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National Book Award Predictions (has it ever been done?)

We don’t talk enough, you and I.  About the National Book Awards, I mean.  Seems to me that the only time we pay much attention to them is when they release their shortlist, and by that point the only thing left to predict is what the ultimate winner will be.  It hasn’t quite the same press recognition of a Newbery or Caldecott, but I enjoy the NBAs.  They’re one of the few times authors have a chance to give a big award to their peers.  There’s much to be said for that, you know.

There are some interesting differences between NBA committees and ALSC committees too.  For example, while a person on a Newbery committee is allowed to give their personal opinion on a title, an NBA committee member is not allowed to give so much as a smidgen of an opinion from start to finish.  Linda Sue Park, as I recall, when asked during her tenure as to what books she liked would begin with, “Well I was really impressed by . . .” then slap her own hands over her mouth and end with, “hmmm mmm mmm hmmmm mmm.”

Another essential difference is that not all children’s and YA books are considered for the award.  In fact, they must be nominated by their publishers and each book must pay a $125 entry fee.  Yikes!  The result is that it is the publishers who pick and choose what to send it.  By this time of year they can no longer send in anything (the deadline has passed) so not only will we be predicting what the committee members like but also what the publishers feel have the best chances.

This year the NBA committee members in the Young People’s Literature category include Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Tor Seidler, Hope Anita Smith, and Sara Zarr.  Not too shabby, eh?

I’ve been watching the NBA Young People’s Literature nominees for a number of years now and have determined that the kind of books they prefer are titles that are YA, a little more obscure than those with Newbery potential, and out of far right field.  In short: Impossible to predict.

Not that we don’t like to try!  With the given understanding that I’ve never tried this before, I don’t read YA, and every NBA committee has a different vibe to it, let’s have some fun with this!

In brief, my thoughts on potential nominees would include:

The Boneshaker by Kate Milford –
Clearly this is this year’s Lips Touch sans any actual lips touching.  If any book was a shoo-in for serious consideration in the middle grade category, I’d have to hand it to Ms. Milford.  In fact, of all the books I list here, Kate’s is the only one that I would actually bet had a serious striking chance at an NBA nomination.  Let’s hope the publisher was clever enough to feel the same way (but really what else could they have nominated?).  With Kelly and Tor on the committee, at least one fantasy has a shot at getting on the final list.  Let’s hope it’s this one.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti –
Is it just me or haven’t there been enough big non-fiction titles with buzz this year?  Aside from this and the Russell Freedman book about WWI, I’m not seeing a lot of stuff being toted for the non-fiction lovers out there.  Now Laban Carrick Hill is the only author on the committee with a serious full-throttle non-fic past, but I think every committee member will eventually have to agree that Bartoletti’s great writing and sheer guts make this a book worth honoring.

Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner –
Ah ha!  Now when we start talking about Turner’s book in regards to the Newbery there’s going to be all sorts of discussions over whether or not the book stands on its own without one having read the previous novels, yadda yadda yadda.  I like to think that the NBA will skip all of that and just consider the writing.  Which, by all accounts (no, I haven’t read it yet and yes, I promise I will) is phenomenal.  Five stars went to this puppy in the review journals.  It’s a serious contender, and I like to think the folks at NBA are gonna appreciate that.  Just sayin’.

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri
I figured it couldn’t hurt to include a graphic novel in here. Y’all know my wont. Sometimes graphic novels do well with the NBAs.  Stitches and American Born Chinese, for example.  Yummy has the distinction of telling a true story with a great artist and some basic good storytelling.  There’s enough complexity for a teen but it isn’t inappropriate for a kid.  I wouldn’t call it a sure thing by any means, but I think it at least has a fighting chance.

Departure Time by Truus Matti –
The NBAs get a little random sometimes.  They like to shake things up.  Mention books that haven’t been part of the casual discourse yet.  Now I don’t know if namelos sent in this book for consideration, but if they did then it seems to me as if it would be an ideal Wild Card contender.  It’s a little bit mystery, a little bit magical realism, and a whole lotta good.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand –
Haven’t read it myself, but folks like it.  Plus it’s right on the cusp of being almost an adult title.  NBA folks love that stuff.  They eat it up like ice cream.

Shoot me some of your own thoughts!  And to see what the NBAs have come up with in the past, you need only go here or look at the finalists here.  The finalists for this year will be announced October 13th.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. ILLYRIA is amazing and I’d love to see it in there but I wonder…these are cousins in a sexual relationship so it might be too much for the whole committee. It sure is a fantastic read though.

    I just got Tanya Lee Bolden’s BARBIE book and the new one on Janis Joplin from Abrams. Both look great and I’m looking forward to reading them. Still haven’t seen Freeman’s WWI book.

    And BONESHAKER? Well…you know how I feel about BONESHAKER!!!

  2. Re nonfiction — Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD should be a contender — it is excellent (and I need to blog about it, but ARC is in NYC and I’m not).

  3. While not my favorite book this year i think The Dreamer has the right qualities to make it prime NBA material.

  4. What’s the exact status for ILLYRIA and its publication year? I’m not sure what it is (and isn’t) eligible for. Personally, I loved it.

  5. Four books I think have a chance to be nominated are
    Compromised by Heidi Ayarbe,
    A Love Story Starring by Dead Best Friend by Emily Horne
    Countdown by Deborah Wiles
    Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper .

    And why am I now just hearing about Illyria?

  6. Wonderful post. Fascinating predictions. If Yummy makes even the shortlist, then we’ll know that the National Book Awards committee really wants young people to have a chance to think about gangs, gang violence, vulnerable children, and the ethics of juvenile justice and other responses. If not, well, … then I’ll have to surmise that they are knowingly passing up an opportunity to do this, and I’ll be anxious to see what on earth could be more deserving. Yummy was one of the most ridiculously readable and important books I’ve ever read. In. My. Life. What the heck IS their criteria, anyway?

  7. What what, are we assuming that MOCKINGJAY will be too popular to be seriously considered by the NBA committee? 😉

    The NBA nominees almost always seem to consist of Young Adult Titles I Have Heard of But Not Read, so I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot of such things as Jennifer Hubbard’s The Secret Year or Beth Kephart’s The Heart is Not a Size.

    Personally, I’m rooting for Neal Schusterman’s Bruiser. I done love that thing.

  8. I’ll second OUT OF MY MIND. I loved that book so much. I’m just halfway through Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION, but I’d add that to the list, too. And for nonfiction, Loree Griffin Burns’ THE HIVE DETECTIVES: CHRONICLE OF A HONEY BEE CATASTROPHE just came out in May (I think it was May) and is both beautifully written and important.

    And how have I missed hearing about YUMMY and ILLYRIA? Thanks, as always, for the eye-opening – I shall have to find these!

  9. Here’s what I get for having a Bolden book in front of me when I type a comment – I got my “TANYAS” mixed up. BARBIE is by Tanya STONE (of ALMOST ASTRONAUTS fame). It looks great. And I agree with Kate – if a Scientists in the Field book had a snowball’s chance in hell, I’d be all over HIVE DETECTIVES both because it is a fascinating read and because it is so significant. (I felt the same way about Loree Griffin Burns’ earlier title, TRACKING TRASH).

    Barbie Link:

  10. PS. I did have that same question as Liz about ILLYRIA and pub year – it came out from PS Publishing in England a couple of years ago. Don’t have any idea how that works for the NBAs.

    And Doret – WHAT??? You aren’t religiously reading my column???? HA! I gave ILLYRIA a TON Of love last month. Go. Read it – you’ll love it!

  11. well, you know i’m going to have to second “the boneshaker” and “out of my mind.” but “illyria?” oh dear. i think i am completely alone in saying that while the cover is absolutely beautiful and the premise is promising, the actual content left me stone cold. controversial and interesting yes, but ultimately disappointing. i’m in the minority, of course, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. there has been plenty of buzz amongst the publishing crowd for lauren oliver’s, “before I fall,” and there are LOTS of writers and industry folks out there who would love to see her honored for that work. i’d have to agree. the nba is probably her only chance, and it’s a pretty phenomenal debut. (although the cover is awful. go figure!) also, i’m surprised no-one has mentioned “will grayson/will grayson” by green and levithan! i know john green needs another award like a fish needs a bicycle, but it’s some of the best work i’ve seen from not one, but TWO talented y.a. authors, with a completely unique structure and premise. i’d definitely say it was a contender.

  12. Dear Betsy, I’d love to see NBA go way out on a limb and nominate THE MARBURY LENS (I don’t know if you’ve read it yet; pretty violent and gory in spots, which I know is not your fave). I’m also a big fan of THE KNEEBONE BOY.

  13. Re Before I Fall by Oliver — If I were a betting person, I’d bet that Before I Fall winds up on the Morris Award shortlist that will be announced in December.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Oh foo. Y’all are completely right about Before I Fall. I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t mention it in the first place. I’d like to proffer an apology to my agent (he represents Oliver as well).

  14. Andrea, you are not alone in your lack of excitement about Illyria. So many other great books! Before I Fall; The Dreamer; As Easy As Falling off the Face of the Earth will surprise you; but Finnikin of the Rock is still my favorite this year so far…
    Bookslut, it was orginally published for adults as a novella. American publisher chose to publish it for teens. As to the “secure families”-maybe I read a different book- I thought that the abuse and the neglect (and yes, the boredom) were contributing factors to these two fourteen-year-olds having sex. Maybe not. I’m curious whether reviewers think the incest makes it more or less compelling?

  15. jennie samson says

    What about Grace by Elizabeth Scott? It comes out in September but I got an ARC at ALA and it is absolutely stunning. She is one writer who is not afraid of anything at all. I don’t know how she does it, because I would have thought the response to Living Dead Girl would have cowed her. But she seems determined to tackle anything, even the minefield that is children raised to kill others for a cause.

  16. While I love fiction, often non-fiction can have a bigger impact on the reader….


    See you outside,

  17. Thanks for this post. I had no idea that publishers were the nominators (and have to pay for the privilege!). I like to read the NBA nominees and the Printz nominees and compare what the different committees thought was award worthy.

  18. Thanks for this Elizabeth! You always have great suggestions/predictions. What do you think are some great titles for an upper elementary book battle competition?

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Hi Megan,

      Well, that depends. Do you only want books from 2010? Email me and I’ll come up with some titles for you.


  1. […] with four titles, getting great reviews for their books, and just yesterday had Betsy Bird’s Fuse 8 musing if their title Departure Time by Truus Matti would make the short list for the National Book […]