’s family is from and his debut novel is also set — and the legacy of the War on Terror ripples through the background of this collection. Many of Kochai’s characters are Afghans or Afghan Americans who experience transformations of their own, whether they are Californian college students enduring months-long hunger strikes in solidarity with Palestine or an Afghan teen on the eve of her wedding.

Violence and upheaval are constantly apparent in the book, but so is a sort of fragile tenderness that seems to hold everything together. About halfway through the collection, I found myself catching my breath as I finally realized what Kochai had assembled. As Afghanistan fades into the background of American discourse, Kochai’s voice is essential. We may not wish to see what we have wrought; Kochai, it seems, will ensure we do not forget. —Neel Dhanesha, science & climate reporter

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews.
Penguin Random House

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Sarah Thankam Mathews has written a character-driven novel that explores the power of friendship, navigating one’s sexuality, and being a young immigrant. It follows Sneha, a queer, first-generation Indian American who graduates from college during the Great Recession. Sneha miraculously lands an entry-level corporate job that takes her to Milwaukee, where she navigates new friendships, dating women for the first time and living in the shadow of her family.

I wanted to be totally immersed in the world that Mathews created, but for me, the door would not open so wide. The novel was somewhat of a slow burn, but radiant all the same. The plot trudged along very slowly. At times, I wanted to put it down completely, but knew I shouldn’t. And I really couldn’t. Mathews’ writing is daring, sharp, and authoritative. She’s a master in building rich characters that are imperfect and complicated, charismatic and lovable. At times, the prose felt luxurious and welcoming in the way that the scent of your favorite candle might slowly fill up an ever-expanding room. —Shira Tarlo, senior social media manager

The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela

The Town of Babylon is a magnificent debut from Alejandro Varela. The novel tells the story of Andrés, a queer Latino American man who grew up in a small suburban town on Long Island. Andrés left his hometown for college and cut off contact with all his neighbors and friends, never looking back until 20 years later, when he visits to take care of his ailing father and ends up going to his 20th high school reunion. As Andrés reconnects with old friends, enemies, and first loves, Varela deftly chronicles several elements of the modern American experience that we rarely see represented in popular culture: the experience of being a child of immigrants who strives to move up in society, being a person of color in predominantly white spaces, being a queer person in predominantly straight spaces. It’s a beautiful story about community, friendship, and figuring out one’s place in the world. —Nisha Chittal, managing editor


Nonfiction

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry — WINNER

In the opening of Imani Perry’s lyrically gutting travelogue, she asks us to remember the choreography of the French quadrille — a dance where two couples face each other in a square, a progenitor of American line dancing. Refrain, figure, refrain, figure. That rhythm haunts the history of the American South, she posits. South to America chronicles Perry’s journey across several notable places in the South, dissecting the politics, pop culture, and pressing yet occasionally unspoken rules that dictate life for Black Americans living below the Mason-Dixon Line. The underlying thread, beyond the thump-thump-thump of history, is the charge to bear witness. When no one is thinking beyond their God of Masters, who is thinking of those who time and time again are pushed to the margins? Perry weaves the narration of her own history beautifully alongside escaped slaves, prideful rappers, and architects of universities. From Appalachia to the Caribbean, Perry’s dutiful analysis brings a more honest perspective to the South. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor

The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke.
Penguin Random House

The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke

The Invisible Kingdom is a remarkably frustrating book to read, which I say as a compliment. This book is about the failures of the medical system in coping with chronic illness, about the number of patients who go to their doctor with symptoms and are roundly dismissed, ignored, and told that they’re lying or that their symptoms are all in their head. Reading about these issues should be frustrating.

Journalist and poet Meghan O’Rourke spent about a decade nearly incapacitated by a mysterious autoimmune disorder that wouldn’t be diagnosed for years. The first doctors she saw brushed aside her complaints when diagnostic tests failed to turn up any explanation. Perhaps the reason she had electric pains shooting up and down her limbs every morning, one suggested, was dry skin. As a defensive measure of sorts, O’Rourke began to research chronic illnesses and all the ways in which our siloed medical system is poorly equipped to deal with them — a major problem, she points out, as about 7.5 percent of American adults are facing down long Covid. The resulting knowledge O’Rourke has compiled into this lucid, at times lyrical, and always outrage-inspiring book. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus by David Quammen.
Simon & Schuster

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus by David Quammen

Breathless is an apt name for David Quammen’s latest book. In what can only be described as a rapt, whirlwind tour of the scientific landscape behind the experts and professionals working to stop Covid-19, Quammen masterfully untangles the often mired narratives surrounding the virus. Quammen — best known for his 2012 book Spillover, which explains how viruses jump from animals to humans — homes in on the basic questions that haunt scientists today: Exactly where did SARS-CoV-2 come from?

When it feels as though the pandemic has been litigated, analyzed, and turned on its head in literature, Quammen brings a refreshing perspective that’s rooted in the technical. There’s little about lockdowns, politics, or social factors. Rather, Quammen breaks down the nitty-gritty in a way anyone can understand. Admittedly, in terms of prose and narrative, the book pales in comparison to his previous work (which benefited greatly from in-person reporting). But if you’re not afraid of getting elbow-deep in bat guano or genetic material, Breathless is an illuminating read. —Izzie Ramirez, Future Perfect deputy editor

The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ grandfather was a curanderoa spiritual healer who could cure ailments and converse with the dead. In Colombia, where the author was born, these powers, known colloquially as “the secrets,” were meant to be the purview of men. But after falling down a well and suffering amnesia as a child, Rojas Contreras’ mother uncovered that she was as supernaturally gifted as any man, capable of appearing in two places at once and able to see ghosts walking among the living.

Years later, after the family has fled political violence in their home country, Rojas Contreras crashes into a car door on her bicycle and temporarily loses her memory. As she attempts to reconcile the fragments of her memory post-accident, she discovers that she is more a part of the family lineage than she’d previously realized. After several family members report that her grandfather has been visiting them in dreams, asking for his body to be exhumed, Rojas Contreras and her mother travel to Colombia to honor her Nono’s final wishes. With gorgeous, dream-like prose, Rojas Contreras excavates a story about family secrets, colonialism and violence, magic and memory. —Marin Cogan, senior correspondent

His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa

Things that happened last year, last month, can feel like events long past. Something that happened at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic might as well have taken place in ancient Rome. And yet, being reminded of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 brings up the same shock, horror, and rage as though it were happening today.

His Name Is George Floyd presents a history of an ordinary life. Floyd wasn’t famous; he wasn’t known outside his small community. He was, in this account, just a Black man getting by, struggling to stay off drugs, trying to keep his life from falling apart. He certainly wasn’t a hero. But circumstances made his name, his life, and his death into something extraordinary.

Told with incredible attention to detail, the story covers Floyd’s life as well as the history of his family from slavery to the Jim Crow South to Minneapolis. We see Floyd attempting to get a rap music career off the ground; we watch him being hassled by police for minor drug offenses and for merely existing. The story dives sideways to talk about Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck. It continues into the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Chauvin’s trial, and the mingled outpourings of grief and activism that accompanied them. In all, the book takes the mundane and meticulous details of one man’s life and seems to make the argument that his experience is a microcosm of the Black experience in America. Whether it is or not, it’s a well-told story that brings nuance to the news. —Elizabeth Crane, senior copy and standards editor


Poetry

Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene — WINNER

This collection from MacArthur genius John Keene is wide-ranging in all the ways — bringing together decades of work, rendered in a variety of poetic forms, examining the many facets of queer Black life in America. Keene’s description of the volume as a mixtape is apt, and the poems layer on top of one another to compose a picture of the poet in full.

Keene is never vague or coy, whether he’s expounding on the urgent (as in “Pulse,” dedicated to the victims of the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre) or the meta (one poem is literally titled “A report on the ‘What’s American about American poetry?’ conference at the New School”). His work is so clear in its intentions and its language, though Keene never trades precision for lyricism.

Take this passage, which just about knocked me out: “You have smallish hands for a brother, he says,” starts a poem of the same name, “but beautiful. Manly; compact; soft as chamois, velvety but copper-woven, almost golden-red, the Indian blood glows in them; the veins so large they snake beneath the skin like fresh creeks; full nails, white-tipped, not nicotined, not streaked with melanin and fungus like his own, and pale half-moons in each thumb appear to be setting.” —Julia Rubin, editorial director, features & culture

Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.
Coffee House Press

Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

For a person who can’t stand not knowing exactly what’s being discussed, this chronicle of the bygone or nearly bygone wonders of Native California might be best read with Google close at hand. Every page of Look at This Blue, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s lament for the state she loves, surfaces a tragedy or tragedies that our culture has largely written off, from catalogs of ravaged wildlife to the Camp Fire deaths to her own mother’s schizophrenia.

Take, for example, a list of 32 massacres. They’re all simply named, right in a row, starting with the Sacramento River Massacre and ending with the Kingsley Cave Massacre. The former, which happened in 1846, resulted in somewhere between 125 and 900 Wintu deaths; the latter, in 1871, saw a man named Kingsley murdering 30 of the remaining 45 Yahi tribesmen in a cave. Early in the poem, Hedge Coke invokes a man called Ishi (which is approximately Yahi for “man”), who was supposedly the “last wild Indian” and last of that tribe. Forty years after that massacre, Ishi spent the final few years of his life living in a San Francisco museum, only to have his brain pickled and put on display for white people to ogle. In 1999, it was returned to his closest possible relatives, the Yana people, as the Yahi were thought long gone.

Throughout, the poem is densely packed with allusions to the flora, fauna, and humanity decimated or near-decimated by colonization, corporatization, selfishness, and fear. One beautifully broken line at a time, Hedge Coke opens up a disappeared and disappearing world, a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding what we’re losing and what we’ve lost. —Meredith Haggerty, senior editor, culture

Balladz by Sharon Olds

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds has assembled a collection of poems that ruminate in ways that will be familiar to any reader who spent quarantine lost in their own head. The works reflect thought patterns in the style of the early pandemic days, where there was much time to think about the painfully ancestral and familial, as in “What Came Next After Our Father’s Death (“my sister, with the power to ensure / that I would not know, during his life, / the worst of our father, that I’d never know him / until he was safely dead, so that for his / whole life I had been safe from the knowledge / of him, and he had been safe from the knowledge of him.”), the lucid morbid truths of reality, as in “Ballad Torn Apart” (“Now that I understand / that the world / as we know it / is going to end”) or inescapable awareness of the physical self, as in “Spotted Aria” (“just outside — I see myself, / spotted as a salamander, an / albino newt speckled with golden oval spots.”)

While the ballad poems she includes don’t feel particularly gripping to me, and her unpacking of race made me wince with exasperation (“I lay a curse on every person of no / color who had kneeled on the throat of a person / of color.”), Balladz is a worthy read that runs a silk thread through the lonely and joyous realizations that come with solitude. —Melinda Fakuade, staff editor, culture and features

Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves.
W.W. Norton & Company

Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves

Roger Reeves once said of his poetry that he was “interested in troubling my reader–nothing easy, nothing without a little blood and bleeding.” His new collection, Best Barbarian, often drops devastating, cold clarity on the reader about the stakes: “Empathy will not end / Genocide. It won’t / Even delay it.” He opens with an image of Beowulf’s Grendel seeking out human companionship, “Bringing humans the best vision of themselves, / Which, of course, must be slaughtered.”

But Best Barbarian also seeks out the best of humanity, tripping across a pantheon of Black cultural inspiration from Baldwin to Beyoncé. He enacts a familiar poetics within an epic tradition, with fixations on nature and small serendipitous moments drawn in a sharply imagist style. But in this performance, his attempt to deliver a Whitman-y, arms-outstretched view of America instead constantly constricts, doubling over from grief and PTSD. The death of Reeves’s father, acts of police brutality, slavery, generational trauma, and the climate crisis all become intrusive poetic thoughts. Sometimes this trauma verges on funny (“It turns out however that I was deeply / Mistaken about the end of the world”) but it often simply resides, acknowledged and lived with and directly observed.

But, still, a wry form of hope — for “what is not dead in your death” — persists in drowning out the despair. “Life, it is at every window,” he writes. “It’s what rots the Senators’ teeth.” —Aja Romano, culture writer

The Rupture Tense by Jenny Xie

Jenny Xie’s second collection, The Rupture Tense, prods at the silence of the Asian diaspora, attempting to glean meaning and memory from things that are seen but unseen, heard but not spoken, told but not shown.

With lyrical and devastating language, Xie begins The Rupture Tense with clear reflections on the photography of Li Zhensheng, a Chinese photojournalist who documented the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These sequences are more than just captions to frames missing from these pages, they are a guided tour; Xie beckons us from the foreground to the background of these important images, taking readers into time and place and depositing us into the yawning silences that have been left in the wake of our ancestor’s forging ever forward.

As readers leave the photographs, Xie examines her and her family’s history with the diaspora. What does it mean to be from a place? What does it mean to leave and to come back? All of this intertwines with the long gaze back to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the inheritance of generational trauma, and the poet’s familial history. Finally, The Rupture Tense concludes with an elegy for Xie’s grandmother, moving readers seamlessly from foreground to background to foreground once more, like a camera’s lens unfocusing and refocusing on a single point. —Jayne Quan, social media manager, video


Translated Literature

Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin; translated by Megan McDowell — WINNER

Samanta Schweblin, a Berlin-based Argentinian writer who broke out in the US with 2017’s Fever Dreams, flourishes in the liminal space between the everyday and the uncanny. In the seven short stories that make up her new book Seven Empty Houses, no one does anything supernatural or unearthly, but they frequently behave in ways that feel confusing, unsettling, and just a little bit off.

That creeping, unsettling sense comes across most clearly in “Breath From the Depths,” the longest and richest story in the collection. There, an old woman engaged in a frenzied form of Swedish death cleaning spends her days boxing up all of her possessions so no one else will have to do it for her when she dies. She suspects, spitefully, that her husband is making friends behind her back, and she’s haunted by her own rasping breath, which seems to fill her house like a monster. With longtime translator Megan McDowell, Schweblin renders the old woman’s cramped and vengeful life into prose so precise it will haunt you when you close the book. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse.
Fitzcarraldo editions

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse; translated by Damion Searls

Jon Fosse is one of those writers who is a giant in their own language and little read in English. In Norway, Fosse is considered one of the country’s greatest writers. He taught Karl Ove Knausgaard, who considers him a major influence, and he’s a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize. But in the Anglophone world, Fosse hasn’t had a breakout until now, with the final volume of his Septology.

In English, the Septology is also a trilogy, translated by Damion Searls into three parts. Each volume begins and ends the same way: The elderly artist Asle is trying to figure out how to complete a painting of one purple line and one brown line intersecting into an X to form a St. Andrew’s cross. After much reflection and memory, Asle falls into prayer, and each volume finishes in the middle of his Latin incantations. There are no periods, so the whole 800-page Septology is a single sentence.

In A New Name, some of Asle’s questions resolve themselves. He decides he will never finish his St. Andrews’s cross, and that in fact he is done with painting altogether. Art has brought him what it needed to bring him, which is the ability to get closer to God. Now, it gradually becomes clear, Asle is ready to die.

Fosse’s single sentence unspools in rhythmic, melodic waves, ebbing and flowing with Asle’s memories until it finally explodes into a virtuosic burst of images in the final pages. The sentence is a whole life, and it ends where a life ends. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga; translated by Mark Polizzotti

Kibogo is a fable of colonization and of what colonization does to fables. It concerns Kibogo, a Rwandan prince said to have volunteered to be struck by lightning in order to bring down a rain that would end a famine. Over the course of this spare, sly novella, we watch Kibogo’s story rewritten, revised, repressed, and resurgent.

In the 1940s Rwandan village where Kibogo takes place, Christian evangelizers don’t care for the story of Kibogo. They decry it as pagan nonsense, and since the village chief has converted to Christianity after being well paid for it, the villagers agree to forget Kibogo. Some of them express some skepticism as to the utility of Christianity, however, when the village is hammered by the twin blows of a vicious drought and a Belgian regime that forces farmers to redirect their crops and manpower to European wars. Kibogo, some villagers note, at least knew how to bring down the rain.

Meanwhile, some of the Europeans around them are trying to preserve the story of Kibogo. They’re writing it down so that, they explain, they can tell it back to the Rwandans later, when the villagers have become “civilized” enough to understand Kibogo’s story as a metaphor. But which version of the story are they getting? It seems to keep changing.

In an interview with Le Monde, Mukasonga referred to her books as “paper tombs” for a Rwandan way of life that has been crushed by colonization and genocide. In Kibogo, that lost world comes to vivid, sardonic life. —Constance Grady, senior correspondent and book critic

Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda.
Coffee House Press

Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda; translated by Sarah Booker

If you’ve ever pondered the overlap between Catholic schools and weird queer horror, Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone was made for you. Ojeda’s swirling, nonlinear narrative, superbly translated by Sarah Booker, manages the paradox of feeling both sprawling and claustrophobic. On one level, it’s a classic dark academia tale of private school girls pushing one another to the psychosexual brink, this time set in present-day Ecuador; it’s also a sharp meta-study, replete with pop horror references, of the forces that create queer villainy.

Ojeda slowly composes a heated, cacophonous death dance between intimately entwined opposites: fear and desire, pleasure and pain, mothers and daughters. (“Fear was much like always being outside of a mother’s room.”) The enigmatic student Fernanda, her horror-obsessed frenemy Annelise, and their repressed teacher Miss Clara make a fantastic set of antagonists — an erotically charged trio of deranged queer gals in the grand tradition of mad lesbians. Uniting them all: a yearning for maternal acceptance, queer kinship, and — of course — a little blood-letting. —Aja Romano, culture writer

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani

Pretty much the last things I want to read about right now are large-scale disasters and their aftermaths, and yet Yoko Tawada’s 2018 novel (translated and published in the US in 2022) is so wide-ranging in its interests and so light in its tone that I forgot that was precisely what I was doing.

The novel, the first in a trilogy, follows a handful of characters as they traverse the world in search of, among other things, language. Their driving force is a woman named Hiruko, who comes from a country never named as Japan, only ever referred to as “the land of sushi,” which we come to realize has been permanently lost or destroyed, likely in some sort of climate catastrophe (it’s clear that this is a world that has been rocked by recent major events). As such, Hiruko’s native language has been cast asunder, and so while living in Norway she’s cobbled together an entirely new dialect she refers to as Panksa (which comprises “pan” and “Scandinavia”). She meets a number of other finely drawn characters, including Knut, a boy who loves her and hates being tailed across greater Europe by his overbearing mother; Akash, a trans student from India who loves Knut; and Tenzo, whose name is not really Tenzo.

They form a ragtag band in search of someone who will be able to speak Hiruko’s native language, and in the process raise questions about what language is and is not for, what limitations and possibilities it can contain, and what constitutes “native” speaking in the first place. The book is told from almost every named character’s point of view, switching off from chapter to chapter, and while that could become exhausting or hard to follow in a different context, in a novel so concerned with speech and words and expression, it feels paramount to be able to see just how each character deploys their own. Now all I can hope for is that the next book in the trilogy doesn’t have to wait four years for a US release. —Alanna Okun, senior editor, culture & features


Young People’s Literature

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir — WINNER

Having shot to the top of the bestseller list with her fantasy series An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir’s latest is her first contemporary YA novel. The book is inspired by her own experience growing up in a motel “in the barren wasteland of the Mojave”; last year, she wrote an essay for Vox about her difficult childhood in the desert.

All My Rage finds its protagonists Salahudin (whose parents also run a motel in the Mojave) and Noor nearing the end of high school, uncertain about their individual futures, as well as their collective one. Are they in love? Are they just friends? What happens if they want different things? But the will-they-won’t-they — that most delicious of teen romance tropes — is overshadowed by the almost unimaginably bleak family histories and current circumstances of the pair.

Tahir weaves their stories in alternating chapters, also inserting some from the point of view of Salahudin’s mother Misbah, who immigrated to California from Pakistan with her husband following one of the book’s many tragedies. All My Rage is a difficult read with much-substantiated content warnings, but Tahir’s tenderness for her characters shines through. —Julia Rubin, editorial director, culture & features

An ogress by her kitchen fire hands a human-sized bowl of soup to a small child.
The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill.
Workman Publishing

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill

“Listen,” as the long-unidentified narrator of The Ogress and the Orphans might say. This is not a tale — fairy in both nature and spirit — that breaks terrifically new ground. That’s the point, though. Instead, it says a lot of things very worth saying again and again, in a lovely way.

From Newberry medal winner Kelly Barnhill, this fable about a little town called Stone-in-the-Glen and its community that isn’t a community anymore has some not entirely subtle parallels with modern life. We have a flashy, inexplicably beloved leader who says “I, alone, can fix it,” an untrusting citizenry locked away and apart in their homes, and a host of winning orphans reminding themselves and one another that “Facts matter.” It’s not simply a parallel to America circa 2020, but, as the book makes clear, it’s a terribly old story, one we tell again and again, in different ways and with different villains and heroes, but always the same vital lessons: that fellowship with our neighbors is invaluable, that libraries rule, that doing good is more important than any fuzzy idea of “being” good, and that you should not throw rocks at birds. —Meredith Haggerty, senior editor, culture

The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes

This was a good year for the NBA and Latina lesbians in private schools (see also: Jawbone). Yamilet, still reeling from being outed by her ex-girlfriend, views her new school — rich, white, and very Catholic — as a new start. With her Papi deported, her brother Cesar constantly getting into fights, and her mom trying to hold the family together, Yamilet’s goals are simple: “1. Find a new best friend. 2. Don’t be gay about it.” But that’s before she meets bouncy, adorable Jenna and badass Bo Taylor.

What Reyes’ sparkling, wry voice captures so well is the burbling feeling of a teenager who’s in love with love, newly awakened to the possibility of romance around every corner. Yamilet’s excited crush spills over and threatens to ruin all her efforts to stay closeted despite her best efforts. Watching her struggle to suppress her bold, exuberant love while trying to protect her family is a painful, relatable reminder that coming out is the ultimate trust fall. —Aja Romano, culture writer

Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile

At the 1968 Olympics, the gold and silver medalists in the 200-meter event held up black-gloved fists as the US national anthem played to protest racial inequality. It’s a famous event given new life in Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist For Justice, a graphic memoir by the gold medalist, Tommie Smith; writer Derrick Barnes; and artist Dawud Anyabwile.

Tales from Smith’s childhood and early running career form the core of the book; they’re interspersed purposefully throughout a taut retelling of the gold medal-winning race. Challenges Smith faces in his dash summon memories that conclude with a lesson that helps spur him on to victory.

Those memories serve as poignant vignettes into Black life in the early 20th century; reminiscent of the Langston Hughes classic Not Without Laughter, they show how faith, family, and early experiences with racism shaped Smith into one of the greatest athletes — and activists — of his time.

It’s a compact, tightly written volume. The simplicity of its prose makes you feel as though you’re sitting with your eyes closed, imagining the past as you listen to Smith reflect. It’s an effect magnified by Anyabwile’s sharp and sinewy linework, and his deeply expressive faces, all rendered in crisp black and white.

Those looking for a deep dive into Smith’s life might be better served by his autobiography or other books about him. However, those seeking the highlights or a strong introduction to Smith’s work to give to young readers will be well served by this volume that is a brief look into a significant battle in the ongoing fight against white supremacy. —Sean Collins, news editor

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance by Lisa Yee

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance is a book I wish I had while I was growing up. Part mystery novel, part historical fiction, the book follows Chen, the 12-year-old protagonist, as she navigates a temporary move from Los Angeles, California, to Last Chance, Minnesota, where her grandparents own a restaurant called The Golden Palace. Geared toward younger readers, the novel offers an illuminating primer on Chinese American history, US immigration policy, and the rise of present-day anti-Asian hate crimes, providing an education that’s often missing from traditional textbooks.

The novel is far from a stuffy history lesson, however. It’s filled with vibrant characters including Maizy, an endlessly curious writer who’s eager to trace the origins of her family’s journey in the US, and Lucky, Maizy’s great-great-grandfather, who pursued his goals of working in and then owning a restaurant amid rampant discrimination in both California and Minnesota in the 1800s. By telling their stories in parallel, author Lisa Yee introduces readers to policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act while commenting on the enduring nature of anti-Asian sentiment, which Maizy experiences in the form of micro-aggressions from classmates in her grandparents’ predominately white Minnesota town.

Despite its weighty subject matter, the novel manages to strike a creative — and entertaining — balance that’s a nail-biter to the finish. When a hate crime takes place against her family’s restaurant, Maizy sets out to figure out who the perpetrator is, with unexpected and startling results. —Li Zhou, politics reporter


Updated November 17, 2022, to reflect the winners of the 2022 National Book Awards.

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