SLJ's Reviews of the 2018 National Book Award Longlisters

SLJ reviews and interviews for the 10 longlist titles for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

The National Book Foundation announced today its longlist for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The picks include titles by Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award recipient Elizabeth Acevedo. The 10 longlist books and the corresponding SLJ reviews and interviews are:

ACEVEDO, Elizabeth. The Poet X. 368p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Mar. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062662804. POP
Gr 7 Up–Magnificently crafted, Acevedo’s bildungsroman in verse is a stunning account of a teen girl’s path to poetry. Sophomore Xiomara Batista is simultaneously invisible and hyper visible at home, at school, and in her largely Dominican community in Harlem—her body is “unhide-able” she tells readers early on, and she bristles at how others project their desires, insecurities, failures, and patriarchal attitudes toward her. Though she is quick to battle and defend herself and her twin brother Xavier, Xiomara’s inner life sensitively grapples with these projections and the expectations of her strict, religious mother. Acevedo’s depiction of a faith in crisis is exceedingly relatable and teens, especially those going through the sacrament of Confirmation, will deeply appreciate Xiomara’s thoughtful questioning of the Church and how it treats women. Forbidden kisses with a crush and an impromptu performance at an open mic prove to be euphoric, affirming moments for Xiomara: “it’s beautiful and real and what I wanted.” Acevedo’s poetry is skillfully and gorgeously crafted, each verse can be savored on its own, but together they create a portrait of a young poet sure to resonate with readers long after the book’s end. ­VERDICT Truly a “lantern glowing in the dark” for aspiring poets everywhere. All YA collections will want to share and treasure this profoundly moving work.–Della Farrell, School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal March 2018 issue.

Here's our interview with Elizabeth Acevedo. 

Anderson, M.T. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. illus. by Eugene Yelchin. 544p. Candlewick. Sept. 2018. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780763698225.
Gr 4-7–The Elves and the Goblins have suffered through a horrible war, and it is unclear who is to blame. In a supposed act of diplomacy, the Elfin historian Brangwain Spurge is shot through the air to bring a priceless artifact to the somewhat mysterious Goblin ruler. He is to stay with the archivist Werfel, but misunderstandings and cultural differences make working together a challenge. Readers soon discover, long before Spurge and Werfel, that the Elfin kingdom has a sinister plan in mind, and it is up to these two arguing historians to prevent another war. The themes in this fantasy novel explore how events can be viewed differently depending on the beholder’s beliefs, experiences, and background; however, the characters are painted in extremes, which somewhat flattens the message and misses an opportunity to present more complexity in the relationships. The satirical tone is reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” while the format is similar in concept to Brian Selznick’s work; Yelchin’s black-and-white ink drawings reveal the viewpoint of the visiting Elfin historian, contrasted with the text descriptions from Werfel’s viewpoint. VERDICT A relevant, if slightly didactic, message on the importance of perspective and finding common ground. A good choice for most middle grade shelves.–Clare A. Dombrowski, Amesbury Public Library, MA

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2018 issue.

Bliss, Bryan. We’ll Fly Away. 416p. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. May 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062494276.
Gr 9 Up–This novel explores family abuse, sex, first love, and friendship. Luke and Toby have been best friends since they were kids. Now in their senior year, tensions are rising and their friendship is tested. Luke is a three-time state champion wrestler, known for his hot temper and sticking up for Toby in any situation. Toby defuses tension with his quick wit and humor, while at home his criminal father has begun to take an interest in utilizing his underage son. Both boys have family issues, with abusive fathers and absent mothers, so they rely solely on each other. Alternating between a third-person account of the boys’ senior year and Luke’s letters to Toby from death row, this fast-paced read will have teens tearing through chapters to find out why Luke is in jail. Once readers have put the pieces together, the conclusion will leave them devastated. This is touching book about male friendship for fans of Jason Reynolds and Matt de la Peña. VERDICT A realistic and emotional story that will be an excellent choice for high school libraries.–Morgan O’Reilly, Riverdale Country School, NY

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue.

Connor, Leslie. The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle. 336p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062491435.
Gr 5-7–Calvin Chumsky, a brilliant seventh grader and the only friend of Mason Buttle, says, “The Universe is amazing. It knows what we want. And sometimes... it hands it over like a gift.” Maybe so, but the Universe isn’t kind to Mason Buttle. He is a large boy who has severe dyslexia and overactive sweat glands. He is plagued by two neighborhood boys who call Mason stupid and pelt him with lacrosse balls and mushy apples. One boy, Matt, not only mistreats Mason but beats up his own dog, who prefers Mason. Worse than the constant ragging is the memory of a tragedy that happened two years ago: Mason’s best friend fell off a broken ladder to his death. Lieutenant Laird has hounded Mason ever since to remember more about the accident. Mason finds his comfort in his broken-down house, the secret hideout he and Calvin create, and a school room monitored by a caring social worker. Mason’s family and friends have their own misdeeds and insecurities. Uncle Drum has sold off many acres of the family’s apple orchards. Instead of working, he spends his days in a diner. Shayleen, a runaway, tries to fill her life with stuff bought on a shopping network. Connor expertly captures the camaraderie of Calvin and Mason, the overly permissive parenting of Matt’s mother, and the suspicious attitudes of the townspeople toward Matt after the accident. The final line in the books says it all: “Knowing what you love is smart.” VERDICT A poignant underdog tale that will resonate with many young readers.–Lillian Hecker, Town of ­Pelham Public Library, NY
This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Journey of Little Charlie. 256p. Scholastic. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545156660.
Gr 5-8–Oversized like an ox, 12-year-old Charlie Bobo and his sharecropper parents eke out a living on the Tanner Plantation deep in South Carolina in 1858. When an accident takes his father’s life, Charlie and his mother must settle a debt with the plantation’s sadistic overseer, Cap’n Buck. The despicable overseer forces Charlie to accompany him to Detroit to retrieve $4,000 worth of stolen property. Charlie’s journey covers more than miles as he finally realizes the stolen property isn’t material but human. Outside his norm of Southern life, he sees his white privilege and the horrors of people claiming ownership of other people. It truly sickens him, but he feels trapped by his father’s debt. Cap’n Buck and Charlie venture into Canada to capture their last fugitive slave: Sylvanus, a boy just Charlie’s age. When he sees the similarities in their lives despite their different races, Charlie knows he cannot be party to the legal evil of slavery any longer (“I knowed Sylvanus and his ma and pa was gonna be slaves ‘gain. And I knowed it would be my doings that caused it.”). Charlie alters the course of his journey right then, changing his life forever. His choice shows that no matter one’s upbringing—Charlie lived in poverty, racism, and ignorance—a person can choose right. Curtis’s use of dialect lends the story authenticity, though it may slow down less confident readers. The violence of slavery is not shied away from and use of historically accurate, derogatory terms for black people are used. Young readers will benefit from discussion during and after reading. VERDICT A thought-provoking book from a master storyteller.–Lisa Crandall, formerly at the Capital Area District Library, Holt, MI

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

Krosoczka, Jarrett J. Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction. illus. by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. 320p. Scholastic/Graphix. Oct. 2018. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780545902472.
Gr 7 Up –In this intimate graphic memoir, Krosoczka looks back on his childhood and adolescence. His mother was a heroin addict, who was incarcerated or in rehab for much of his young life, and his father wasn’t around—until Krosoczka was in the sixth grade, he didn’t even know the man’s first name. The author/illustrator was raised by his loving but often amusingly coarse maternal grandparents, who were well past their child-rearing days. Though growing up without his biological parents was painful, Krosoczka had a supportive network of extended family and friends, and his art became both his passion and his salvation. The visuals beautifully re-create his early memories, with fluid lines depicting the figures and hand-painted washes of gray with burnt orange highlights in the backgrounds. Borderless panels and word balloons deftly draw readers into the action. Artifacts from the Krosoczka family’s past are inserted into the story, such as artwork and letters, and even the pineapple wallpaper from his grandparents’ home is included between chapters. VERDICT A compelling, sometimes raw look at how addiction can affect families. A must-have, this book will empower readers, especially those who feel alone in difficult situations.–Kelley Gile, Cheshire Public Library, CT

This review was published in the School Library Journal August 2018 issue.

Mafi, Tahereh. A Very Large Expanse of Sea. 320p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Oct. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780062866561.
Gr 9 Up –In the aftermath of 9/11, Shirin, a Muslim American teenager, bears the brunt of the country’s anger on a daily basis. An intelligent, mature girl, Shirin has built up a tough armor from years of being bullied and misunderstood. Moving homes frequently because of her parents’ continual desire to upgrade, she and her older brother are used to the ways their peers and teachers warily observe them. But now that the country is in panic mode and people see threats everywhere, Shirin, who has always chosen to wear a headscarf, is ostracized even more than usual at her newest high school. When a good-looking, white classmate, Ocean, starts to pay attention to her, Shirin cautiously dismisses him. Eventually, the two enter into a tentative relationship. No matter how much Shirin had anticipated the backlash, she is unprepared for the events that unfold when the community finds out about the two of them. It is not easy to incorporate important cultural themes in a young adult novel that also satisfies the social, romantic needs of teen readers. Not only does Mafi pull it off beautifully, but she exceeds expectations by delving deeply into characterization as well. Her writing is nuanced, smart, and lacks the sentimentality that often weighs down young adult books. Shirin and Ocean’s interactions are palpable, and the discussions and exploration of what it means to be a Muslim in politically charged America will resonate with many teens and will be enlightening for some. VERDICT A must-have for all library collections.–Karin Greenberg, Manhasset High School, Manhasset, NY

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2018 issue.

McCullough, Joy. Blood Water Paint. 304p. Dutton. Mar. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780735232112.
Gr 8 Up–Artemisia Gentileschi, 17-year-old daughter of a mediocre Renaissance painter, assists her choleric father Orazio in his studio, mixing colors but, moreso, trying to save face for him by finishing paintings that he is incapable of completing. Remembering the stories of strong biblical women which her now-deceased mother recounted to her—stories meant to strengthen her womanly resolve in a society that valued only men—Artemisia is determined to be the painter her father will never be; thus, when her father hires Agostino Tassi (Tino) to teach her perspective, she is thrilled to have someone who can help her achieve new artistic heights. As she paints Susanna and the Elders, her relationship with Tino changes, and he assaults her. She becomes determined to bring him to court in an effort to save her honor. Using free verse for Artemisia’s words and prose for her mother’s stories, McCullough’s beautifully crafted text will inspire upper-middle/high school readers to research the true story upon which this powerful piece of historical fiction is based. The poetry is clear and revelatory, exploring Artemisia’s passion for both art and life. The expression of her intense feelings is gripping and her complexity of character make her a force to be reckoned with, both in her times and in ours. VERDICT A thrilling portrait of a woman of character who refused to be dismissed; this belongs on every YA shelf.–Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, formerly at LaSalle Academy, Providence

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

Joy McCullough On Reclaiming the Female Body and Blood Water Paint

Partridge, Elizabeth. Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam. 224p. bibliog. index. maps. notes. photos. reprods. websites. Viking. Apr. 2018. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780670785063.
Gr 7 Up–Rather than offering a history of the causes and effects of the Vietnam War, Partridge brings the conflict to a personal level, with accounts of eight men, two women, four U.S. presidents, Martin Luther King Jr., and Maya Lin. Chapter by chapter, the author introduces an unseasoned Marine tasked with life or death decisions, a nonviolent follower of King who fires at the enemy until his machine gun is red hot, and an 18-year-old South Vietnamese woman who must flee the encroaching North Vietnamese Army. Partridge’s interviewees all survived their year in-country, but what they saw and participated in haunted them long after. Late chapters on the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial and an epilogue provide closure. Photos of exhausted soldiers, pensive presidents, a helicopter evacuating the wounded, and stacks of coffins add visual immediacy to the emotional stories of young people at war and the protests stateside. Occasional racial slurs and strong language fit the circumstances of their use. VERDICT A stirring choice. Pair with DK/Smithsonian’s The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated or portions of the documentary The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick for a more complete picture of the war and its surrounding circumstances.–Maggie Knapp, Trinity ­Valley School, Fort Worth, TX

This review was published in the School Library Journal April 2018 issue.

Check out "Good Morning, USA," a guest post by Elizabeth Partridge

Stamper, Vesper. What the Night Sings. illus. by Vesper Stamper. 272p. Knopf. Feb. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781524700386.
Gr 7 Up –Fifteen-year-old Gerta Rausch did not know she was Jewish until the day she was picked up by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp. She lived in Germany with her musician father and was sheltered from the reality outside her home, spending all of her time training in viola and opera. Gerta’s father reveals the truth as they are crammed into a train car. Gerta struggles to accept this news; she knows nothing of Jewish traditions and her only experience with her religion is tied up with hatred, abuse, and slaughter. Being allowed to play in orchestras keeps her alive in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Although the narrative describes life before liberation, much of it focuses on the postwar experience: life in concentration camps–turned–“displaced persons camps,” lingering hostility toward Jews, as well as the grueling journey many Jews made from Europe to Palestine. The illustration style and muted color palette work beautifully with the text, managing to communicate both despair and hope. The narrative is spare but powerful as it depicts the daily horrors of the camps and the struggle to survive, hold on to humanity and, once freed, understand how to live again. ­VERDICT This powerful story is an excellent choice for any library.—Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, Oakland

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue.


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