This year’s National Book Awards finalists marked multiple firsts

On the eve of winter and the beginning of November, now might be the perfect time to start exploring new book suggestions for cozy nights in (a frequent reality this year). The National Book Foundation’s 25 finalists for the 2020 National Book Awards will cater to seasoned readers and budding book-lovers alike. Winners across five categories — Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature — will be announced on Nov. 18 during the 71st National Book Awards Ceremony, which will be virtual. If you want to take a look at what books are vying for those awards, we compiled all of them below, including both finalists and the longlist for each category.

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SKIP AHEAD Finalists in Fiction | Nonfiction | Poetry | Translated Literature | Young People’s Literature

The finalists pushed through a total of 1,692 submitted books. Nearly a third of those finalists (eight) are author debuts. Notably, the finalists are books that in some ways reflect the themes of diversity, social justice and equality that have defined 2020 including immigration (“The Undocumented Americans”), prominent civil rights leaders (“The Dead Are Rising: The Life of Malcolm X”) and Hollywood-based stereotypes of Asian-Americans (“Interior Chinatown”). This year will also be the final National Book Awards under the leadership of Lisa Lucas, who’ll be transitioning into a new role at Pantheon and Schocken Books, where she will serve as publisher and senior VP. Only the third executive director of the National Book Foundation, Lucas set records as both the first woman and first Black person to lead the organization. Among other things, Lucas has been credited with advancing the organization’s efforts in promoting literary diversity and inclusivity.

Among this year’s 25 judges is author and social commentator Roxane Gay, who chaired the fiction category, leading a team that selected five finalists out of 388 submissions.

National Book Awards finalists 2020

Below you’ll find a list of all 25 official finalists for the 2020 National Book Awards, as well as the longlist of semifinalists in each category. To give you some context on each book, we’re including its Goodreads average rating and the National Book Foundation synopsis of the material.

National Book Awards finalists: Fiction

There were 388 submissions in the fiction category. The finalists are listed below in alphabetical order, followed by the longlist of semi-finalists.

Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam

  • Publisher: Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers
  • Goodreads: 3.48-star average rating, more than 8,500 ratings

In Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay head out on a family vacation to Long Island, but their trip turns uneasy when the homeowners seek refuge following blackouts in New York City. As the world outside moves towards greater unrest, the group faces their perceptions about each other and the very concept of safety.

A Children’s Bible: A Novel” by Lydia Millet

  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Goodreads: 3.77-star average rating, more than 2,500 ratings

Civilization’s future is at stake in A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, who holds a master’s degree in environmental policy. The cast of young characters in Millet’s novel easily fend for themselves as their parents remain indifferent to the devastation of the world around them in allegorical tale that defies rationalizations about climate change.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw

  • Publisher: West Virginia University Press
  • Goodreads: 4.47-star average rating, 450 ratings

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyawdraws us into the multifaceted lives of Black women across several generations as they engage in self-discovery and seduction. In Philyaw’s first work of fiction, her characters push the boundaries of thought around morality, Christianity, and their community’s expectations.

Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stewart

  • Publisher: Grove Press / Grove Atlantic
  • Goodreads: 4.37-star average rating, over 3, 200 ratings

Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuartis an epic portrayal of a working-class family haunted by alcoholism. Each of their experiences are portrayed with great care through the eyes of lonely Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, who finds himself at the margins of his own family.

Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu (pre-order)

  • Publisher: Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House
  • Goodreads: 3.89-star average rating, nearly 4,000 ratings

Everyone embodies a role in Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu and protagonist Willis Wu strives to land the best one available to an Asian-American man: Kung Fu Guy. Yu’s novel takes the concept of allegory and uses the familiar landscape of Hollywood tropes to create a nuanced, heartfelt, and stylistically unique portrait of Asian-American identity.

Fiction longlist

National Book Awards finalists: Nonfiction

There were 609 submissions in the nonfiction category. The finalists are listed below in alphabetical order, followed by the longlist of semi-finalists.

The Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

  • Publisher: One World / Penguin Random House
  • Goodreads: 4.60-star average rating, over 2, 700 ratings

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a keenly reported work in which former DACA recipient Cornejo Villavicencio profiles undocumented people across the country, focusing on their inner lives and value beyond their status and contributions to the economy.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

  • Publisher: Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company
  • Goodreads:4.70-star average rating, 10 ratings

The results of decades of research, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne is a fully realized portrait of Malcolm X. Pulitzer Prize winner Les Payne set out to interview anyone who had ever known Malcolm X, and after his death in 2018, his daughter and researcher Tamara Payne completed his work.

Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory” by Claudio Saunt

  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Goodreads:4.37-star average rating, over 160 ratings

Claudio Saunt turns a historian’s eye on President Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act in Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. Drawing on firsthand accounts and numerous records produced by the federal government, Saunt reveals how the removal of Native Americans was calculated and connected to the growth of the uniquely American form of capitalism.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Jenn Shapland

  • Publisher: Tin House Books
  • Goodreads: 4.15-star average rating, approximately 580 ratings

While interning at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas where the papers of writer Carson McCullers are held, Jenn Shapland discovers letters between Carson McCullers and Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach that imply a romantic relationship between the two. In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Shapland plumbs the depths of the Southern writer’s life as well as her own, addressing how queer love stories are hidden and finally told.

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays” by Jerald Walker

  • Publisher: Mad Creek Books / The Ohio State University Press
  • Goodreads: 4.50-star average rating

Jerald Walker’s collectionHow to Make a Slave and Other Essays includes reflections on the author’s experiences in academia such as racial profiling by a campus security guard, accounts of discussing race with his children, and contemplations on disability and family, all told with a wry comedic eye and deep honesty.

Nonfiction longlist

National Book Awards finalists: Poetry

There were 254 submissions in the poetry category. The finalists are listed below in alphabetical order, followed by the longlist of semi-finalists.

A Treatise on Stars” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

  • Publisher: New Directions
  • Goodreads: 3.96-star average rating, more than 20 ratings

Unity guides A Treatise on Stars by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge which implores that we connect with the larger natural and cosmic world. This is Berssenbrugge’s thirteenth collection of poems, and a lyrical work that reveals constellations of our connectedness to fuel introspection.

Fantasia for the Man in Blue” by Tommye Blount

  • Publisher: Four Way Books
  • Goodreads: 4.37-star average rating, nearly 20 ratings

The title poem in Fantasia for the Man in Blue is a series of poems ranging throughout the book, a quartet that speaks to the experience and threat of police violence upon Black people. The complex and layered collection is drawn from reality, and exemplifies how desire lives in proximity to the danger of being a marginalized body.

DMZ Colony” by Don Mee Choi

  • Publisher: Wave Books
  • Goodreads: 4.57-star average rating, more than 50 ratings

Deeply rooted in the personal and political, DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi is structured in eight sections and includes transcriptions of conversations with activist Ahn Hak-sop, her father’s work as a photojournalist, handwritten texts, and more. Choi deftly explores the histories of South Korea and the United States via her return from the U.S. to South Korea in 2016.

Borderland Apocrypha” by Anthony Cody

  • Publisher: Omnidawn Publishing
  • Goodreads: 4.55-star average rating, 11 ratings

A work of documentary poetics, Borderland Apocrypha details the history of trauma and survival at the U.S.-Mexico border. Cody utilizes imagery, historic documents, multi-lingual erasure poems, and more to force a reckoning with history’s silence.

Postcolonial Love Poem” by Natalie Diaz

  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Goodreads: 4.51-star average rating, more than 700 ratings

Natalie Diaz‘s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, engages with love and history in an anthem of desire against erasure while simultaneously celebrating her survival as an Indigenous queer woman.

Poetry longlist

National Book Awards finalists: Translated Literature

There were 130 submissions in the translated literature category. The finalists are listed below in alphabetical order, followed by the longlist of semi-finalists.

High as the Waters Rise: A Novel” by Anja Kampmann and Anne Posten

  • Publisher: Catapult
  • Goodreads: 3.3-star average rating, more than 50 ratings

Translated from the German by Anne Posten, High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann explores the emotional life of an oil rig worker whose bunkmate fell into the sea and drowned, setting off a chain of events that force his reckoning with the exploitation of natural resources.

The Family Clause” by Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Alice Menzies

  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers
  • Goodreads: 3.87-star average rating, over 1,900 ratings

Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s The Family Clause, translated by Alice Menzies, provides insight on one family across a span of only ten days, during which relationships change and memories are brought to the surface.

Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri and Morgan Giles

  • Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin Random House
  • Goodreads: 3.64-star average rating, over 1,800 ratings

In Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miriand translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, ghost narrator Kazu visits the park in which he last lived as a homeless man. As the book unfolds, the reader learns more about his earlier years and the ways in which Japan’s modernization pushed many to the margins of society, where they were subsequently ignored.

The Bitch” by Pilar Quintana and Lisa Dillman

  • Publisher: World Editions
  • Goodreads: 4.00-star average rating, more than 1,100 ratings

Set on Colombia’s Pacific coast, The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is a portrait of a woman wrestling with abandonment, love, and her need to nurture. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, the narrative follows the main character’s adoption of a dog that disappears into the jungle; when the dog returns, she nurses it to health but when it flees once more, there are brutal consequences.

Minor Detail” by Adania Shibli and Elisabeth Jaquette

  • Publisher: New Directions
  • Goodreads: 4.01-star average rating, over 380 ratings

Written by Adania Shibli and translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Minor Detail is split between two interrelated narratives, the latter half following a young woman’s search to discover more about the tragic murder of a Palestinian teenager in 1949, who died the day she was born.

Translated literature longlist

National Book Awards finalists: Young People’s Literature

There were 311 submissions in the young people’s literature category. The finalists are listed below in alphabetical order, followed by the longlist of semi-finalists.

King and the Dragonflies” by Kacen Callender

  • Publisher: Scholastic Press / Scholastic Inc.
  • Goodreads: 4.38-star average rating, more than 1,700 ratings

In King and the Dragonflies, Kacen Callender’s protagonist Kingston James deals with grief, sexual identity, and the perceptions and expectations of family.

We Are Not Free” by Traci Chee

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Goodreads: 4.49-star average rating, more than 400 ratings

Traci Chee’s work of historical fiction follows fourteen teenage narrators whose lives have been changed by the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry from their homes during World War II. We Are Not Free includes photographs and documents from the time period, enhancing this portrait of a harrowing time in our nation’s history.

Every Body Looking” by Candice Iloh

  • Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
  • Goodreads: 3.98-star average rating, over 280 ratings

In Every Body Looking, protagonist Ada reckons with her past while her exploration of dance grounds her in her body and points a way forward.

When Stars Are Scattered” by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson

  • Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
  • Goodreads: 4.68-star average rating, more than 3,400 ratings

The graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered is written and illustrated by the Newbery Honor winner Victoria Jamiesonand based on interviews with co-author Omar Mohamed. Their work chronicles the years Mohamed spent in a Kenyan refugee camp, where limbo and hope co-exist as he awaits news about resettlement and watches the lives of those around him change.

The Way Back” by Gavriel Savit

  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
  • Goodreads: 4.06-star average rating, more than 30 ratings

Jewish folklore infuses The Way Back, in which two young people travel into a world of spirits and demons and must find their way home to their nineteenth-century shtetl Tupik in Eastern Europe.

Young People’s Literature longlist

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