The Academy Awards of literature has just named its contenders for most exceptional books of the year, and female authors are the front-runners. The National Book Award for Young People's Literature longlist was released by The New Yorker, and not only has it been dubbed "wide-ranging," but women deservedly take up six out of the 10 spots — or seven, if you count one book with two female authors. This is up from the 2014 longlist, which had four women and six men.
The National Book Award for Young People's Literature honors children's books, middle grade, and young adult novels together. Last year's winner was Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, and we should all still be celebrating this one. This year, the nominees include historical fantasy, historical nonfiction, contemporary YA, graphic novels, and all kinds of diverse topics and genres. While some authors are National Book Award nominee veterans, others hit the jackpot on their debut novel, catching the attention of the judges in this year's Young People's Literature committee. The judges include previous National Book Award winners and finalists Laura McNeal and Eliot Schrefer, alongside Coretta Scott King Book Award winner G. Neri, among others.
Let's get right into the 10 nominees on the longlist for 2015:
- Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children’s Books)
- Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick Press)
- The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group)
- Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Children’s Books)
- This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)
- Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children’s Books)
- X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (Candlewick Press)
- Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group)
- Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (HarperTeen/HarperCollins Children’s Books)
- Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (HarperTeen/HarperCollins Children’s Books)
Of these 11 authors only two — Anderson and Sheinkin — are repeat National Book Award customers, and only Anderson has ever taken home the big prize. Anderson won the award for his 2006 series opener The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party, and he was nominated for Feed in 2002.
Sheinkin's name was on the shortlist last year for The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights and back in 2012 for Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon.
But that doesn't mean the list is full of newcomers, either. Albertalli is the only debut novelist on the list, though Benjamin and Stevenson come close. The Thing About Jellyfish is Bejamin's first book written not as a co-author, and Nimona is Lumberjanes ' contributor Stevenson's entirely solo graphic novel.
It's exciting to root for these three not only because they're relative newbies, but because each of their novels are uniquely important to the literary world.
Albertalli's Simon vs. The Homo Sapien's Agenda has been buzzing around the YA world since its publication for its positive portrayal of openly gay Simon, and for being generally hilarious and moving. Nimona puts a body positive heroine front and center. And The Thing About Jellyfish gracefully and beautifully meditates on grief for a middle grade audience that all ages can appreciate.
But back to the vets: Hachet's Paulsen has never been nominated for a National Book Award, but he's an industry icon, having written what I count to be 100 million novels for children and young adults. He's definitely one to watch out for because with all of his awards, it is kind of hard to believe he's never taken home this biggie. This award season, think of him as the Leonardo Dicaprio of young people's lit.
You absolutely can't talk about this longlist for more than two minutes without mentioning Malcom X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz teaming up with Coretta Scott King New Talent Award winner Kekla Magoon for X, a novel that follows a young Malcom Little growing up until his imprisonment at age 20. It's the kind of novel that appeals to adults and children for both the same reasons and entirely different ones. I'd be shocked if this one didn't make the shortlist, but it's a longlist of heavy hitters so you never know.
Speaking of heavy hitters: Neal Shusterman. Challenger Deep is one of the most heart-wrenching, raw, and unique stories I've read in a long time. Shusterman was inspired to write this novel for his son Brendan who has schizophrenia. It's a powerful dive into what it's like to live with the mental illness, through the eyes of a teenager who suffers from it. Challenger Deep includes 12 pieces of artwork by Brendan himself, which he created while experiencing schizophrenic episodes. Color me surprised if Challenger Deep doesn't make a big run for the National Book Award because books like these don't come around every year.
William C. Morris YA Award winner Carson has made a huge name for herself in the YA fantasy world, but this National Book Award nod is a well-earned surprise. Walk on Earth a Stranger hasn't even been released yet, it's coming this month, but now its buzz is amplified times a thousand. It's hard not to back Carson, whose books promote the same ideals she supports as a self-proclaimed feminist. Thumbs up.
If I were a betting woman (and luckily I am) I'd also put Ruby's Bone Gap in my shortlist. The eerie, somewhat oddball story has thrust the long-time YA and children's book writer into the spotlight with her clever storytelling and memorable prose.
With a longlist this stacked with exciting titles, no matter who makes the shortlist or takes home the grand prize, really, none of us readers can lose.