From my review: “what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.”
The more I thought about this as the winner, the more I think it came down to how this story can be read on two levels. First, as a fantasy, set in an original world that captures the imagination of the reader and provides a heroic quest for Rownie to find his brother and save his city. Second, it was the story of a child finding a family; finding people who love him; finding people who care whether or not he eats a hot meal. The last line of Goblin Secrets is “His fingers twitched and his mouth watered, but he waited for his supper to cool.” I’m reminded of the “and it was still hot” from Where The Wild Things Are. I think that dual reading of the imagined world and the real emotions helped push this to making it the winner.
Here’s an article on William Alexander and Goblin Secrets, where I am quoted: Writer William Alexander taps younger self for National Book Award-winning ‘Goblin Secrets’ by Pat Condon.