We read all 25 National Book Award finalists for 2018. Here’s what we thought. 

The Vox staff reviews all the finalists in each of five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature.

Every year, the National Book Foundation celebrates the best of American literature by handing out the National Book Awards. And every year (okay, every year since 2014), we here at Vox read all of the finalists to help smart, busy people like you figure out which ones you’re interested in.

Traditionally, there have been 20 finalists total, spread evenly across four categories — five in fiction, five in nonfiction, five in poetry, and five in young adult. But this year, the National Book Foundation has expanded its scope and added a brand new category to recognize literature in translation, for a total of 25 finalists.

Here are our thoughts on the 25 finalists. The winners are noted in bold.

Fiction

A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley

A Lucky ManGraywolf Press

The nine stories in Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man involve men unmoored — from parents, from spouses, from lovers. They are, quite often, men forced to raise themselves or their siblings, due to absent fathers, or haze-devoured mothers, or younger brothers who just need someone to step up. They are impetuous and needy and empty, crying out for something to fill a void that’s always existed, even if they struggle to name it.

Truth be told, this makes the book a touch repetitive when read all at once. The stories’ themes recur so frequently that the individual tales can feel like glosses on the same handful of relationships and conflicts. But as standalone stories, all the pieces in A Lucky Man offer exquisitely crafted glimpses into the lives of black men and boys living in New York.

Brinkley’s talent for choosing precise images and details that perfectly exemplify his characters is especially clear in “J’ouvert 1996,” in which a teenage boy’s forced outing with his younger brother slowly goes sour, and in the book’s titular story, in which a middle-aged teacher finds himself accused of a crime he committed — but not in the way his accuser thinks he did. This is Brinkley’s first collection, and if his talent for exacting vivisection of his protagonists continues, he’ll be a talent to reckon with.

Todd VanDerWerff

Florida by Lauren Groff

Florida by Lauren GroffRiverhead Books

Florida is just as much a character in Lauren Groff’s latest story collection as it is a setting. The state’s humid air and the threat of lurking, dangerous swamp creatures are a constant presence. The protagonists, much like Groff’s representation of Florida itself, seem to straddle a contentious line between wilderness and civilization. Humidity is oppressive, but air conditioning is artificial; snakes and gators are dangerous, but so is the suburban sprawl that threatens their habitat.

The stories themselves aren’t quite supernatural, but they’re undoubtedly otherworldly. Most start out similarly: A protagonist is introduced in a seemingly placid suburban scene, and then disaster — usually of the natural variety — strikes. Some are reminiscent of post-apocalyptic fiction, and yet the calamities Groff describes are familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Sunshine State.

Hurricanes, power outages, sinkholes, and the possibility of death by reptile all play a part. But these threats are less interesting than how the protagonists respond; they work best as a backdrop through which each character can reflect on their fears, both existential and immediate.

Even once you’ve figured out the pattern, though, Groff’s stories are far from formulaic. The only real certainty is that the storm will eventually pass.

—Gaby Del Valle

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon HobsonSoho Press

The scope of Where the Dead Sit Talking stretches from death (as made clear by the title) to adolescence and gender, from dysfunctional families to the United States’ foster care system, from Native American culture to the seeming inescapability of dusty, rural 1980s Oklahoma. But it’s all connected by the idea of the devastating, sometimes sneaky havoc that trauma leaves on our lives.

Brandon Hobson’s bleak novel tells the story of a 15-year-old boy named Sequoyah who, after his single mother is put in prison for drug charges, finds himself in the care of Harold and Agnes Troutt, a pair of foster parents who are already caring for two other teens. Sequoyah bonds with Rosemary because of their heritage (they share Native American ancestry) and the fact that they’re both survivors of abuse.

But is this bond healthy? Is it an unhealthy attraction? Does it cross into infatuation? Is it a twisted fantasy?

The more we learn about Sequoyah, and the rage and trauma roiling beneath his skin, the darker the answers become. Hobson’s prose is as intense as it is precise, and the results are unnerving. Sequoyah is a survivor, but not all survivor stories are triumphant. Some, as Hobson reveals in Where the Dead Sit Talking, are a deep tragedy.

—Alex Abad-Santos

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers by Rebecca MakkaiViking

Two parallel plot lines — one set in 1985 and another in 2015 — hurtle toward convergence in this devastating examination of the US AIDS epidemic.

The first — and the stronger — of the two storylines zooms in on a group of friends composed predominantly of gay men in Chicago during the ’80s. Members of the group grapple with how to navigate a world where person after person they know dies of AIDS while the government is more than comfortable turning a blind eye. Scenes from the novel chronicling everything from dissatisfaction with a partner to petty work politics read like their own contained dramas until the reader is sharply reminded of how the backdrop of AIDS looms over any and all decisions, big and small.

The book’s second storyline focuses on how one woman copes after her brother and several of her friends are killed by the disease. It follows her on a quest to Paris, where she attempts to rebuild her relationship with her daughter, who also saw her life acutely marked by her mother’s losses.

The two subplots are clearly tied to one another by common characters and a shared pain, but their real connection lies in the striking point both end up making about the tragedy of lost potential — and whether it can ever be recovered.

—Li Zhou

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez — WINNER

The Friend by Sigrid NunezRiverhead

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a powerful meditation on love, loss, and grief. The protagonist, who is never named, is a writer who loses her longtime best friend, a fellow writer, when he takes his own life. After his death, she finds herself responsible for the care of his Great Dane, Apollo, when his third wife no longer wants the dog. Over time, the woman bonds with Apollo as a way to deal with the grief of losing her friend, and says that having the dog is like having a bit of her friend with her.

But she ultimately becomes almost single-mindedly obsessed with caring for the animal, neglecting her friends and letting her life slowly unravel as she becomes more and more isolated from the rest of the world. Apollo becomes her coping mechanism, her outlet for channeling the overwhelming grief she has yet to process.

The Friend, which is full of literary references and beautiful prose, is also a tribute to the potential power of humans’ relationships with their pets. The dog in this story becomes so significant, so important to its protagonist’s journey, that he remains the only named character in the entire book. It’s also a sad story, one about loss and mourning. But if you believe in the power of animals to help heal, don’t miss it.

—Nisha Chittal

Nonfiction

The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway

The Indian World of George Washington by Colin G. CallowayOxford University Press

Most people who’ve taken an American history class in high school or college likely know, or at least knew, the basics of the relationship between the nascent United States and the world’s other great powers in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Far less attention is paid, though, to relationships with other leaders who were equally important and consequential: the American Indians who controlled the vast swaths of territory that the founders hoped their new country would one day occupy.

Colin G. Calloway’s The Indian World of George Washington is a magisterial correction to this omission, putting Washington’s life in a context too often forgotten — from Washington’s first foray into Indian diplomacy as a 21-year-old, trading a “string of wampum and a twist of tobacco,” to the president who saw his nation’s future in lands that still belonged to the Indians. Washington’s sobriquet among the Iroquois was “town destroyer,” and Calloway’s work makes clear the ways it was well-founded both in his time and later: Washington took many first steps down a path to cultural genocide.

But the real achievement of Calloway’s detailed and nuanced portrait is its illumination of the ways early American history and American Indian history are intertwined — juxtaposing the birth of one nation, as his title has it, with the twilight of many others.

—Libby Nelson

American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson

American Eden by Victoria JohnsonLiveright

Depending on who you are, the primary appeal of American Eden — ostensibly a biography of David Hosack, who founded the first (spoiler alert: failed) public botanical garden in the United States — is in one of the following. It’s fresh gossip on Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (and other members of the founding generation) through the eyes of the doctor who attended their duel. It distills the Enlightenment-inflected sense of discovery and mastery that inspired Lewis and Clark and a generation of natural scientists who were determined to learn everything about the newly Europeanized American continent. It’s a cautionary tale about how hard it is to build civic institutions so they’ll last. It’s a book about a really, really ambitious garden.

Author Victoria Johnson treats all of these subjects with equal levels of archive-spelunking enthusiasm. The prose initially comes off as deliberately breezy in the style of Stephen Greenblatt, but once Johnson gets the opportunity to slow down and show off her research, each paragraph pops open like an overstuffed but delightful cabinet of curiosities — an appropriate metaphor for the scientific polymathy (or perhaps dilettantism) of the Enlightenment gentlemen she’s writing about.

For non-gardeners, the lists of plant names can get a little tedious (though they’re easy enough to skim). And Johnson’s language can get almost too vivid when she’s describing 18th-century surgical techniques in detail; you will never forget what a hydrocele is after reading this book. Yet it’s worth reading not just because it’s fun historical nonfiction, but because it’s a reminder that knowledge doesn’t simply accumulate over time like silt: It has to be deliberately collected, preserved, and appropriately funded.

Dara Lind

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland by Sarah SmarshScribner

In the form of a letter to her unborn daughter, Sarah Smarsh recounts her family history in a smart, compelling book that seamlessly toggles between the state of the US economy and her own family struggles. By intertwining the Homestead Act, the farm crisis of the ’80s, and Ronald Reagan’s presidency with her own family history, Smarsh is able to give concrete examples of how American policies facilitated a disdain for those who don’t have money.

Heartland presents life as a poker game, where one player is the government and the other is white working-class families. What cards you’re dealt determine whether you get shelter, food, and education.

Smarsh is refreshingly aware that she can only speak to the experiences of the white working class, and sometimes only those of white working-class women. Born to a teenager who was born to a teenager, she articulates the disproportionate burden that poverty puts on women, and how this affected her own view of motherhood. Many of her stories live at the intersection of being poor but also being perceived as a walking womb, and are told in a matter-of-fact way that is void of judgment or sentimentality. Though the result does not always read smoothly, it offers an intimate but measured look at the cyclical nature of poverty.

—Aditi Shrikant

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart — WINNER

The New Negro by Jeffrey C. StewartOxford University Press

Everyone’s heard of the heaviest hitters of the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith, and so on. These artists, thinkers, and activists solidified black America’s stake in broader American culture, demanding equality through their work — just a few decades removed from ancestors who would have probably been enslaved, undereducated, or perceived to be worth nothing more than “the help.”

Alain Locke, though, isn’t quite a household name. He was a professor of philosophy who established his voice during this historical era and was dubbed its “dean,” despite not earning some of the same acclaim as some of his peers. Jeffrey C. Stewart’s comprehensive biography of Locke is a surprisingly gripping read — I’ll be honest, I was taken aback by its heft when I first picked it up. But Locke’s life story, beginning as a young black man who was born to a middle-class family in Philadelphia, and who was especially close with his mother, is compelling right from the beginning.

Stewart, a professor of black studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, not only covers Locke’s work as a top black intellectual of his time but also gives us a window into who Locke was as a complex man full of conflicting points of view on race, sexuality, art, integrity, and equality.

Locke’s 1925 anthology, The New Negro, functioned as a celebration of his era in black art, intellect, and society. This biography plays the same role for Locke himself. It’s full of insightful details attributed to big names and small.

It almost feels silly for me to frame him this way, but had Locke been alive and in his prime today, it would be easy to picture him the darling of both black and gay Twitter, with thoughtful, eye-catching books about #BlackExcellence on the New York Times best-seller list and essay upon essay in the most celebrated news outlets of our time.

—Michelle Garcia

We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler

We the Corporations by Adam WinklerLiveright

It is deeply shocking that We the Corporations is not boring. The book is primarily a literature review of 300 years of Supreme Court majority rulings on corporate personhood, preceded by a history of pre-Revolutionary War trading company charters. And yet, four chapters in, we’re knee-deep in a dramatic conspiracy against the Constitution. (By chapter six, we’re “handling dynamite.”)

Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, has no interest in his own opinion. Instead, he stands back, using McGraw-Hill language but pairing it with vicious, cool timing and framing to expose the history of the highest court of the United States as one smeared with banal, capitalist corruption and what amounts to petty, unforced treason on the part of self-interested, self-aggrandizing men.

In the process, he illuminates how the best, most basic tenets of the Constitution — the 14th Amendment’s attempt to promise that all people live free from discrimination, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press — were contorted to award rights to businesses, far more often than they were actually invoked to protect anyone else.

By the time you get to 2000 and Citizens United, the notorious Supreme Court case that bludgeoned democracy by putting an end to virtually all limits on corporate campaign financing, it feels like nothing more or less than a stupid-obvious epilogue, hundreds of years in the making.

—Kaitlyn Tiffany

Poetry

Wobble by Rae Armantrout

Wobble by Rae ArmantroutWesleyan

The term “language poetry” does an admirable job of somehow making poetry — that famously inaccessible genre — sound yet more instructable. (That’s even before you find out its “real” name is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.)

But I’m here to tell you there are many pleasures, even conventional ones, to be had in celebrated language poet Rae Armantrout’s new collection, Wobble.

Like her peers, Armantrout is interested in muddying the relationship of poet and reader. But she cites plain-spoken Williams Carlos Williams (he of the recent spate of “This Is Just to Say” memes) as perhaps her foremost influence, and she fully exploits the same dizzying possibilities of spare lyricism and short, broken lines.

Armantrout’s poems are never difficult for difficulty’s sake. Wobble’s opening lines could hardly be any more universal: “‘What made this happen?’ / you ask every time.” The poet goes on to muse about causation but pauses on a sure-footed image of a “crown of leaves … sifted by wind … brightening into rust-red / at the tips.”

Wobble is timely, too, with a keen sense of the language and excuses of violence, both old and new. Lips “smack” in the Garden of Eden; Rapunzel’s hair is let down, “solicitations / never meant for you.”

Not everything is so weighty; Armantrout gets in some good ribbing of everyday foibles: She notes wryly that “Humans / photo-bomb the planet” and that “There’s a lot going on in / ‘the’ / zombie apocalypse.” In the book’s titular poem, fate rests on an errant satellite broadcasting “World’s Smallest Pets.”

“Sometimes I wish I had a job where I could be quiet, maybe as a jeweler cutting stones,” Armantrout has said of the sometimes wearying prospect of teaching poetry. Let’s listen in while we can.

—Tim Williams

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance HayesPenguin Poets

Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a collection of poetry that could only exist in the America of right now — a book of poetry that concerns itself again and again with living in Donald Trump’s America, and particularly living in Donald Trump’s America in a black male body. “Something happened / In Sanford something happened in Ferguson,” Hayes writes, “And Brooklyn & Charleston, something happened / In Chicago & Cleveland & Baltimore…”

To create a work so anchored in a moment runs the risk that it might one day, when “right now” becomes “back then,” seem ephemeral. But Hayes’s work is too energetic, too vital, too specific and original and vivid for that; it is anchored in its time, rather than contained by it.

This is a book with one sonnet that begins with Maxine Waters and another that dwells on the particular and peculiar skin tone of the president (“Are you not the color of this country’s current threat / Advisory?”) — subjects that might seem ripped not just from the headlines but from Twitter tropes. And Hayes’s writing, in its urgency and originality, is the antidote for a thousand tired tweets.

And not all of the poems are ripped from the headlines; a few lines about Jesus’s imagined sister — “she was in her / Forties the first time she turned water into wine. / A late bloomer, she began a small wine business” — rolled pleasingly around my head like a marble for days.

To echo the words of another American poet who chose assassinations as a topic, Hayes’s work is large; it contains multitudes. His sonnets are vital and unforgettable, anchored by their sense of place and time rather than contained by it.

—Libby Nelson

Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen

Ghost Of by Diana Khoi NguyenOmnidawn

I keep trying to wake up. I keep getting things wrong.

I’m ready to feel better.

Before Diana Kho Nguyen’s brother killed himself, he cut his likeness out of family photographs. His absence, both literal and figurative, fills the pages of Ghost Of.

Each day I want my hair short. And the next day, the opposite.
Each day I want my hair long, and the next day, the opposite.
Each day is the next day, and its opposite.

Nguyen’s poems replicate a grieving brain. Some thoughts are magical (“Are you a blacksmith where you are, bending iron, love bending you”), some cynical (“Nature makes mistakes”), some unfinished, some punishingly repetitive. They are thoughts that morph and meld, but never let you be:

I am glad that you are dead, I am glad that you are dead, I am glad that you are glad that you are I am glad that you are I am dead that I am dead glad that you are dead glad that you are dead are you dead I am dead

She crams some stanzas into the jagged, narrow, negative space left by her brother in those family photographs, and formats others to preserve the empty space. In interludes called Gyotaku, after the Japanese art of fish printing, the shapes repeat over and over again until they become something else, text illegible, images crowding the margins.

Are you still a person with a brother, if that brother no longer exists? If not, what are you?

Why is Nguyen is still here, enjoying meals, listening to music, feeling the air move around her, when her brother is … where, exactly? (“When I am nothing, I am going to miss the groceries here,” she writes).

What do you do with this void in your heart?

Ghost Of says: You fill the space with words, because words are all you have left. You turn the words into fish and make them swim off the page. You write it all down, and wait to feel better.

—Kate Dailey

Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed — WINNER

Indecency by Justin Phillip ReedCoffee House Press

Justin Phillip Reed’s debut poetry collection, Indecency, is an unflinching exploration of power, race, sexuality, gender, the personal and the political.

He presents the true indecencies of Americans’ racism and other violence on the national scale — and in the daily personal attempts to navigate a system that cannot be won.

He deconstructs whiteness, taking on the voice of indifference: “No one / is responsible while we have the luxury / to see ourselves as infinite ones, ocean / of individual possibility.”

And throughout, he shows what it feels like to be seen as a body to be used, as in the poem Consent (“he’s into a groove that / is darkly reminiscent of crossways and rolling stops”) and in this finale of The Fratricide:

How can we tell ourselves apart for you. How can
we help you to tell us apart. How can we help
you to tell us apart. How can we help you to tear
us apart. How can we help you. You tear us apart.
How can we tear us. You help us apart. You help
us part. How can we tear you. How can we tear
you. How can we help us to tear you apart.

—Susannah Locke

Eye Level by Jenny Xie

Eye Level by Jenny XieGraywolf Press

Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, which has already won the Walt Whitman Award for debut poetry collections, is a master class in shifting perspectives. Roaming from Hanoi to Kerkyra to Manhattan, Xie’s language veers between precise imagery, with the details of the world rendered in intimate close-up, and elegant aphorism, zooming out to take in a universal truth from a wide shot.

In “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season,” Xie starts small and tender, with the details: “And how combed through, this rain! / The riled heat reaches the river shoal before it reaches the dark.” There’s a softness to her imagery, a kind of bewildered affection for the world — but she goes cold and clinical as her perspective sweeps outward and she turns to aphorism. “I wake up one morning to find beauty suspect,” she writes.

Over the course of her slim collection, Xie explores what it’s like to be a Chinese immigrant in America, and to be a Chinese American traveling through Asia. “Can you fix this English?” a restaurant owner asks her, and so, “I translate what little I can, it’s embarrassing.” But this is not an interior book: Xie keeps her readers firmly outside of her head, at eye level, watching the world. And with her sweeping, exact language, watching the world with Xie is nothing but a pleasure.

—Constance Grady

Translated Literature

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina KoverEuropa Editions

As Disoriental begins, our narrator Kimiâ Sadr is sitting alone in a fertility clinic in Paris. She is trying to get pregnant. She is also thinking about her father Darius, and about how he refused to take the escalators in Paris — because escalators, Kimiâ explains, were for “you, obviously. You, the ones who were going to work on that Tuesday morning in April. You, the citizens of this country, with your income taxes and compulsory deductions and council taxes.”

The two strands of thought — children and citizenship — seem separate, but as Disoriental continues, they weave themselves together until it becomes clear that for Kimiâ, they are inextricably linked.

Tina Kover’s translation from French is lively and complex, with Négar Djavadi’s rich, elegant sentences shining through. Together, they tell the story of the Sadr family, beginning with Kimiâ’s great-grandfather in Iran and extending through Kimiâ’s hypothetical unborn child in Paris. But Disoriental is also the story of Kimiâ herself, and how she left Iran at the age of 10 to come to Paris, and how in the process, she was dis-oriented, in both senses of the world: She was disoriented, confused; and she was dis-Oriented, so that she lost her Persianness.

“To really integrate into a culture,” Kimiâ explains, “I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate.”

As the book goes on, however, it becomes clear that if Kimiâ can just do the task she has set out to do — if she can just have a baby, despite the fact that she is gay — then she won’t be quite as detached from her old culture as she thought. She’ll just be reinventing her relationship to it.

—Constance Grady

Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken

Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken Archipelago

Hanne Ørstavik’s Love was first published in Norway in 1997, a tale of desire and neglect that seamlessly switches perspectives between a mother and son. Vibeke and her son Jon, who have recently moved to a remote part of northern Norway, are spending their evenings separately the night before Jon’s ninth birthday. Jon goes out to sell raffle tickets for a school fundraiser to the neighbors, and encounters a number of strangers — some more unsavory than others. Vibeke goes to the library, hoping to see the man she’s attracted to, but finds that the library is closed, and ends up at a carnival instead. It’s less of a plot-driven story than one about the ways that loneliness and longing both create the distance between its characters and drive them toward their dark conclusion.

As translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken, Love is a compelling, spare novel; an anxious mood hangs over Vibeke and Jon’s story like a thin, cold cloud. Both mother and son pursue the things they most desire — safety, warmth, a sense of security — in ways that are both doomed and deeply felt, particularly in the starkness and minimalism of Ørstavik’s translated prose. It’s the sort of book you want to gulp down in a sitting, enfolded by a blanket, sinking into the gray need we all feel to be loved.

—Alissa Wilkinson

Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa LahiriEuropa Editions

Dolcetto o scherzetto — treat, or trick? In his latest work, famed Italian author Domenico Starnone does not give us an option; rather, he sends us on a trip filled with trickery, whether that’s of the mind, of art, of human relationships, or, better, of our own self.

In this poignant translation by Jhumpa Lahiri, Starnone details the brief encounter between Daniele Mallarico, a brilliant yet faded book illustrator, and his 4-year-old grandson Mario, on the former’s visit to his childhood home in Naples. Left alone by Mario’s parents, who head to Milan to mend their broken marriage under the guise of attending an academic conference, the two start off on the wrong foot but quickly try to adapt to each other’s ways.

Their relationship, perfectly captured by Starnone’s precise writing, gives the novel a rich foundation to allow for a juxtaposition of the old and the new, the rigid and the silly, while also providing readers with moments of pure comic relief, marked by the characters’ signature, witty stichomythia.

But on a deeper level, Trick challenges us to reflect on our own mortality, as evidenced by Daniele’s own grudges with his past and present, and to decide: Is there time to play one last trick with life?

—Stavros Agorakis

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani — WINNER

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret MitsutaniNew Directions

Set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, this strange little gem of a book follows 107-year-old Yoshiro as he struggles to care for his great-grandson Mumei. In the wake of some unspecified nuclear catastrophe, the country’s children and elderly have diverged to the point where they’re almost different species: Mumei’s generation was born frail and sickly, while Yoshiro’s generation finds itself hale, healthy, and unable to die.

This probably makes The Emissary sound like a sci-fi novel, but it’s harder to categorize than that. Yoko Tawada’s matter-of-fact realism and lighthearted humor emphasize the surreal elements of the story by contrast, like they’re happening in the real world. And with a government in the undefined near future embracing nationalistic policies and suppressing its citizens’ language, the novel feels disturbingly contemporary.

For most of the story, there’s no real plot — just a series of vignettes about the characters’ daily lives peppered with beautifully bizarre imagery, where the morning light is “yellow as melted dandelions” and Mumei’s “baby teeth drop out one after another like pomegranate pulp.” But then, literally eight pages from the end, we learn something about the titular Emissary Association that retroactively links all those loose vignettes into an actual narrative. Honestly, I’ve never seen a novel do anything like this before, and when it happened, I threw the book across the room in joy.

Trevor Barnes

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft Riverhead

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is epic in its scope and mission. Her novel has a narrator — a nameless woman who wanders the world with no apparent destination — whose journey is punctuated by several disconnected vignettes that take place across the world and through time, from centuries ago to a surreal near future.

This journey through space and time has an unsettling and disorienting effect. Flights reads as a sprawling, surreal meditation on what it is to be alive in an increasingly transient world. The ability to vanish from one place and move on to the next becomes the object of a new field of study: “travel psychology.” In the book’s more humorous scenes, experts in this fictional field give lectures in airports to passive travelers waiting to board their planes.

It is the fixation on the mortal body in Flights that is most striking; bodies are fetishized, taxidermied, reduced to their parts and preserved in glass jars in museums. In one story, a Dutch anatomist discovers the Achilles tendon by dissecting his own amputated leg. And there is an injustice to being reduced to a body. A female character reflects on the sexism of becoming invisible as she ages; in a series of letters, a woman pleads with the emperor of Austria for a proper burial for her late father, an African man whose body was skinned and stuffed and put in a racist display.

In Flights, mobility is what helps us transcend these imperfect vessels. There are vanishing acts throughout the novel, like when the wife and child of a man inexplicably disappear while on vacation on a tiny Croatian island. But if we vanish — by death or otherwise — what remains of us if not our bodies? Tokarczuk offers a clue by way of her narrator: what we have written down.

—Laura Bult

Young People’s Literature

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo — WINNER

The Poet X by Elizabeth AcevedoHarperTeen

Elizabeth Acevedo is an established slam poet, and her debut novel, The Poet X, takes the form of an extended free-verse poem winding its way through a coming-of-age narrative set in modern-day Harlem. The book begins as the purported journal writings of high school sophomore Xiomara Batista. But as Xiomara wrestles to embrace her independence and nascent sexuality in the face of a censorious, extremely religious mother, The Poet X eventually reveals itself as a rhythmic literalization of a young woman finding her voice.

Many of the book’s supporting players are familiar ones from the young-adult canon — the supportive but polar-opposite best friend, the domineering immigrant mother and apathetic father, the improbably tender love interest, the unusually with-it teacher who changes the course of our protagonist’s life. But they’re given new shape through Xiomara’s/Acevedo’s free-flowing verses, which merge spoken-word and hip-hop tropes with an appropriately teenage plainspokenness.

The Poet X travels a narrative that’s so well-trod by contemporary YA that it borders on cliché, but its highly expressive approach to the language of emotion gives it a personal-epic vibe that’s all its own.

Genevieve Koski

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeCandlewick Press

Exceptionally clever, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge all but begs you to immediately reread it upon finishing the first time, so well handled is a late-in-text reveal. The actual story — an elfin historian (the Brangwain Spurge of the title) becomes the first emissary in years sent to the goblin kingdom, where he’s met by a goblin archivist named Werfel — is a bit thin, the oft-told tale of opposite numbers learning they’re not so different after all once they’re forced to spend a lot of time together. But the method of telling reveals surprising depths.

In essence, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is told in three voices. Author M.T. Anderson handles the text, which includes frequent letters from the spymaster who is hoping to use Brangwain to figure out the source of the goblins’ magic. It also contains third-person segments, told from Werfel’s point of view. Meanwhile, illustrator Eugene Yelchin offers beautiful, woodcut-like drawings depicting Brangwain’s dispatches from the goblin kingdom, extracted from his thoughts and beamed back to the elves via a magic spell.

If you’ve guessed that this is a way to play around with ideas about prejudice and perception, you’re right. But it’s not as if the world doesn’t need more stories about how to overcome our prejudices and inaccurate perceptions, and Anderson and Yelchin structure their lesson in such a way that you’ll likely find yourself paging back through the text to notice all the clues they’ve sprinkled throughout about just how inaccurately Brangwain and Werfel understood each other until it was almost too late.

Todd VanDerWerff

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie ConnorKatherine Tegen Books

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle is an exceptionally warm and sweet-hearted book — as warm and sweet as its main character. Poor 12-year-old Mason is an easy target for bullies: He’s big for his age; he lives in a falling-apart old farmhouse with his grandparents, while everyone else lives in a ritzy housing development built out of the family’s old farm; he’s highly dyslexic; and he sweats too much, so that he constantly admonishes himself, “Don’t be a gross-out.”

But despite the fact that every day after school, the other boys in his grade pelt Mason with lacrosse balls or apples, Mason refuses to let himself become mean-spirited or cruel in response. He’s a genuinely nice kid, and he’s willing to fight to protect those who need it, like a smaller boy in his grade, or a dog.

Which makes it all the more heartrending when it slowly becomes clear (and it’s clear to the reader long before it’s clear to Mason) that the police believe Mason had something to do with the tragic death of his best friend the year before. Mason’s friend died when the ladder to his treehouse collapsed underneath him, and now the cops keep asking Mason pointed questions about how he built the ladder and whether Mason would ever want to play a practical joke on someone with said ladder. Mason doesn’t understand why they keep asking him at all. He told them everything he knew, didn’t he?

Yet even though Mason must clear his name with the cops, this book is not a detective story or a mystery. It’s the story of Mason Buttle trying to protect the people who matter to him and find a safe space for himself in a world that keeps trying to hurt him — and Mason is such an instantly lovable character that there’s nothing to do but root for him to survive.

—Constance Grady

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul CurtisScholastic Press

The Journey of Little Charlie is a cunningly sophisticated middle-grade novel, one that hides the trauma and horror of its content beneath a sprightly and charming voice. The story is told by 12-year-old Charlie Bobo, a white boy living in South Carolina in 1858, and he is a likably plucky kid who narrates everything in full-on old-timey Southern dialect. “I’d seent plenty of animals by the time I was old ‘nough to start talking,” he begins, and you know immediately that you’re in for a sunny story of country hijinks.

But then Charlie’s father dies, and to pay his debts, Charlie is forced to work for the odious Cap’n Buck, an evil plantation overseer and slave catcher. Cap’n Buck at first tells Charlie that they are headed to Virginia in order to retrieve $4,000 stolen from Buck’s employer, but it gradually becomes clear that what Buck actually has in mind is catching a family of formerly enslaved people who ran away 10 years before — a family that was worth $4,000.

Charlie is a product of his time and place, and as The Journey of Little Charlie begins, he has no particular qualms about slavery as an institution. But when he is pushed to participate in it actively, to become complicit in depriving a family of their freedom, he finds himself rapidly reevaluating the legitimacy of a practice he has always accepted without question. Crucially, Christopher Paul Curtis allows Charlie to reach his epiphany without ever losing sight of the personhood of the black characters whose freedom Charlie threatens: They are complex figures in their own rights, not just props for Charlie’s personal growth.

—Constance Grady

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. KrosoczkaGraphix

Jarrett J. Krosoczka has the magical skill of capturing the joy, warmth, and uncertainty of being a kid and melding it all into a Hey, Kiddo, a touching graphic memoir. There may be moments where it feels like Krosoczka watched you grow up and captured the tiniest of details about your childhood — the smell of comic books, the color of your best friend’s shirt, the voice of your favorite teacher — and recorded them in his story.

Then there’s the part that’s a little more painful: the stuff you can only see as an adult, and may never be able to fully leave behind.

Hey, Kiddo reveals how Krosoczka slowly came to realize that his mom was addicted to drugs and that the way he grew up wasn’t the way that kids are supposed to grow up. The details of things we take for granted, like his surprise at how his grandparents feed him, are heartbreaking to readers who don’t share Krosoczka’s experiences.

It’s with those details that Krosoczka evokes a relatable yearning to understand everything about our parents, and the impossibility of that desire. There are some things about the people who gave us life, regardless of our relationships with them or how close we are with them, that we’ll never fully know.

And though Krosoczka’s mother’s circumstances changed his life, Hey, Kiddo is about how love — all different kinds, from all the people in his world — made it so that those circumstances didn’t define it.

Alex Abad-Santos