SLJ's Reviews of the 2020 National Book Award Longlisters

Check out the SLJ reviews of the books that made the longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

The National Book Foundation announced its longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, among them a nonfiction work on Black women's struggle for suffrage, a graphic novel documenting a refugee's journey, and a YA tale of 14 Japanese American teenagers incarcerated during World War II. See below for SLJ reviews of the titles.


National Book Award Longlist cover images 1-5

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338129335.

Gr 4-9–Although the bayou of Louisiana suggests something slow and gentle, 13-year-old King’s contemporary story feels intense and pointed. His 16-year-old brother, Khalid, died unexpectedly of unexplained medical causes, leaving his small family reeling. Three months later, King’s mom still isn’t cooking and his typically stoic dad has stunned him to silence by offering a rare “I love you” while dropping him off at school. Friends and middle school romance are difficult enough but then his ex-friend Sandy goes missing. Despite a relatively simple set of events, the story delivers emotional depth via the conversations between both friends and family members. The memories of Khalid’s dreamy sleep talk grippingly pluck at heartstrings, adding a romantic poetry to an already potent mix. Callender tackles some serious issues—racism, being gay, child abuse, grieving—with finesse and a heady sense of the passions and pangs of youth. On its own, this title solidifies Callender’s merit as a powerful middle grade and YA author, even without following on the heels of the well-awarded Hurricane Child. VERDICT An intense, gripping tale of love, loss, and friendship featuring a black youth grappling with his dreams and his identity. Recommended for all middle grade collections.–Erin Reilly-Sanders, University of Wisconsin-Madison


We Are Not Free by Traci Chee. HMH. ISBN 9780358131434.

 Gr 7 Up–Fourteen teens form a bond growing up together in California. They go to school, work hard to be good kids in their community, and try their best to find happiness in various hobbies. American-born, they are of Japanese descent, and surrounded by people who do not trust their right to be in the U.S. World War II turns their already strained lives upside down. Taken and forced into desolate internment camps, these young kids must rally together as racism threatens to tear them apart. This novel evokes powerful emotions by using a variety of well-researched elements to tell the teens’ stories, creating a thorough picture of their thoughts and feelings through poetry, diary-style entries, and drawings. As Chee mentions in the author’s note, her family experienced the impact of being marked as “other” and therefore “dangerous,” and were forcibly uprooted from their homes and incarcerated in internment camps. The novel may be fiction, but it will be hard for readers not to fall deep into the harsh realities these teens face. The writing is engaging and emotionally charged, allowing the readers to connect with each character. VERDICT Chee’s words are a lot to take in, but necessary and beautiful all the same. This remarkable book deserves to be in any library collection.–DeHanza Kwong, Butte Public Library, MT 


Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box by Evette Dionne. Viking. ISBN 9780451481542.

 Gr 5-7–Dionne clearly presents the difficult battle for women’s suffrage that African American women endured before Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment on June 4, 1919. The trek to the ballot box for African American women was a difficult one, with many grim realities to overcome before and after the amendment’s ratification. Beginning with the start of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and continuing to the present day, Dionne demonstrates why women anti-slavery advocates (African American and white) felt the need to band together to fight the sexism of the national abolitionist establishment. For instance, at the organizational meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, African American women were not invited to attend. The select white women in attendance were expected to observe the proceedings in silence. African American women fought their marginalization in the anti-slavery and later female suffrage movements and made their voices heard. The identification of African American women activists and the parts they played in American history is the strength of Dionne’s book. So many of these women played pivotal roles in the passage of fundamental civil rights legislation, yet remain unidentified in mainstream accounts. VERDICT A must-purchase for all secondary school libraries. Readers who liked Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage In Reconstruction America by Faye E. Dudden and Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas will particularly like Dionne’s work.–Susan Catlett, Green Run High School, Virginia Beach


Apple (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth. Levine Querido. ISBN 9781646140138.


Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh. Dutton. ISBN 9780525556206.

Gr 7 Up–Ada, pronounced Aah-dah!, means “first daughter” in Igbo and, as Ada shares, such a name carries the heavy weight of expectations. Written in verse, Ada’s narrative unfurls from her high school graduation, then jumps around in time while she navigates her early college days at an HBCU, dipping in and out of scenes from first, second, and sixth grades. Pivotal and sometimes wrenching episodes are seared into each of these time periods, from sexual abuse in first grade to a betrayal of her privacy by an aunty who arrives from Nigeria in sixth grade. Iloh poignantly captures the tension and jagged emotion required for Ada to juggle her needy and absent mother with the heavy expectations of her father, all while trying to figure out who she really wants to be. Amidst all this uncertainty and seeking lies dance. While Dad is the one to introduce Ada to dance lessons to connect her to his home country, it is the deep desire for movement that consumes Ada and begins to pull her in the opposite direction of his more practical aspirations for her. VERDICT Readers will be left wishing they could accompany Ada as she pursues her passion and finds her way to a genuine relationship, while left hopeful and inspired by her beautifully-told story.–Jill Heritage Maza, Montclair Kimberley Academy, NJ


When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed. illus. by Victoria Jamieson. Dial. ISBN 9780525553915.

 Gr 4-8–Perennial comic book favorite Jamieson teams up with Mohamed, a Somalian refugee, to tell a heartbreaking story inspired by Mohamed’s life. Cared for by kind Fatuma, an older woman who also lost her family, Omar and his little brother Hassan have lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya since they were small, when their father was killed and they were separated from their mother while fleeing civil war. Though Omar loves looking after Hassan, who is mostly nonverbal, life in the camp, where “it felt like all you ever did was wait,” is stultifying and grindingly difficult. When Omar has the opportunity to attend school, he and his friends realize that they can increase their families’ painfully slim chances at being chosen for resettlement. Heavier on text compared with Jamieson’s usual fare, this title still features the expressive, gentle style of Roller Girl or All’s Faire in Middle School—the language of cartoons makes the subject matter accessible to a middle grade audience. Indeed, the authors highlight moments of levity and sweetness as the children and their families do their best to carve out meaningful lives in the bleakest of circumstances. An afterword and author’s notes go into greater detail about Mohamed’s life, how the two met and decided to collaborate, which elements of the story are fictitious, and how to help other refugees. VERDICT With this sensitive and poignant tale, Jamieson and Mohamed express the power of the human spirit to persevere.–Darla Salva Cruz, Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY


Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536207507.

Gr 5 Up–A beautifully honest account of trauma and childhood friendship that takes place in the early 1980s. June Bug Jordan has watched her world shrink after the death of her father from AIDS, a disease that is little understood and causes her mother to adopt an obsessive regime of cleaning and isolation. Left to her own devices, June watches her neighbor Nana Jean and her grandson Ziggy, who has come to stay on Trowbridge Road after a traumatic experience of his own. June Bug and Ziggy become the creators of a magical world that allows them to escape the demons of their everyday lives, as they transform into everything from dragons to farmers overlooking a snow-covered field. The story is told through June’s inner monologue, and the prose feels authentic to the voice of a middle grader, albeit one who has dealt with some very heavy things. The text richly illustrates the inner lives of children, and the subject matter is handled in a way that is honest yet age appropriate. VERDICT A solid choice for mature tweens who appreciate a story with literary and fantastical elements that also tackles realistic topics.–Katie McBride Moench, New Glarus Middle and High Sch. Library, WI 


How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure by John Rocco. Crown. ISBN 9780525647416.

Gr 5 Up–This illustrated nonfiction book depicts each step of the scientific and engineering journey that facilitated the moon landing. The history of the Apollo program takes a back seat to the explanations of various rocket science concepts. This is often presented in a problem-and-solution format, which adds a narrative aspect to the otherwise technical texts. The hand-drawn illustrations move from portraits to technical drawings with remarkable ease. Every page provides graphic features, including illustrations or callout boxes. Many graphics-heavy nonfiction books can be overwhelming, but this work’s aesthetic is classic and coordinated. The stories of the people and their process are given as much weight as the many diagrams and engineering marvels. Several of the collage illustrations and individual profiles show the people of color and women who helped with the NASA program while acknowledging the overall lack of diversity and problems within both the time period and institution. There are a lot of books about the Apollo program, but this one offers many unique elements that make it a good addition to a collection. VERDICT A gorgeously illustrated nonfiction book about the Apollo program and the space race that does its best to highlight diversity and the human story but focuses primarily on engineering. An engaging second-level purchase for medium and larger libraries.–Elizabeth Nicolai, Anchorage P.L., AK


The Way Back by Gavriel Savit. Knopf. ISBN 9781984894625.

Gr 7 Up–From the moment a girl leaves her cottage to gather strawberries at the far side of the forest, Savit sets a dark fairy tale tone. Readers fast forward to meet Bluma, the teenage granddaughter of the berry collector, and Yehuda Leib, a poor and scrappy village neighbor of Bluma’s age. Told from alternating viewpoints, and incorporating language and elements from Jewish folk tradition, Bluma and Yehuda Leib begin separate adventures—eventually crossing paths on the outskirts of their shtetl of Tupik in a cemetery where “the living world wears thin,” and both Bluma and Yehuda Leib cross over into the Far Country. Dark messengers, the Master of Whispers, Lilith, and the Sisters of Lileen inhabit this magical realm. Bluma brings with her a magical spoon, dropped by the Dark Messenger when he took her grandmother, which allows her to see events in altered time. Yehuda Leib enters and encounters the Treasure House of Lord Mammon, who eats a tiny man as a snack, and enlists Yehuda Leib’s help in a plot for more power. As they unite over chicken soup in an old hut, with a double-edged dagger at hand, Bluma and Yehuda Leib realize that death comes for everyone in its own time, but need not be faced alone. VERDICT An entrancing historical fantasy, thick with elements of magic and folk tales.–Maggie Knapp, ­Trinity ­Valley Sch., Fort Worth, TX 


Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. Feiwel & Friends/Swoon Reads. ISBN 9781250250469.

Gr 9 Up–Yadriel is a transgender teen boy growing up in East L.A., where for centuries, brujos have been responsible for releasing the spirits of the dead, and brujas have healed the living. When Yadriel’s family can’t accept that he is a boy and not cut out for healing, Yadriel is forbidden from attempting the ritual to become a brujo. Refusing to abandon tradition and helped by his best friend Maritza, Yadriel completes the ritual in secret, but abruptly discovers that his cousin Miguel has just been murdered. When searching for Miguel’s spirit, Yadriel and Maritza instead stumble upon murdered schoolmate Julian Diaz, who demands that Yadriel help find out what happened to him. Thomas is generally successful at weaving various Latinx customs and traditions into this #OwnVoices supernatural romance. Spanish words and phrases are liberally peppered throughout, and their meanings are generally clear from context. The occasionally repetitive writing has minimal cursing; the characters and their struggles are authentic, showcasing their need for acceptance from their loved ones but also their refreshing certainty about who they are and what they stand for. VERDICT A whodunit with a tender and forbidden love story that will draw readers in as it gradually unfolds to a gratifying conclusion.–Alea Perez, Elmhurst Public Library, IL 

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