SLJ’s Reviews of the 2023 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Finalists

Here are the SLJ Reviews of the five finalists for 2023 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

The National Book Foundation has announced the 2023 National Book Award finalists. The five finalists for the Young People's Literature Award include a picture book, graphic memoir, YA novel, and a couple of middle grade titles.



Gather by Kenneth M. Cadow. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536231113. 
Gr 7-10–Gather is a stray dog who may have a little Airedale in him; the running joke in Cadow’s debut is that everyone encountering Gather has a new guess about his mixed breed. Ian, or Dorian Gray Henry, is a white, rural Vermont teenager who has a level of self-awareness that draws readers in from the start. “She’s tired, but she’s not high,” is what Ian notices right off about his mother, just home from the hospital. He sees through Aunt Terry’s story, that his mom has finally “had some work done on that bad back of hers.” Although Ian’s mother attempts to stay clean, the struggle is vicious, and the narrative works to keep readers off-balance and keening for information, just as anyone who has ever lived with an addict has to. There are no straight stories with that disease, but the one here is full of sensory images and descriptive notes about this corner of rural New England—the “little copse of junipers” and “the cold November rain”—that anchor readers as they untangle exactly what a large bounding dog has to do with a frail, opioid-scarred mother. The novel covers food insecurity, poverty, and making do with little, but also grudging love of scattershot family, and Ian’s wry but upbeat fix-it attitude rolls with really hard punches. He is wise beyond his years, but he has had to be; his slow-motion long-way-around conversational style demands patience of readers, especially in the early chapters. Book talk it and tell teenagers to hang on. It’s a great ride. VERDICT The ground constantly shifts in this extraordinary keyhole view of addiction and its ongoing aftermath; Cadow takes his time, but delivers a realistic and compelling novel.–Kimberly Olson Fakih


Huda F Cares? by Huda Fahmy. Dial. illus. by author. Dial. ISBN 9780593532805.
Gr 6-10–Huda and her sisters are excited about their upcoming trip to Florida. They’ll endure the 24-hour car ride from their home in Dearborn, MI, knowing Disney World is on the other end. Leaving home, where they are part of a large and visibly observant Muslim community, means they’ll now be in a far different place. Seeing people drink beer or show affection in public is a new and awkward experience. Huda and her sisters are subjected to stares and rude questions. Regardless, they deal with the discomfort and understand their right to practice their religion, including praying in public. The sisters enjoy exploring everything Disney World has to offer. Huda makes some questionable decisions while navigating this unfamiliar environment; one leads to a scary situation. Although it’s a fun trip overall, Huda questions why their parents would bring them to a place where so much of what goes against their beliefs is on display. Huda gets her answers and learns more about her family in the process. This follow-up to Huda F Are You?? is a delightful story, even when addressing difficult issues. Picturing a tiny “Thoughtful Huda” and “Selfish Huda” on Huda’s shoulders as she wrestles with decisions is one way the creator employs humor in both narrative and art without lessening the impact of what the girls face. VERDICT This strong addition to any collection wraps messages about stepping into new experiences while staying true to yourself within a funny, enjoyable story.–Carla Riemer

Big (Vashti Harrison) cover


 Big by Vashti Harrison. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316353229.
PreS-Gr 2–A nameless Black girl, mostly depicted in a pink tutu with her hair in Afro puffs, is bright, clever, talented, and helpful. When she was little, being told she was “a big girl” was a compliment. Actually, being a big girl “was good…until it wasn’t.” Humiliations on the playground and at dance class lead to offhand insults from teachers and mockery from peers. Their words hit hard and won’t let go. As her body image worsens, she grows larger on the page, clearly uncomfortable with the space she takes up. Her previously pink ballerina costume is painted “husky gray” by her dance teacher. She grows so big she takes up the entire page spread, and that is when she breaks. As her tears flood around her, all the words that have been said about her float to the top. She gathers close the pink words—creative, graceful, BIG—and leaves the gray words—MOOSE, COW, too big. She gives those gray words back, telling their speakers how they hurt her. As she shrinks back to her true size, a girl offers to help her change, and she responds, “I like the way I am.” Adorned in optimistic pink again, she dances off, her positive words trailing behind her. This book resonates with a potential emotional impact that is immense. The girl is the only character in full color; her peers and teachers are shaded characters against a pale pink background, a stylization that reinforces her isolation. Never offered comfort by anyone else, she takes charge of her emotional well-being. VERDICT This inspiring and highly relatable title could be used with readers of any age to discuss topics of body image and self-love. Recommended.–Elizabeth Lovsin


The Lost Year: A Survival Story of the Ukrainian Famine by Katherine Marsh. Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781250313607.
From the author of Nowhere Boy—called “a resistance novel for our times” by The New York Timescomes a brilliant middle-grade survival story that traces a harrowing family secret back to the Holodomor, a terrible famine that devastated Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s. Review to come.


 A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat. First Second. ISBN 9781626724150.

Gr 5-9–In 1989, 13-year-old Santat headed off to Europe for three weeks at the insistence of his parents. They couldn’t travel much anymore on account of his mother’s lupus and wanted him to have that experience. Santat was less than thrilled, having just wrapped up junior high with more negative experiences than positive ones. Like the title indicates, this memoir explores young Santat’s first coming-of-age experiences. We see his first time away from home without parents, first discotheque, and first taste of beer in a German beer hall, among many others. One particular highlight is his first chance at young love with a golden-haired girl named Amy. This was also a trip for Santat to take his art seriously and share it with others without fear of being bullied. Santat’s artwork in the story is as great as you’d expect, with the European cityscapes often bathed in golden hour light. All the loveliness is juxtaposed with the strong and often hilarious reactions of teenagers. Flashbacks done in a moody blue show the reality of Santat’s former life. An author’s note indicates how the story diverges from real life details and acknowledges that travel as a teenager in 1989 was much different than it would be today. Santat’s emotional journey is easy to track and culminates in a surprising experience at Wimbledon. While Santat’s story is his own, readers will have a worthwhile time relating to him. VERDICT A thoughtful memoir with lots of humor and heart. Hand this to fans of Real Friends and the “Berrybrook Middle School” series. Recommended for all.–Gretchen Hardin


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