SLJ's Reviews of the 2020 National Book Award Finalists

The finalists for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature have been announced. Here are the SLJ reviews. 

The finalists for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature have been revealed. The titles featured include a graphic novel documenting a refugee's journey, a young person overcoming the loss of a brother, and a YA tale of 14 Japanese American teenagers incarcerated during World War II. See below for SLJ reviews of these works.


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 


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


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 


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