March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Speaks to National Book Award Finalists

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A story about the race to build the atomic bomb, a harrowing tale of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia, and an adventure about love, loss, and family are the National Book Foundation’s five finalists in the Young People’s Literature category.

The five names were among 20 finalists for the National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature, which were announced Wednesday morning by David Steinberger, chairman of the National Book Foundation’s board of directors, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, hosted by Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Geist.

William Alexander, author of Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Bks./S & S), was sipping coffee at a café before picking his three-year-old son from preschool. Having some quiet time alone with his notebook was a present to himself on his 36th birthday. So when a call came from a man claiming to be Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, Alexander thought it was a cruel and elaborate birthday prank.

“I didn’t say so at the time, just in case it wasn’t a prank and he really was Harold Augenbraum,” says Alexander, whose novel is about a boy who joins a troupe of goblins to help him find his missing brother. “So far it seems to be real, which makes all of this a magnificent birthday present, but I’m still not sure I believe it.”

Now that the news has started to sink in, Alexander says, he feels “Astonishment. Joy. Hiccups.” And he can’t wait to meet Susan Cooper, this year’s Margaret A. Edwards Award-winner and one of the five judges, including Daniel Ehrenhaft, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Marly Youmans, and Gary D. Schmidt, who will present the award on November 14.

Patricia McCormick, who wrote Never Fall Down (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), describes her reaction to the news about being a finalist as a scene from the film “Love Actually” where actress Laura Linney’s character jumps up and down because she finally gets asked out on a date.

“I was jumping up and down like a kid while trying to keep a totally cool tone of voice on the phone with Harold Augenbraum,” says McCormick, whose novel, narrated by Cambodian human-rights activist Arn Chorn Pond, deals with his survival during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and genocide. “When I called to tell [Pond] about the award, he was characteristically humble. He asked me to thank the judges.”

McCormick says receiving validation from the National Book Awards judges is so important to a book like this because it helps reluctant readers overcome any hesitation they might have had to the difficult subject matter.

“Just as importantly, it affirms the artistic risks that I took by writing the book in the voice of an 11-year-old boy—a very poetic, but ungrammatical voice that conveys all the terror as well as the humanity of his experience,” she says. “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it affirms the importance of storytelling as a way to foster understanding and peace.”

Eliot Schrefer, who wrote Endangered (Scholastic), went for a morning run and returned at 9 a.m. to a bunch of excited voicemails from his fiancé, so he knew that something major had happened.

“Then I opened my email while listening to the voicemails, and it all became very clear,” says the author, whose books involves a girl who discovers just how much humans can bond with animals when she visits her mother at her sanctuary for bonobos in Congo. “I’m moved and humbled by being a finalist. To be acknowledged, yes, but also because I’ll get to meet my fellow nominees and the committee members, whom I admire a ton.”

Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb: The Race to Build―and Steal―the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Flash Point/Roaring Brook), was working in the library—his home away from home—when he received a very cryptic email with “confidential” in the subject line and the message containing just a name and number to call.

“But at the bottom was the National Book Foundation contact info, which got me kind of intrigued,” says Sheinkin, whose book, which received a starred review from SLJ, tells the story of the atomic bomb. “I called the guy, and he told me my book was a finalist, but that I couldn’t tell anyone except my wife! So I tried to play it cool, and just went back to work. Actually, it was fun to have that secret for a day.”

On Wednesday morning, he watched the announcement on TV with his kids, ages six and three, and although they were semi-interested, they seemed to enjoy the show’s previous interview with actor Ben Affleck just as much.

“The recognition is a huge honor for me and really confirms that I’m on the right path,” he says. “And to think that just a few short years ago I was writing textbooks!”

Carrie Arcos, who wrote Out of Reach (Simon Pulse/S & S), had just finished teaching a class at Southern California’s Biola University when she received an email from the National Book Foundation.

“The note was very official-sounding and formal, ‘Dear Ms. Arcos please call us immediately,’” she said it read. “I actually thought that I might have been in trouble for something!”

When she returned the call and was told the news, Arcos says she was completely shocked and, like Alexander, thought a friend was pulling a prank on her.

“After the very patient person on the line proved to me he was a part of the foundation—it  all really set in,” she adds.

Arcos says it’s “so humbling and affirming” to receive a nomination for such a prestigious award.

“I have read National Book Award winners over the years and to think that I’m including in that category is exhilarating,” she says. “What an honor!”

The winners will be announced Wednesday, November 14 during a ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City,

The following is a list of the finalists:

William Alexander’s Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Bks./S & S)

SLJ‘s review: Rownie and other “stray” children live with Graba, a Baba Yaga-type witch with mechanical, chickenlike legs. His older brother, Rowan, lived with him until he became an actor and disappeared since their city outlaws acting. Rownie, anxious to find him, runs away, much to the ire of Graba. He meets a troupe of goblin actors who teach him their craft? and the secrets of the masks they wear and make. He learns to trust the goblins and thinks they will help in the search for his brother. Written in “Acts” and “Scenes” as in a staged drama, the story weaves a many-webbed tale, rich in imagination with a fairy-tale feel. However, it seems as though something important is missing in the connections among the many situations as well as the story as a whole. Also, the characters, except for Rowan, seem one dimensional without much importance in the plot. True fans of fantasy or science fiction may enjoy this book but it’s additional at best.–D. Maria LaRocco, Cuyahoga Public Library, Strongsville, OH

Carrie Arcos’s Out of Reach (Simon Pulse/S & S)
Rachel has always idolized her older brother Micah, who struggles with addiction. But she tells herself that he’s in control. And she almost believes it—until  the night that Micah doesn’t come home.

Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

SLJ‘s starred review: With unflinching candor, an authentic voice, and an indomitable will to survive, Cambodian human-rights activist Arn Chorn Pond narrates the remarkable story of his survival during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and genocide. McCormick has blended his personal recollections with extensive interviews, historical research, and her own imagination to create a powerful, intimate novel. In 1975, 11-year-old Arn lives an impoverished but inventive life with his aunt and siblings. His father has died and his mother can no longer run the family-owned opera house. After the Khmer Rouge soldiers arrive in his town, everyone is ordered to agricultural labor camps. Separated from his family, Arn witnesses the brutality and sadism of the “black pajama” soldiers, the exhaustion and starvation of his companions, and the horrific Killing Fields massacres. When the soldiers ask for musicians, Arn volunteers. Although he has never played, his natural talent quickly emerges and he becomes a popular khim player, ensuring his survival. With the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the Khmer soldiers abandon his camp and he flees with thousands across the border into Thailand. Rescued by peace activist Peter L. Pond, Arn and other orphans come to America where Arn eventually channels his traumatic past into helping other refugees and preserving traditional Cambodian arts and music. Once again, McCormick has delivered a heartrending exposé of human tragedy. The natural syntax and grammar of Arn’s narration imbues his story with a stunning simplicity and clarity against a backdrop of political chaos, terror, and death. This compelling story will awaken compassion and activism in secondary readers. –Gerry Larson, Durham School of the Arts, Durham, NC

Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered (Scholastic)
When Sophie has to visit her mother at her sanctuary for bonobos in Congo, she’s not thrilled to be there. It’s her mother’s passion, and Sophie doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. At least not until Otto, an infant bonobo, comes into her life, and for the first time she feels the bond a human can have with an animal.

Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build―and Steal―the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Flash Point/Roaring Brook)

SLJ‘s starred review: “Harry Gold was right: This is a big story.” So begins this depiction of the “creation–and theft–of the deadliest weapon ever invented.” As he did in The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Roaring Brook, 2010), Sheinkin has again brought his superior talent for storytelling to bear in what is truly a gripping account of discovery, espionage, and revolutionary changes in both physics and the modern world. This fascinating tale, packed with a wide cast of characters, focuses mainly on three individuals: spy for the Soviets Harry Gold, leader of the Manhattan Project J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Knut Haukelid, who sabotaged German bomb efforts while working for the Norwegian resistance. Sheinkin skillfully combines lucid, conversational snapshots of the science behind the atomic bomb with a fast-paced narrative of the remarkable people who made it possible and attempted to steal it. Handsomely designed and loaded with archival photos and primary-source documents, the accessible volume lays out how the bomb was envisioned and brought to fruition. While the historical information and hard facts presented here will likely be new to the intended audience, they in no way overwhelm readers or detract from the thoroughly researched, well-documented account. It reads like an international spy thriller, and that’s the beauty of it.–Brian Odom, Pelham Public Library, AL

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.



  1. […] cable news morning show, the short list named five titles each in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. We were pleased with the overlap: we’ve got enough stars here to decorate a child’s […]