Plano Reads: National Book Award Winners for 2021 Have Been Announced
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Plano Reads: National Book Award Winners for 2021 Have Been Announced

The National Book Awards have honored the best writing in America for more than seventy years. Since 1989, the National Book Award Foundation has worked “to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience, and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.”

The Awards currently honors the best Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature published each year. Twenty-five finalists, five in each category, were named last month, and the five winners were honored this week at a virtual awards ceremony in New York.

The 2021 National Book Award winners are:


Hell of a Book: A Novel by Jason Mott. A Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and urgent: since Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour. The story builds with comedy, heartbreak, and conversations that are very relevant to our current time. eBook |eAudiobook


All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles. In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose faced a crisis, the imminent sale of her daughter Ashley. Thinking quickly, she packed a cotton bag with a few precious items as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival. Soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language— including Rose’s wish that “It be filled with my Love always.” Ruth’s sewn words, the reason we remember Ashley’s sack today, evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love passed down through generations. Now, in this illuminating, deeply moving new book inspired by Rose’s gift to Ashley, historian Tiya Miles carefully unearths these women’s faint presence in archival records to follow the paths of their lives—and the lives of so many women like them—to write a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward. eBook 


Floaters: Poems by Martín Espada. In this collection, Martín Espada bears witness to confrontation with anti-immigrant bigotry as a tenant lawyer years ago, and now sings the praises of Central American adolescents playing soccer in an internment camp founded on that same bigotry. He knows that times of hate also call for poems of love-even in the voice of a Galapagos tortoise. Whether celebrating the visions of fallen dreamers and poets or condemning the devastation of Hurricane Maria and official negligence in his father’s Puerto Rico, Espada invokes ferocious, incandescent spirits. Book

Translated Literature

Winter in Sokcho by Élisa Shua Dusapin. It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down. Bodies are red and raw, the fish turn venomous, beyond the beach guns point out from the North’s watchtowers. A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives: a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape. The two form an uneasy relationship. When she agrees to accompany him on trips to discover an “authentic” Korea, they visit snowy mountaintops and dramatic waterfalls, and cross into North Korea. But he takes no interest in the Sokcho she knows–the gaudy neon lights, the scars of war, the fish market where her mother works. As she’s pulled into his vision and taken in by his drawings, she strikes upon a way to finally be seen. Book

Young People’s Literature

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. In Chinatown in 1954, McCarthyism and the Red Scare are very real threats to Lily’s family; her father is already at risk of deportation despite his valid citizenship. Chinese American Lily could lose everything just for dating anyone white — let alone Kathleen Miller — but she could lose herself if she doesn’t risk everything to be true to her feelings.  Print |eBook |eAudiobook 

Previous National Book Award winners, which you might also enjoy:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Winner, National Book Awards 2015 for Nonfiction. Between The World and Me is a brutally honest portrayal of the plight of the African-American male in this country.  Composing a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with bleakness and precision about racism in America. Incorporating history and personal memoir, Coates has succeeded in creating an essential text for any thinking American today. Print |eBook | eAudiobook |CD|

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück. Winner, National Book Awards 2014 for Poetry. You enter the world of this spellbinding book through one of its many dreamlike portals. Each time you enter, it’s the same place but it has been arranged differently. The poems tell a single story, but the parts are mutable and the great sweep of its narrative mysterious and fateful, heartbreaking, and charged with wonder. Print |eBook|

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway. Winner, National Book Awards 2017 for Young People’s Literature. Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovers that she is the middle child in her biological family after she gives up her own child for adoption, and she struggles to bond with her stoic older brother and outspoken younger sister. Print |eBook |eAudiobook

Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart. Winner, National Book Awards 2017 for Poetry. This collection of Bidart’s poems, the work of his lifetime, was praised as “monumental” and “bountiful,” and brilliantly personal. Half-Light also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2018. Print

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. Winner, National Book Awards 2020 for Fiction. Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but he is always relegated to a prop. Yet every day he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. Print |eBook |Audiobook|

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. Winner, National Book Awards 2020 for Young People’s Literature. In a small but turbulent Louisiana town, one boy’s grief takes him beyond the bayous of his backyard, to learn that there is no right way to be yourself. Print |Large Print |eBook |eAudiobook |Playaway 

March: Book Three by John Lewis. Winner, National Book Awards 2016 for Young People’s Literature. The conclusion of the March trilogy. Congressman John Lewis, an American icon and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, joined co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to bring the lessons of history to vivid life in graphic novel form. Print|eBook  

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Winner, National Book Awards 2018 for Nonfiction. A biography of Alain Locke, Rhodes Scholar and longtime professor at Howard University, who is recognized today as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, and a champion of Black culture and creativity in Jazz Age America. Print|

1919 The Year That Changed America by Martin Sandler. Winner, National Book Awards 2019 for Young People’s Literature.  Some of the most important issues of our time were no less important 100 years ago. America in 1919, at the close of World War I, was shaken from the events of large-scale warfare, fearing a Communist takeover, and facing an incredible amount of social and political change. From Prohibition to women’s suffrage, the labor strikes to the violence of the Red Summer and the Red Scare, this book explores each major movement of 1919. Showing how these events were interrelated and examining their continued relevance to our country a century later, Martin Sandler offers a unique historical perspective on the trajectory of the major movements of the 20th century. Print|

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Winner, National Book Awards 2018 for Young People’s Literature. Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. She pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers– especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. Mami is determined to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, and Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. When she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems. Print |eBook |eAudiobook |Book on CD |Playaway  

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Winner, National Book Awards 2017 for Fiction. Sing, Unburied, Sing is Ward’s first novel since Salvage the Bones in 2011, and both novels won the National Book Award for Fiction. Focusing on a family in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, the novel is a fresh take on the archetypal road novel by threading its story through the past and present of Mississippi in an intimate portrait of a family. Print |eBook |Audiobook 

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles. Winner, National Book Awards 2020 for Translated Literature. Kazu is dead. Born in Fukushima in 1933, his life is tied by a series of coincidences to the Imperial family and has been shaped at every turn by modern Japanese history. But his life story is also marked by bad luck, and now, in death, he is unable to rest, doomed to haunt the park near Ueno Station in Tokyo. Print |eBook   

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Winner, National Book Awards 2016 for Fiction. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Forced to flee again and again, Cora embarks on an astonishing journey through space and time, in a novel that is both a unique adventure and a shattering meditation on the history we all share. Print |eBook |CD/Play 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Winner, National Book Awards 2005 for Nonfiction. This memoir about the year following the death of the author’s husband has been acclaimed as a classic ever since its release. The night before New Year’s Eve, 2003, Didion’s husband John suffered a fatal coronary. In an instant, this close partnership of forty years was over. Meanwhile, their daughter Quintana was hospitalized and unconscious. Didion’s exploration of complicated grief is at once personal and universal, one insignificant human’s brave attempt to make sense of life’s most tragic insanities. Print |eBook |CD/Play

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. Winner, National Book Awards 2019 for Nonfiction. This is Sarah Broom’s evocative memoir about her childhood in New Orleans East, and the yellow shotgun house where her big family lived, until The Water, Hurricane Katrina, changed everything for all of them. Print |eBook 

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