Get to Know the 5 Finalists for the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

by Tom Burns

For the past 65 years, the National Book Awards have recognized some of the world’s most acclaimed books published in a variety of genres, and that includes children’s literature. (Past winners include The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Penderwicks, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, among others.)

The NBAs didn’t start honoring children’s titles until 1969, and then they actually got rid of their children’s literature prize from 1984 to 1995 (boooo!). But, in 1996, they created the Young People’s Literature Award and, thankfully, they’ve awarded it ever since. (I think we can all agree that a). that’s a good thing and b). “young people’s literature” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?)

History lesson aside, the National Book Awards just announced the FIVE finalists for their 2015 Young People’s Literature Award. It’s a fantastically varied list — the Young People’s category traditionally mixes fiction and nonfiction — and any well-read teen or tween would love any of these titles. They’re announcing the big winner on November 18th, so if you want to be able to say you read it before it was famous, here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to know about the five finalists.

1.  Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

What’s It About? Told in Ruby’s gorgeous prose — deftly dancing the line between the real and unreal — Bone Gap recounts a harrowing tale in rural Illinois, in which a young teen named Finn witnesses a woman named Roza being abducted, but he isn’t able to stop her from being taken. What’s worse is that he can’t remember the abductor’s face and can’t clearly recall the details of the kidnapping, making him a pariah in his small town.

Where Do I Know the Author From? Perhaps from her noted YA novels such as Lily’s Ghosts (nominated for the Edgar Award) or Good Girls.

2.  Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

What’s It About? This incredibly moving novel creates a powerful portrait of mental illness with the story of Caden Bosch, a teenager who finds himself living in two worlds simultaneously. In one world, he’s the artist-in-residence on pirate ship headed for the world’s deepest oceanic trench. In the other, he’s a gifted high school student who begins withdrawing into himself, alienating his friends and family and showing early signs of schizophrenia.

Where Do I Know the Author From? Schusterman previously won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for his YA novel The Schwa Was Here, and has a number of different YA series to his name, including the Accelerati Trilogy, the Dark Fusion series, and the Skinjacker series, among others.

3.  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

What’s It About? This fascinating nonfiction work offers teenagers a window into one of the darkest periods of recent American history. Sheinkin does a tremendous job contextualizing the real-life story of Daniel Ellsberg, the legendary whistleblower who, in 1971, leaked the “The Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times, a document that exposed the U.S. Government’s “secret history” of the Vietnam War, revealing the even-uglier hidden details behind that already ugly war. Required reading for any student interested in Edward Snowden or WikiLeaks.

Where Do I Know the Author From? Sheinkin is an acclaimed nonfiction author — his 2012 YA title Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon was a Newbery Honor Book.

4.  Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

What’s It About? The sole graphic novel on the list — which originated as a popular web comic — collects the fantasy adventures of Nimona, a young shapeshifter, who wants to be a minion for Lord Ballister Blackheart, a knight-turned-villain, who mostly just wants to expose the hypocrisy of the kingdom’s “good guys,” a.k.a. Ballister’s former friend, Sir Ambrose, and The Institute of Law Enforcement. Nimona and Ballister’s funny, affecting relationship is the heart of the book, even as Ballister begins to wonder about the origins of Nimona’s often-frightening powers.

Where Do I Know the Author From? Aside from her award-winning webcomic Nimona, Stevenson is also the co-writer of the massively popular comic book series Lumberjanes.

5.  The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

What’s It About? A potent story about adolescent grief, this YA novel follows Suzy, a young teen who isolates herself, refusing to speak to anyone, after her estranged best friend Franny accidentally dies by drowning. Desperate to find meaning in the tragic event, Suzy becomes obsessed with the idea that Franny’s death was caused by a jellyfish sting, kicking off a makeshift forensic investigation that threatens to completely consume her life.

Where Do I Know the Author From? This is Benjamin’s first solo work — she’d previously co-written The Keeper, Positive, and The Cleaner Plate Club.


You can learn more about the National Book Awards here.