The literary award season continues to dazzle us—most recently with the announcement of the 2020 National Book Award Finalists! We hope you checked off a few more boxes in your book awards pool (this should be a thing, right?) and added a few more titles to your TBR list. The National Book Awards seek to “ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture” and this year’s finalists in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature and Young People’s Literature are more essential than ever. Eight of the 25 finalists are debut authors continuing the trend we’ve seen this season to lift new and diverse voices to the spotlight—and we couldn’t be more thrilled! From allegorical tales to meticulously researched biographies, powerful essays and lyrical measures on the human condition, these works are sure to leave an impression. The official winner for each category will be announced on November 18th—and since we could all use a distraction—grab a stack of these outstanding reads and enjoy a momentary escape.
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Finalists for Fiction:
Leave the World Behind
Atmospheric and provocative, Rumaan Alam’s third novel starts off as a charming familial portrait that soon devolves into cinematic catastrophe. As two families are thrown into a nightmare, questions around the complexities of parenthood, and the nature of race and class are brought to the surface in a tense stand-off that will have you questioning just what you might do when faced with the collapse of civilization as we know it. Vibrant, tense and thrilling, “Leave the World Behind is a canny Trojan horse of a novel, and also a Pandora’s Box.”—Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me. With a movie already in the works (Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington are signed on!), this is one must-read everyone is going to be talking about.
A Children’s Bible
An allegorical tale that confronts the follies of willfully ignoring climate change, A Children’s Bible can still be both moving and touching. Lydia Millet, a prolific writer who has a master’s degree in environmental policy, paints a portrait of kids ultimately being the hope for our future. “Millet’s wit and her penchant for strange twists produce the kind of climate fiction we need: a novel that moves beyond the realm of reporting and editorial, a story that explores how alarming and baffling it feels to endure the destruction of one’s world.”—The Washington Post
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
A novel that tackles the inner lives of multiple generations of Black women, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a collection of stories that are complex, touching, sad, funny and, at times, steamy all at once. The nine stories are lovingly crafted from an author clearly at the top of her game. “Deesha Philyaw uses the comic, the allegorical, and the geographic to examine Black intimacies and Black secrets. Her work is as rigorous as it is pleasurable to read.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
A working-class mother and son in 1980s Glasgow grapple with addiction, sexuality and love in Douglas Stuart’s blistering and heartrending debut. Stuart has a great love for his characters, evident in every word of this panoramic portrait of family and place, one where Shuggie and Agnes stay with you long after the story ends. “[B]lending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating… This overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence.”—James Walton, New York Review of Books
Generic Asian man, Willis Wu, yearns to be something more than what life has laid out for him and strives to do just that throughout Interior Chinatown. Yu has a poet’s voice that lends a lyrical quality to Wu’s heartfelt journey to become Kung Fu Guy, and at the same time, paints a symbolic and sharp portrait of the Asian American experience. “ [T]he lacerating humor in Interior Chinatown never skips a beat.”—Jeff VanderMeer, The New York Times Book Review
Finalists for Nonfiction:
The Undocumented Americans
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Cornejo Villavicencio challenges us to truly consider the question: What does it mean to be “undocumented” in America? To look beyond the platitudes of partisan political debate. To do so propelled her across the country, seeking out and listening to the stories of individuals with complicated lives, living in this immigration limbo. That she herself is undocumented brings an intimate urgency to the work, an enveloping empathy with those who share these often-difficult narratives. Sobering and celebratory, forthright and deeply respectful, this is a powerful book beautifully rendered.
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
Les Payne, Tamara Payne
One the of most fascinating historical figures of the 20th century, Malcolm X seems often more a reflection of the politics of the viewer than the reality of the man. Les Payne’s three decades of meticulous investigative research, however, have rectified this in a brilliantly singular, nuanced biography of an extraordinary, entirely human individual. With fresh insight and a grippingly narrative voice, The Dead Are Arising is truly masterful.
An excellently researched and significant account of how white-supremacist ideology and the economic interests of slaveholding states shaped the political and legislative actions of 1830s America that resulted in the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands east of the Mississippi River. Saunt brings new and devastating perspective on the historical impacts of power, caste, race and corruption. In the end, implied or intended, it is hard not to see the tentacles of genocide that play out to the present. An important and resonant work compellingly told.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Told in 80 short crystalline chapters, this exquisite and celebratory portrait of Carson McCullers and her work, is a captivating study of art, kinship and queerness. Shapland brings a palpable inquisitiveness to her subject, but with her deft mix of memoir and biography, asks us also to consider the interplay between the two perspectives, their possibilities and limitations. What emerges is a unique meditation on the art of telling a life.
How to Make a Slave and Other Essays
A deeply personal set of essays. While they circle wide-ranging topics from cultural to political, it is Walker’s bravery in sharing personal experiences about friends, family and colleagues that helps the reader grasp issues of race. Walker’s voice is clear, sharp and empathetic. How to Make a Slave enters into a perfect dialogue with Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation. “[N]o one… is writing better than Jerald Walker about race, being black, and the depths and complexities of our humanity.”—Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage
Finalists for Poetry:
A Treatise on Stars (9780811229388)
A Treatise on Stars is a truly original set of poems that turns into a treatise on the human condition. Berssenbrugge takes us far out into the galaxy as if she were a physicist and then brings us home as a sprit guide. Her words float on the astral plane and yet remain grounded. That’s the line a poet walks—always between two worlds.
Fantasia for the Man in Blue
The poet gives words to those who are stifled from speaking. Here is poetry that eloquently addresses systemic racism in society as well as homophobia. Tommye Blount’s poems confront and push back as any brave artist would do in challenging times. “It is a kaleidoscopic self-portrait, where the self is viewed from every vantage, inside out, then in again. Fearless in its observations.”— Vievee Francis, author of Forest Primeval: Poems
Don Mee Choi
Choi’s work gives us pause to think that more poets should do the work of historians. In clarity of words, we understand what happened “before” and how it affects “now.” “Choi’s hybrid structure allows her, in some sense, to have it both ways—to look at her subjects while simultaneously, and paradoxically, showing that some subjects are just too big to see in full” (Kathleen Rooney, author of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey). We are even more privileged to have Choi double as a memoirist, as well. Personal, political and poetic—a perfect trio, making DMZ Colony a touching book of poetry.
A most original and jaw-dropping approach to the often-violent history of the U.S.-Mexican border. Anthony Cody brings the genre of concrete poetry into the 21st century—and it’s about time. The layout and design for Cody’s poems allow us to surf the page as we would the internet. Hyperlinks here, however, bring us to very specific images and thereby an intense engagement of the written word, histories many of us have never been told.
Postcolonial Love Poem
From verse that is as sharp as a knife to vivid and sensual imagery, Diaz uses words like a paintbrush. Her work moves from vivid retellings of childhood and family experiences to the more intimate moments in life. Issues of society and culture bump against the personal as Diaz moves effortlessly between the two worlds: “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden.” And, there’s a sly sense of humor slipped in there, just to keep you on your toes. This is a complete collection of poems for your library.
Finalists for Young People’s Literature
King and the Dragonflies
When King’s brother Khalid dies unexpectedly, he’s left reeling with Khalid’s final advice to end his friendship with his best friend over rumors that he’s gay. However, he soon learns that Sandy is being abused by his father and vows to help him. An urgent read that explores race, sexuality, grief and identity in a relatable way for middle-grade readers and “any reader trying to find the courage to be themselves in a complicated world.”— Veera Hiranandani, author of The Night Diary
We Are Not Free
During World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into mass incarceration camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. We Are Not Free tells the fictionalized story of 14 teenagers uprooted from their lives in San Francisco and sent to live in these camps, losing their freedom in the process. Poignant and heartbreaking, this is a beautifully written work about a little-talked-about part of American history that features a “cast of friends whose honesty, strength, and love for one another will break your heart.”— Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of Starfish
Every Body Looking
Every Body Looking is an intense yet beautiful coming-of-age tale written in verse about a young Black woman on a journey of self-exploration. Ada’s story alternates between the past and present day, giving readers insight into how her childhood traumas and conservative familial expectations help shape her decisions as a freshman in college. A powerful and relatable read for many. “To show complexity without box-checking, and empathy without melodrama, to me, makes this a story with legs, and Iloh a writer to watch.”—Jason Reynolds, author of Long Way Down
When Stars Are Scattered
Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
Omar Mohamed was only four years old when he fled to a Kenyan refugee camp from war-torn Somalia with only his little brother in tow. Accompanied with Victoria Jamieson’s brilliant graphic artwork, When Stars Are Scattered is a remarkable true account of Omar’s childhood growing up in the camp, raising his little brother and dreaming of a better life for them both. A heartbreaking, hopeful and eye-opening must-read on what it means to be a refugee for readers of all ages.
The Way Back
Rich in Jewish folklore, The Way Back is a haunting fantasy about two children who find themselves on a journey through the Far Country, a land of demons ruled by the Angel of Death. Creepy, mystical and atmospheric, young fans of historical fiction and fantasy (à la Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman) should not miss this “remarkable feat of storytelling.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
And finally, the outstanding Finalists for Translated Literature:
High as the Waters Rise
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
The Family Clause
Jonas Hassen Khemiri,
Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies
Tokyo Ueno Station
Translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette