SLJ’s Reviews of the 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature Longlisters

Here are SLJ's reviews of the books that made the longlist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

The National Book Foundation announced its longlist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. The list includes two previous National Book Award honorees and showcases titles that address gender and sexual identity, race and politics, familial history and global events, and the magic woven into the fabric of communities. SLJ's reviews are below.

Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo. Random/Make Me a World. ISBN 9780593177051.
Gr 6 Up–Growing up in the United States, Nima wonders what life would be like if she spoke Arabic fluently, if her father hadn’t died, if her mother had not left a country where everyone had dark eyes, sepia-toned skin, and textured hair like her, or if she had been given a name she felt she could live up to. In this novel in verse, Elhillo shows readers the beauty of what could have been, and the pain of being labeled a terrorist. When Nima’s best friend, Haitham, is attacked, a series of dangerous events unfold, yet readers are given no real resolution. Told in three parts, the flow is a bit disjointed, but overall this is a quick and engaging story. Fans of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land or Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate & Other Filters will enjoy this look at identity and acceptance. VERDICT A unique verse novel that looks at how our past choices influence identity and sense of belonging.–Monisha Blair, Rutgers Univ., NJ 

 The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. illus. by author. Kokila. Tr ISBN 9780525554882; pap. ISBN 9780525554899.
Gr 5-8–In Sierra Nevada in 1885, three years after the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, 13-year-old pie maker Mei helps her father run the logging camp’s kitchen. Mei, who is Chinese, also spends time with her best friend Beatrice (Bee) Andersen, who is white, and masterfully spins tall tales about a female Chinese folk hero named Po Pan Yin, aka Auntie Po, and her blue buffalo Pei Pei. As Mei grapples with her growing feelings for Bee, she suddenly starts to see Auntie Po and Pei Pei in real life. Rising racial tension in the area reaches a boiling point when Chinese cook Ah Sam and another Chinese worker are attacked on their way back to the logging camp. Changes are coming to Mei’s life, and even the mother of all loggers, Auntie Po, can only do so much to help. The author interweaves fabulism and historical fiction into a well-designed, evenly paced, stirring narrative. There is a strong sense of place, thanks to stunning watercolors and Mei’s informative narration of how a logging camp is run. The Auntie Po stories add a layer of humor or poignancy and act as an emotional channel for Mei’s internal struggles. Mei’s gradual queer awakening is treated sensitively as an important part of her story line. Mei; her father, Hao; Ah Sam; and some background logging camp characters are of Chinese heritage; the majority of the rest of lumberjacks are white; and there is a Black family living at the camp as well. VERDICT A moving read that skillfully explores themes of racism, privilege, and identity. A must for all libraries.–Pearl Derlaga, York County P.L., VA

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger. Levine Querido. ISBN 9781646140923.
Review to come.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. Dutton. ISBN 9780525555254.
Gr 9 Up–It’s 1954 San Francisco, and 17-year-old Lily Hu is the epitome of a “good Chinese girl”: She’s modest, respectful of her parents, and her most outlandish interest is rocket science. Then she finds a magazine ad for Tommy Andrews, male impersonator at the Telegraph Club, and everything changes. She befriends classmate Kathleen Miller, who’s into airplanes and knows about the Telegraph Club too, and all of her unspoken feelings begin tumbling out. The pair sneak out to the club, and Lily is both overwhelmed and thrilled as she is enveloped by the San Francisco lesbian scene. But the girls’ secret is dangerous; it threatens Lily’s oldest friendships and even her father’s citizenship status. Eventually, Lily must decide if owning her truth is worth everything she’s ever known. Lo’s historical novel is a meditative exploration of a young gay Chinese American girl in the 1950s. While there are many compelling tenets woven throughout Lily’s journey (racism, anti-Communism, her Chinese family’s relationship to their American identity), an abundance of detail weighs down the plot. The focus on world-building is at times heavy-handed, causing repetitiveness and rendering Lily and Kath’s relationship the slowest of burns. Lo’s prose comes alive when describing Lily’s blossoming awareness of desire; readers will be enthralled with her breathless, confusing experience of seeing the long-awaited Tommy Andrews and finally expressing her feelings for Kath. The ending is devastatingly realistic for its time, but an epilogue shimmers with a gloss of hope. VERDICT A pensive, rich work of queer historical fiction that will reward patient readers.–Ashleigh Williams, School Library Journal

 Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff. Dial. ISBN 9780593111154.
Gr 4-7–Lukoff’s (When Aidan Became a Brother) middle grade debut is a deeply empathetic exploration of grief and gender identity through the eyes of Bug. The summer before Bug starts middle school, things are rough. Bug’s beloved Uncle Roderick passed away from a difficult illness and the family business is in trouble. Bug’s longtime best friend is excited about makeup and boys, but these things don’t resonate with Bug, and a rift begins to form between the friends. With all this change and grief comes a much different problem: Bug is being haunted, and not by the innocuous spirits that typically inhabit their home. Lukoff’s three primary themes—gender identity, grief, and ghostly hauntings—work in elegant harmony despite the load. Lukoff navigates Bug’s journey of identity and discovery with grace, welcoming readers in so they can learn along with Bug in real time. Those readers focusing more on the haunting aspects of the story won’t be disappointed and can expect multiple goosebump-worthy moments. In a brief author’s note, Lukoff provides guidance in regards to both Bug (pronouns, etc.) and the book when recommending it to others. While some potential readers may hesitate at mixing ghosts and gender, Lukoff’s portrayal is sensitive, hopeful, and effective. The cast generally adheres to the white default; Bug’s family and classmates share diverse LGBTQIA+ identities. VERDICT A hopeful examination of grief and gender, and a good ghost story to boot. Recommended as a first purchase for all libraries.–Taylor Worley, Springfield P.L., OR

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon. Candlewick Press. ISBN 9781536214185.
Review to come.

 Me (Moth) by Amber McBride. Feiwel & Friends. ISBN 9781250780362.
Gr 8 Up–This searing debut novel-in-verse is told from the perspective of Moth, a Black teen whose life changed forever the day a car crash killed her family. Once a dancer who lived so hard she drank the sun, now she lives quietly with her aunt Jack in suburban Virginia. She no longer dances and is struggling with the guilt of her family’s deaths. But then she meets Sani, a Navajo boy who lives with his white mother and abusive white stepfather and really sees Moth. Sani gave up making music after leaving New Mexico and takes pills to clear his mind. Summer arrives, and the two take off on a road trip out west, back to the reservation where Sani’s Navajo father lives. Along the way, their stories entwine. Sani recounts the origin story of the Navajo, and Moth shares about her grandfather who taught her hoodoo. Like a moth in a cocoon, they each find themselves on the edge of transformation on their journey. Each free verse poem is tightly composed, leading into the next for a poignant and richly layered narrative. The story builds softly and subtly to a perfect, bittersweet ending. Fans of Jacqueline Woodson won’t be able to put this one down. VERDICT Earnest, surprising, and with a little magic, this book is a must purchase for all teen collections.–Erica Ruscio, Ventress Memorial Lib., Marshfield, MA 

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore. ISBN 9781250624123.
Gr 8 Up–In this novel inspired by their own experience, McLemore employs the device of magical realism as smoothly and artistically as protagonist Ciela creates pan dulce in her aunt’s panadería. This first-person narrative opens like a fairy tale, recounting how her great-grandmother passed the gift of matching specific Mexican sweet bread to each client’s needs. This ushers readers into the spring night of Ciela’s junior year when she deposits an unknown white boy at the ER. Both of them were sexually assaulted, something that she cannot think about, much less talk about, so she mentally ascribes her own narrative to avoid splintering. Afterward, she begins to notice the metamorphosis of beautiful things in her life, like flowers and leaves, into glass shards, the largest of which is wedged in her heart. This is also when she realizes that her gift is missing. The story unfolds like a puzzle being slowly pieced together through rich, symbolic descriptions strengthened by equally symbolic Spanish translanguaging. Readers feel the agony of injustices committed on queer brown people, and powerless white people, and will be compelled to read deeply until the book’s end, and then flip back to absorb more details. VERDICT A masterpiece intertwining painful teen realities involving injustices based on race, ethnicity, class, and gender with trauma and healing within loving, supportive families.–Ruth Quiroa, National Louis Univ., Lisle, IL 

 Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford (text) & illus. by Floyd Cooper. Carolrhoda. ISBN 9781541581203.
Gr 3-6–One hundred years ago, the Greenwood district of Tulsa, OK, was a prosperous Black community. Restaurants, beauty salons, movie theaters, and dozens of other businesses thrived along “Black Wall Street.” Cooper’s sepia-tone illustrations depict the bustle of everyday life as people hurried to shops or churches and gathered with friends. A stark spread signals the tragic turning point that resulted in the decimation of Greenwood’s Black community. A 17-year-old white woman elevator operator accused a 19-year-old Black man of assault. Incited by calls to action printed in white-owned newspapers, thousands of armed white men headed to the jail, where they met 30 armed Black men determined to stop a lynching. The confrontation resulted in the deaths of two Black men and 10 white men. Angry that they didn’t get to the jailed Black man, a white mob invaded the town, looted, and committed arson. The police did nothing to protect the Black citizens. Up to 300 Greenwood residents were killed, and more than 8,000 were left homeless. Seventy-five years passed before an official investigation occurred. Cooper’s illustrations are infused with a personal connection. Not only did he grow up in Tulsa, but Cooper also heard his grandpa’s stories of surviving the events. The powerful photo spread on the endpapers documents the destruction and smoking ruins. Cooper’s final illustrations of Tulsa’s Reconciliation Park offer a bit of hope. Weatherford’s author’s note provides additional background. VERDICT This moving account sheds light on shameful events long suppressed or ignored. All collections should consider this title’s value in providing historical context to current conversations about racism and America’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy.–Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato

 From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo Norton. ISBN 9781324002871.
Gr 8 Up–This narrative nonfiction title chronicles the brutal 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, which led to the first federal civil rights case involving an Asian American. While celebrating his bachelor party at a Detroit nightclub, Chin, who was Chinese American, became involved in a fight with two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz. The two men later cornered Chin at a McDonald’s and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Ebens and Nitz received a reduced charge of manslaughter and were sentenced to a mere three years probation and a $3,000 fine. The Asian American community was outraged at this unjust punishment, perceived to be a manifestation of anti-Asian racism fueled by anger directed at the Japanese car industry. Readers will be riveted by the first-person accounts from multiple points of view, including Chin’s family and friends, lawyers, defendants, and eyewitnesses. In fact, the book reads almost like a TV crime drama, utilizing flashbacks and culminating in a series of chapters depicting each key witness’s testimony. The book includes black-and-white primary photos and newspaper articles as well as a time line, extensive endnotes, and a list of archive sources. As the author reflects in her afterward, Chin’s story is an important parallel to today’s societal strife mirrored in the rise in racism and violence against Asian Americans who have been unfairly blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers interested in social justice nonfiction such as Chris Crowe’s Getting Away with Murder and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.Maile Steimer, Jones M.S., Buford, GA

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