Back in September, when the National Book Foundation released the longlists for the 2016 National Book Awards, I tasked myself with the lofty goal of reading all ten nominees for the Young People’s Literature award before the shortlist was announced. At this, I failed dismally. It didn’t help that The Sun is Also a Star wasn’t even released until November 1. I really need to work on setting more realistic goals. Even now, just a few hours before the winner is to be announced, I have only read eight of the ten. (Plus the first few chapters of a ninth) But this will not stop me from inflicting my opinions on you.
Booked by Kwame Alexander, 2016
I read this and blogged about it long before I was thinking about the National Book Award. You can see my original blog post here. Admittedly, I have not revisited the book to compare it to the other nominees, but I’m sticking with my original opinion that it’s good, but not quite award material. The judges evidently agree with me, because this book did not make the shortlist and is therefore no longer in the running for the award.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, 2016
This is another one that I had already read, and I blogged about it here. It’s a good book. It has memorable characters, an interesting plot, an appealing writing style, and enough nuances to stand up to quite a bit of analysis and discussion. Although I’ve come across a few 2016 books that I think are more significant contributions to young people’s literature by an infinitesimal margin, this is my top pick for the National Book Award.
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, 2016
This graphic novel completes a nonfiction trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by the author, an activist who played a major role in several different events of the movement. I love the fact that someone who is so historically significant (and still working for the people of our country as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) decided to tell his story in the form of graphic novels. Over the past generation or so, graphic novels have branched out into a variety of genres and topics and have proved that they aren’t necessarily inferior to “normal” books, but the March books still deserve attention as an especially informative graphic novel series. Not only do they manage to include quite a lot of facts and dates and numbers, but they do an excellent job of conveying the emotions and personalities of the people they portray. My main reasons for cheering for Raymie Nightingale over March are that 1) this book does strike me as being a little dry when compared to middle-grade novels, and 2) I feel that it’s much more meaningful as part of the series than as a standalone book, and the award is just for the individual book. This would be my second choice.
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin, 2016
I can’t quite explain why this book just didn’t do a good job of keeping my interest. The basic plot was interesting, there was nothing lacking in the characterization, and there was a twist near the ending that brought together several elements from earlier in the book, which is something that I always like in a novel. I asked myself whether maybe the aspect that I didn’t quite like was the fragmentation. (The book includes many folk stories interspersed throughout the text, which do break up the flow of the story just a little, even though it’s the main characters who are telling the shorter stories.) But I’ve liked fragmentation in other books. The best explanation I can give is that the writing style and the plot didn’t quite seem to work well together. According to my reading preferences, a historical-fantasy-adventure like this would be more interesting if it were told in a more dramatic fashion, but this tale is told in a calm, even-paced manner. That was probably done intentionally to reflect the folklore tradition from which many of the motifs and subplots come. So I can accept that my ambivalence towards this book is a matter of personal opinion, and that it may very well be an excellent, award-worthy book from a more objective or collective viewpoint. It is one of the five finalists, so it could be the winner of the National Book Award.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, 2016
This is the one that I’m reading now, and I’m not far along enough to give an accurate plot description or to have formed an opinion about it. It’s clear from the very beginning that it’s magical realism; that is, it’s set in the real world, but it has elements of fantasy that are presented as if they’re believable, even normal. The main characters are Sam and Miel, also known as Moon and Honey. They have been best friends since childhood, when Miel mysteriously appeared in the water that spilled out of an old water tower. Miel is an unusual girl who has roses growing from her wrists and who has a phobia of pumpkins, but she’s not quite as odd as the four Bonner girls, believed to be witches. The plot summary on the book jacket suggests that the main conflict in the book is that the Bonner sisters want Miel’s roses. I’m enjoying this book so far, but it didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award.
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina, 2016
This was one of the first YA books of 2016 to attract my attention as A Book that I Have to Read. Somehow, though, I didn’t get around to reading it until this fall when it showed up on the National Book Award longlist. It didn’t make its way onto the shortlist, which means it’s no longer in the running, but I’m glad I read it and I’m expecting it to be a contender for the Printz when the ALA awards come around in January. It’s set in the spring and summer of 1977 in New York, a time and place characterized by arson, serial killings, and a blackout that led to massive looting. These events are described from the perspective of Nora Lopez, an almost-eighteen-year-old girl who has her own problems at home, mostly centering around her younger brother Hector. Meanwhile, Nora is finishing up high school, falling in love with the cute new guy at work, and trying to maintain her relationship with her long-time best friend Kathleen. The best trait of this book is the thorough and vivid description of the setting. It would be cliché to say that I could really see the peeling paint in Nora’s shabby apartment or feel the stifling heat that tormented New York that summer, but I can’t think of any better way to explain how this book draws the reader in. The serial killer element adds an element of suspense and mystery. Not gonna lie, after finishing this book, I stayed up quite late researching that true historical story online.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 2016
You can read my initial review here. This is definitely a good book, but to be honest, I don’t feel that it deserves quite the degree of accolades that it has received, and I’m not disappointed that it didn’t make the National Book Award shortlist. In fact, I probably will be disappointed if it does win a major award such as the Newbery, not because I actually dislike it, but just because there are a number of contenders that I think are more interesting, more memorable, and more significant as contributions to children’s literature. Besides, Pax has a very unsatisfying ending. But I suppose that it’s a matter of opinion whether an unsatisfying ending is actually a negative trait in a book.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds, 2016
This book, intended as the first in a series, describes the experiences of a middle-school boy who has been recruited to join an elite track team. Even before receiving any training, he is an incredibly fast sprinter, which he attributes to his early childhood experience of running away from his violent father. Since then, Castle (known by the nickname Ghost) has been dealing with all of his problems by running away from them, at least figuratively. His new coach is determined not only to teach Ghost how to be the best sprinter he can be, but to teach him some life lessons. While this book does have the positive messages, complex characters, and down-to-earth tone that we’ve come to expect from author Jason Reynolds, it didn’t quite strike me as a unique or exceptional book. As much as I liked it, this would not be one of my top National Book Award picks. I’m undecided as to whether I’d rank it third or fourth of the four finalists that I have read.
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson, 2016
The National Book Award nominees sometimes do include books that hadn’t gotten a lot of attention prior to their appearance on that longlist, and Sachiko is an example of this. I still haven’t been aware of it getting much notice from anyone besides the National Book Foundation. As the title implies, it’s the biography of a woman who experienced the atomic bomb that the U.S. military dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Although Sachiko (six years old when the bomb fell) and most of her family survived the initial blast, nearly everyone in her family eventually succumbed to radiation sickness or cancer caused by the radiation. Sachiko herself developed thyroid cancer as a young adult, but she survived thanks to a throat operation that led to a slow, frustrating recovery. In addition to describing Sachiko’s own experiences, the book includes contextual historical information about World War II, the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the war in Japan, and the backstories of Gandhi and Hellen Keller, figures that had a profound influence on Sachiko. The book is interesting, informative, and well-researched, so I would recommend it to readers who have an interest in any of the topics it touches, but I wouldn’t have really expected it to win a major award, so I am neither surprised nor disappointed that it wasn’t one of the five finalists.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, 2016
Rounding out the Young People’s Literature longlist, we have the one that I haven’t even started yet, and since it also made the shortlist, I’m disappointed in myself for not getting to it yet. In my defense, I’ve had it on hold for a while and it just came in for me yesterday evening as I had already clocked out and was on my way out of the library. Obviously, I don’t have much of anything to say about it, although I know it’s a YA romance. I look forward to reading it and finding out what makes it special among other YA romance novels published this year.