Reading the National Book Award Longlist

When the longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature was announced clear back in September 2020, I immediately put as many of the long list book on hold as possible. Given that it’s four months into 2021, and my last hold wasn’t fulfilled until March, that speaks to the popularity of these books and the power of the National Book Award longlist and subsequent finalists have for driving interest in a title.

At long last, I’ve succeeded in reading all of 2020’s longlisted books! I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here. It was an interesting experience trying to read every book on an awards list and understand the reasoning behind placing it there and what other books the judges were considering the titles against. In some ways, this is similar to my Considering the Caldecott post (though this one was in the works before the Caldecott was even announced this year), yet unlike with the Caldecott there is no easily accessible publicly available criteria to look at when considering the selected books.

Longlist

Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box by Evette Dionne

I made it to Lifting as We Climb in March after it had sat on my bookshelf for nearly a month and after it received a Coretta Scott King author honor! I’m starting to think more about YA Nonfiction and the need for it in library collections, so this was a good read. This is a slim volume that is timely and should attract a lot of readers, particularly if it is highlighted in displays or on social media and not just stuck in the shelves of a nonfiction collection. It was cool to see Stacey Abrams and contemporary voting rights issues highlighted at the end of this book.

My one problem is the design of some of the supplemental-material, such as biographies of activists sometimes felt like they interrupted the flow of the book, like one that interrupted a middle of a sentence and then didn’t get back to the sentence until two full pages later. Other than little issues like that, I appreciate this book for its content and the purpose it can fill in library collections.

Apple (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth

Eric Gansworth’s memoir in verse and illustrations was well put together and the way the poems in the book spoke to eachother across the book was incredible. I didn’t get the connections to the Beatles until I made it to the end of the book and read the notes. However, this book was particularly effective about thinking about systemic oppression of native people’s and the lingering effects of the boarding school system.

This book was also a Printz Award Honor Book

Trowbridge Road by Marcelle Pixley

Trowbridge Road gave me some serious Bridge to Terebithia vibes with its two misfit child characters banding together and exploring their own imaginations in nature. June Bug Jordan and Ziggy were both great characters and Pixley tackles some heavy issues such as mental health, AIDS, and abusive relationships. Unfortunately, the more fantastical elements of this novel didn’t work for me and I often felt like I was rushing through those sections to get back to the rest of the story.

This is probably the weakest novel of the Longlisted books in my opinion.

How we got to the moon: The people, Technology, and daring feats of science behind humanity’s greatest adventure

How We Got To The Moon is a super well designed nonfiction title that includes a cohesive narrative of the trip to the moon with tons of extra scientific information and biographical information. The illustrations in this book are absolutely fantastic and there’s just so much work being done in this book that is worth appreciating. Interestingly enough, this is the last book on the list that I actually completed!

This book was a finalist for the YALA Excellence in Nonfiction Award at the ALA Youth Media Awards as well as a Sibert Honor Book.

cemetery boys by Aiden Thomas

This book might be my favorite on the list, even including the finalists! Ghosts, a queer romance, humor, family drama, and super-cool world building made this such a dynamic read. I’d heard good things about it for ages and am sorry I put it off for so long. There’s so many good things I could say about this novel, but I also don’t want to risk spoiling any of it because it was such a great reading experience.

Finalists

We are not free by Traci Chee

It’s incredible what Traci Chee accomplishes in We Are Not Free. The story of Japanese-American incarceration in World War II centers around a group of closely-knit teenagers who are forced to relocate to incarceration camps. The point-of-view changes ever chapter, and you only get each character’s voice for one chapter with a few exceptions. Despite limited time spent in the POV each major character, all of the characters are fully developed through their interactions with each other. These characters are so lifelike and relatable to the modern readers even as they go through the unthinkable experience that really happened on American soil.

I appreciate the historicity of this novel and the extra-textual material such as drawings, photographs, and news articles that Chee includes as well to add depth to an already incredibly rich novel.

This book was a Printz Award Honor Book

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Every Body Looking is a verse novel following Ada starting with her high school graduation and into her first year at an HBCU. It also flashes back to time periods in her past throughout the novel. In early February 2021, I saw a decent amount of conversation on Twitter about the need for coming-of-age novels that are set in college because not everyone experiences typical coming-of-age scenarios in high school. The novel feels like a great candidate for readers looking for a novel like that.

I will say, I was left wanting a little more sense of cohesion between the flashbacks and the rest of the novel because ultimately having so many flashback sections left me wanting more from the main narrative. This is Iloh’s YA debut, and with a National Book Award finalist designation and a Printz honor, I can’t wait to see what comes next from this author.

When Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson

I love Victoria Jamieson’s middle grade graphic novels Roller Girl and All’s Faire in Middle School. Jamieson’s accessible style and recognizable name in the graphic novel world works well to tell Omar Mohamed’s story of growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp and caring for his nonverbal brother, Hassan. For young people who have little to no understanding of what it means to be a refugee, this is a great way to introduce that topic and discuss it with young readers. I found this to be and engaging and important reading experience.

This book was a well honored book including being named a Walter Award winner and Schenieder Family Book Award honor book.

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit

The Way Back feels like one of those books that is a critical darling, as evidenced by it’s finalist status as well as the multiple starred reviews that it received, but that I wonder how much actual young adults enjoy it. I really liked the last 75 pages or so, but the beginning of this novel seemed to be confusing and drag on and the narrative style didn’t quite work for me. It’s definitely got its pluses, but compared to other books on the long list, I’m a little surprised that this book was named a finalist.

2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

This was actually the first of the National Book Award longlist books that I read (finishing it on October 1st) which feels auspicious to me looking back at my journey of reading all of these book. This book is ostensibly about grief, but also about so much more than that. It’s a little slower than most books as it focuses on things that are both small and big at the same time. I enjoyed this well-written middle grade novel, and I recommend it along with Callender’s other work (I loved the excellent Felix Ever After and have other books by Callender on my TBR list). Callender also received a Coretta Scott King author honor for King and the Dragon Flies.

If you’d like to see me tackle other awards lists in the future, let me know in the comments!

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