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

They are here! Finalists for 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and their reviews from SLJ.

The National Book Foundation announced its five finalists for the 2021 National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature today. They were selected by a distinguished panel of literary experts, and were advanced from the Longlists announced in September.

 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

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.

Gr 7 Up–In this thorough, well-researched work, Magoon offers an in-depth look at the Black Panthers that we’ve not really seen for young people—one that is honest and offers a much-needed corrective. This more sympathetic portrait is broken down into clear, easy-to-follow sections that take place in chronological order. Members of the party, particularly the founders, are highlighted; these historical figures are fleshed out as complex individuals. The compelling narrative also covers the history of the entire organization. Magoon doesn’t shy away from presenting the troubles and challenges the party faced, including numerous arrests, and how despite their mission for racial equality, gender equality didn’t seem to be an issue they wanted to tackle. She brilliantly shares the positive, such as how they allowed their offices to be used for childcare and free meals, and how they set up survival programs to help people in need. The free breakfast program schools have today is thanks to the Black Panthers. VERDICT A must-have for American history units that will spend more time in readers’ hands than on the shelves.
- Amanda Borgia, Uniondale P.L., NY 

 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 


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