Recap: The National Book Award Finalists

When the National Book Award Finalists were announced, it turned out I hadn’t read any of the five finalists for young adult literature!

In a way, this meant I was lucky because I could read each book looking for why it was given a nod by their fellow authors, the NBA judges. Of course, it also meant I had to work fast to get copies of the books (and thank you to the publishers for providing review copies for this purpose), read them, write reviews — while preparing for the YA Lit Symposium and dealing with Hurricane Sandy.

As a head’s up, from the National Book Foundation: “The building in which the Foundation office is located has suffered extensive damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The Foundation office is closed until further notice, but the National Book Awards will be held at Cipriani, 55 Wall Street, on November 14 as planned. As of now, all other National Book Awards Week events, including 5 Under 35, the Teen Press Conference, and the NBA Finalists Reading, will also take place as planned, but we will post further updates as they become available.”

Here are the five finalists, with a short blurb from my reviews:

William Alexander, Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing). From my review: “what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.”

Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach (Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing). From my review: “Out of Reach shows the impact of Micah’s addiction on the rest of the family, but even then, the focus is tight: a day in Rachel’s life. In a way, this makes the tragedy of what has happened to the Stevens family easier to handle, because it is told by Rachel after the fact — after the use, after hearing that “Micah claimed he used as an artistic experience, saying that he connected with the universe when he was high,” after the rehab not paid by insurance, after discovering that Micah has spent his college fund on drugs. It doesn’t lessen what has happened to this family and Rachel, but it makes it a bit easier to handle because it’s all things Rachel already knows, has already processed. What Rachel hasn’t processed, and what this book is about, is realizing that physically and emotionally and mentally, Micah is “out of reach” of his family and nothing any of them do or say can change that.”

Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down (Balzer+Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers). From my review: “When Arn leaves his aunt, she tells him, “Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blows one way, you blow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” He listens to her, and her parting gift to him — to bend, to survive no matter what — saves his life. It also puts him in terrible situations, as witness to the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnam invade the country, Arn fears them more than the Khmer Rouge so he takes up a gun, fighting on the behalf of the Khmer Rouge, even though he is a child himself. He takes up a gun, yes, but he has little choice — he has to follow the wind to survive.”

Eliot Schrefer, Endangered (Scholastic). From my review: “When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon [the infant bonobo,] Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.”

Steve Sheinkin, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press). From my review: “This is about the invention of the atomic bomb, told through three stories: the scientific journey from the discovery of nuclear fission to the creation of and use of the atomic bomb; the spy story, as various people in different countries provide information on the American program to the USSR; and the military story, as commandos worked behind enemy lines in Nazi held Europe to stop the Nazis from being the first to create an atomic bomb. One of the reasons I like non-fiction is it shows why spoilers don’t matter. Most readers will know that the Americans were indeed the first to create and use the atomic bomb; so it’s not about whether it happens, but how and why. Because there are three story threads, there is even a possibility that one of those three (the spy story or the commando story) may be new to the reader, providing the suspense some readers need in their books.”

What a mix of books! Fantasy, non-fiction, contemporary, historical fiction. Books about family bonds and the bonds people create that are as strong as family. Books about loss and grief. Books about love and connection.

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