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Best Children's and Teen Indie Books of 2015

This series couldn’t ask for a more vibrant opening chapter.

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    Best Books Of 2015

THE TIME HUNTERS

The first volume in a YA series featuring siblings who help their time-traveling uncle locate ancient artifacts.

Thirteen-year-old Becky Mellor is spending the summer with her younger brother, Joe, and their reclusive inventor uncle, Percy Halifax. From their home in Manchester, England, the siblings head for Bowen Hall and what will probably be a dull vacation. Upon meeting Percy, however, the siblings find him charmingly eccentric; his Jacobean mansion comes with rare miniature horses and a brilliant archer named Will, who lives in a treehouse. Then, one night, Joe drags Becky out of bed to witness Percy catering to a sick saber-toothed tiger. This leads to the revelation that it’s possible to travel backward in time, which the Global Institute for Time Travel regularly does. After a jaunt to the Pleistocene epoch (in a 1963 Volkswagen camper van), Percy and the kids return to find Bowen Hall ransacked by the murderous Otto Kruger, who may well be hunting for the legendary Golden Fleece. In Percy’s possession are the mysterious Theseus Disc and a note from deceased friend and fellow time traveler Bernard Preston. Following these leads, the heroic trio ventures to the island of Crete in the year 1634 B.C.—but are they prepared to face the myths handed down by history? Author Ashmore kicks off his series with a sustained burst of narrative ingenuity and wit. His characters are wonderful company, especially Becky, an endearing smart aleck who calls Percy’s housekeeper, Maria, a “human skittle.” The clever rules of Ashmore’s world will also hook readers; the Omega Effect, for example, governs certain events that time travelers can’t alter. Then there’s the problem of Otto Kruger, a Nazi who’s somehow gone forward in time. When danger threatens, Ashmore channels Dr. Who through madcap Percy: “Guns are for amateurs.” Best of all, the audience is treated to moments that are beautiful (Becky crying at the sight of woolly mammoths) and transcendent: “No matter when or where you are, the sea remains the same—wonderful, elegant, dangerous and vast.” From every angle, it’s an excellent work.

This series couldn’t ask for a more vibrant opening chapter.

Pub Date: March 23, 2012

ISBN: 978-0956859501

Page Count: 238

Publisher: Addlebury Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

Smart, witty text matched by fine design and illustrations make this kids’ book a tasty, offbeat treat.

A DOG NAMED ZERO AND THE APPLE WITH NO NAME

An entertaining, original take on counting from children’s book author and illustrator Bartlett (Tuba Lessons, 2009).

This counting lesson quirkily begins with “a Dog named Zero who lived in Hawaii for almost twenty years—but doesn’t live there anymore” and a nameless, “juicy red Apple” hanging tantalizingly high on a very tall tree. Little Zero, it seems, has a hankering for the yummy fruit, but how to reach it? On each succeeding page of this cumulative, giggle-inducing tale, assorted creatures (whose names happen to be One through Ten) arrive and offer to help Zero ascend high enough to pluck the apple by stacking themselves on top of one another. They raise the hungry dog higher and higher until success is in reach, and then, “out of the deep blue sky, a Bee named Charlie buzzed by…in the worst mood ever,” with predictable, tumble-down results. Never fear; the book ends happily for all (although the apple and bee might disagree); the apple, by unanimous consent, finally receives a very apt name. Bartlett’s humorous text, colorful pencil drawings and complementary book design propel this adventure forward with delightful silliness. The helpful, big-eyed creatures range from the ordinary (“A Chicken named One and a Pig named Two”) to the unexpected (“an Inch Worm named Ten…the strongest worm in the observable universe”). Another plus is the book’s smart use of vocabulary and clever wordplay; for example, a cow named Five and a bull named Six ask Zero, “If you can’t count on us, then moo can you count on?” Overall, this exercise in counting is a downright charmer.

Smart, witty text matched by fine design and illustrations make this kids’ book a tasty, offbeat treat.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Over the Edge Studios

Review Posted Online: Dec. 10, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

A wild tale helmed by a charmingly clever kid.

Lucy Lick-Me-Not and the Greedy Gubbins

A CHRISTMAS STORY

From the The Fantastic Tales of Lucy Lick-Me-Not series , Vol. 2

Child heroine Lucy Lick-Me-Not is back, and this time, she’s taking on the seasons and the lack of a white Christmas.

It’s late December, and Lucy Lick-Me-Not is not happy. It’s too warm to be Christmas! There’s nary a snowflake in sight, her mother refuses to drink eggnog, and her father decides not to light a fire in the fireplace. What’s a kid to do? One day, Lucy Lick-Me-Not hears a voice coming from a tree. She is, of course, wary—she knows some monsters would love to gobble her up—but when she opens up the door to the tree, she finds Jack Frost. He explains that he’s been trapped in the tree by the Greedy Gubbin Queen, who won’t let him start winter. The queen instead wants her Gubbins to live and prosper. Using a lesson she learned in school, Lucy Lick-Me-Not fools the green-loving Gubbins and convinces them to head to Greenland, which, ice-covered as it is, isn’t all that green. This gives Jack Frost the opportunity he needs to chill down December, and a white Christmas is indeed had by all. Carmel (Lucy Lick-Me-Not and the Day Eaters: A Birthday Story, 2014) has done it again. The second installment of the series is just as wildly imaginative and fun as the first. Carmel has her formula—a frothy fantasy with a touch of smarts—down pat. Educational lessons dot the lyrical prose, as in the beginning of the book, when Carmel explains why there are seasons to begin with: i.e., the Earth’s rotation bringing different parts of the Earth closer to the sun and all that. Elsewhere, Carmel explains that spring is for planting, fall is for harvesting, etc. Burkmar’s vivid, colorful illustrations are the cherry on top of a lovely sundae that children and adults alike will reach for time and again.

A wild tale helmed by a charmingly clever kid.

Pub Date: July 2, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-9906248-0-6

Page Count: 40

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

Compelling characters, riveting tension, and rich, complex worldbuilding make this a must-read for fantasy fans.

The Midnight Spy

BOOK ONE OF THE MIDNIGHT SPY SERIES

From the Midnight Spy series

Hamilton (The Faerie Queen, 2014) launches a planned YA historical fantasy series driven by a strong heroine, intrigue, mystery, and a little bit of romance.

For years Nica has been at the mercy of her abusive father, a ruthless ruler determined to take over a neighboring kingdom. Aided by her friend Toppen, Nica finally tries to escape her father, only to plunge into a battle for survival. She teams up with a young mercenary named Jonn Shanks, and together they begin to parse clues about both her father and her past. When Nica discovers that she isn’t who she thought she was, she is suddenly in a race against time with Shanks to defeat her father before he captures her and destroys what little good is still left in her world. The secret to victory lies in the mythical Getheas Stone. Nica and Shanks must decipher clues in ancient quatrains to find the stone before her father does. The innocent romance between Nica and Shanks is endearing, though her jealousy of his princess “boss” feels petty and shallow given the enormity of the stakes they are facing. Hamilton’s prose shines on the page, delivering brilliant descriptions and fast-paced plotting with plenty of tension. The prophetic quatrains are based on the 16th-century writings of Nostradamus, lending authenticity to the story. Nica is brave and strong, but her flaws and vulnerability make her a compelling heroine for whom it’s easy to cheer. Likewise, Shanks and his best friend, Sebande, are complex, intriguing heroes who are equally as dynamic. The trio drives the book, resulting in unexpected plot turns, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and moments of tension-relieving laughter. Secondary characters, such as her depraved father and the wise castle scholar, are well-drawn too. The way Hamilton cleverly layers in pieces of information that become important later is excellent, creating a tightly plotted storyline in a detailed, lush fantasy world. The ending calls upon inner strength and bravery from the young trio, but plenty of loose ends promise another book in the outstanding series.

Compelling characters, riveting tension, and rich, complex worldbuilding make this a must-read for fantasy fans.

Pub Date: July 26, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5142-8350-9

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Gaslamp Books

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

Delightful, magical, and beautiful—should be a classic.

IMAGES AND WORDS

This lovely book shows children how different cultures and times have depicted simple concepts—rain, cat, chair, etc.—in works of art.

The idea behind this book is simple but powerful: take several dozen basic images, mostly but not entirely of animals, and illustrate each with five or six artworks, one per page, from a wide range of cultures. For example, “hare” is illustrated with full-color examples from Dürer, an ancient Grecian pottery vase, an ancient Islamic bestiary, a Japanese woodblock print, a medieval Italian watercolor, and an Iranian pottery tile. Next to each photograph is a one-word caption in English, German, French, Spanish, and Chinese, giving children a chance to learn some foreign vocabulary. The final section—simply titled “?”—shows uncaptioned works featuring the same basic images, giving readers a chance to make their own connections. Hovaguimian (Henry’s Dragon Dream, 2013, etc.) explains that the book is primarily meant to be read by an adult and child together, but adults will also enjoy solo gazing at these evocative pages. The well-chosen artworks are thoughtfully arranged for similarity in scale and composition, which allows viewers to compare and contrast more fruitfully. Techniques and materials shown include fabric appliqué, ceramic, wood, tile, and oil, watercolor, and ink paint. (Captions give full provenance, and the images have been used with permission.) The works depicted reveal culture in thought-provoking ways: “house,” for instance, can mean a sturdy brick edifice, a teepee, or a beehivelike hut. Fodder for discussion lies in comparing artistic styles and effects—the haughty Chinese camel has little in common with the Henry Moore–ish camel, also Chinese. The book goes well beyond nice pictures of museum pieces; its juxtapositions create an unexpectedly magical effect. Under “cow,” it’s captivating to see the same gracefully upswept horns meeting each other across the millennia: on one page, a painted American buffalo-hide shield from 1850; on the other, an African wall painting circa 2,500 B.C.E. The artists’ fellowship of vision across time and place is simple, striking, and surprisingly moving.

Delightful, magical, and beautiful—should be a classic.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2015

ISBN: 978-1493717866

Page Count: 161

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

A genuine, upbeat bildungsroman of African-American high school life.

Jamaal's Journey

A debut YA novel of high school drama that’s just as rambunctious as its narrator.

Jamaal is a senior at Spring Valley High School, a veritable rainbow of ethnic diversity that he describes more than once as a colorful garden salad. He’s two months away from graduation and the adult responsibilities that loom beyond the school’s safe walls. He’s spent the last several years navigating his high school world, which is rich in social constructs and all the pitfalls they offer. It’s a place where one fights for identity in hallways and classrooms, where one defends one’s rank with physical force or a clever insult. Jamaal finds himself enamored of the gorgeous Taneeka, and he comforts her when he discovers how much she’s suffered since her mother’s suicide due to her father’s abuse. However, he also gets involved with Sandra, a Haitian girl whose straight-laced veneer covers up her smart, snappy personality, and he must determine with whom his heart lies. Meanwhile, he also tries to help his friend Steven, who’s dealing with poverty and addiction in his own family. McCormack’s novel moves at the pace of adolescent life, leaping from one event to the next in quick, anecdotal spurts. This verisimilitude will draw readers into the tumultuous, dramatic current of the characters’ social lives. The book occasionally slips into jokiness and repetition, but Jamaal’s wide-eyed earnestness redeems it. Although the story has a lighthearted tone throughout, it successfully takes up a number of difficult themes in oblique and direct ways, including the disparities of student performance due to socio-economic inequality, the pressure to act differently among teachers and among one’s peers, and the ethics of romantic obligations. These are by no means insignificant matters, and their appearances lend credence to the author’s apparent desire to capture what a subset of American high schoolers goes through every day.

A genuine, upbeat bildungsroman of African-American high school life.

Pub Date: Dec. 3, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500920180

Page Count: 240

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2015

A fast, fun read that’s undeniably cool, just like its princesses.

ONCE UPON A ZOMBIE

BOOK ONE: THE COLOR OF FEAR

Kid-friendly horror featuring iconic fairy-tale heroines for young readers who enjoy their literary fare on the darker side.

Tonally and stylistically reminiscent of the Monster High novels, this middle-grade novel (the first in a planned series) has an intriguing premise: 14-year-old Caitlin, the new kid at a prestigious London academy, gets tricked into visiting the gravesite of Lewis Carroll at night and falls down a proverbial rabbit hole into a magical realm created by particles of imagination. There, she’s befriended by a quartet of popular fairy-tale females—Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty—who have all become zombified due to the evil machinations of the Queen of Hearts and a being known as the Enchanter. Caitlin learns that she’s the only one who can save both realms from the spreading darkness that is sucking the wonder out of the world and turning the inhabitants into zombies. Caitlin’s mission is daunting—she must somehow take the Queen of Hearts’ magic scepter from her. The queen, however, is guarded by an army of zombie wolves, crows, and bats. As Caitlin, her younger sister, Natalie, and her undead princess besties trek through dangerous fantasy realms en route to the queen’s castle, Caitlin’s crush from school—a boy named Jack—finds his way into the magical realm and experiences his own tribulations. Powered by a fast-paced, action-packed narrative that features beloved childhood characters in a decidedly darker light, this story will surely delight readers of all ages. In one memorable scene, “Tweedledee and Tweedledum were terrorizing the dance floor with some super-loose hip-hop moves. An undead and pale Peter Pan was chatting up a Blood-Eyed, rotting Red Riding Hood.”

A fast, fun read that’s undeniably cool, just like its princesses.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Dog Ear Publisher

Review Posted Online: March 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

A clever picture book with an unexpected punch line that will delight young readers.

THE LITTLE MOUSE SANTI

A mouse who wants to be a cat has a conversation that leads to an unexpected outcome in this delightful picture book by debut author Ray, featuring illustrations by Germano (The German King, 2013).

Young mouse Santi is envious of the farm cats who drink cream, take naps and receive pets from the farmer’s wife. He eagerly wants to take part in these cat activities and be included in the feline community. To that end, he practices doing what cats do: swishing his tail, bathing himself, meowing and ignoring everyone; the last turns out to be a convenient skill when his friends mock him for his behavior. Eventually, he gathers his courage and approaches a real-life cat, hoping to get an introduction to the rest of the farm felines. What happens next will surprise young readers and adults alike in a turn of events that supports the book’s theme that a mouse, cat or kid can become whatever he or she truly wants to be. Ray’s text is spare and approachable, with repetitious phrases (“He would practice strutting across the floor, swishing his tail”; “He would practice taking cat baths”; “He would practice his meows all day and night”) that will be accessible to beginning, independent readers. Santi has an admirable devotion to his dream and a realistic fear that he won’t be accepted by the felines that he admires most. The clever text is elevated to a true delight by Germano’s wonderful, cartoonish images, which look like they wouldn’t be out of place in a Studio Ghibli animated film. Many of the illustrations are spread out across two pages: For example, the opening tableau shows Santi approaching a yarn ball, and his shadow on the wall is that of a cat’s, which sets a perfect tone for the story to come. Germano also deeply captures Santi’s expressions—happiness, longing and fear—in a style that’s full of kid appeal.

A clever picture book with an unexpected punch line that will delight young readers.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0692252253

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Bienville Ray LLC

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

Highly recommended for both its quality of writing and its superb handling of difficult subject matter.

JIMI & ISAAC 5A: THE BRAIN INJURY

Rink (Jimi & Isaac 4a: Solar Powered, 2011, etc.) paints a visceral, moving portrait of a young boy whose life is thrown into chaos when his father unexpectedly falls from the roof and receives a potentially life-threatening head injury.

Isaac is a smart kid. He and his father are installing new solar panels on the roof of their house, solar panels made, in fact, with a new chemical mixture that Isaac himself invented. Just as they finish, however, Isaac’s father slips backward and falls off the roof. In short order, he is in the hospital, in critical condition, and Isaac is left to navigate a confusing world of worried mothers, concerned friends and well-intentioned uncles trying to prepare him for the worst. Uncle Bob doesn’t manage to put a dent in Isaac’s initial denial, however, nor does the well-meaning concern of Isaac’s best friend, Jimi. As events progress, it becomes clear that there’s a very real possibility Isaac’s dad may not fully recover. Isaac, boy genius or not, finds himself struggling with the prospect of what life may be like if his father doesn’t recover. Every part of Isaac’s journey is meticulously and thoughtfully drawn. The emotional reality of what is happening to him and his family is conveyed realistically and with tremendous care. This is accomplished not only with clear, excellent prose, but also with insightful characterization. Rink in particular captures the essence of a young boy in the throes of denial over his father’s condition. The interactions between Isaac and Jimi are just the right balance of sincere and awkward, as when Isaac says he can’t wait for his dad to get better: “ ‘He’s going to get better?’ Jimi said. ‘That’s great!’ I just looked at him. ‘Of course he’s going to get better,’ I said. I thought for a minute. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘What did you hear?’ Jimi turned away from me, grabbed a shirt off the floor, and hung it up. ‘Nothing, I guess,’ he said to the closet.” All told, it is a simple and powerful story, authentically told.

Highly recommended for both its quality of writing and its superb handling of difficult subject matter.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 2014

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 80

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

Review Posted Online: Dec. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

Captain No Beard and the Aurora Borealis

Captain No Beard leads his spunky crew north in this latest installment of Roman’s (The Crew Goes Coconuts: A Captain No Beard Story, 2014, etc.) charming series of pirate picture books.
Mongo the monkey is shivering his timbers as Captain No Beard directs his trusty ship into the frigid seas. Despite the cold, his crew delights in an iceberg sighting, until Cayla gets a piece of it stuck to her tongue in a hilarious exchange with first mate Hallie. The splashy illustrations are vibrant with colorful personality, including Fribbet the frog’s moment of panic when they are heading into cold territory and Captain No Beard’s cocky stance while he explains his mission to the crew. A pirate may be loyal, but when the crew discovers Captain No Beard plans to take “something” (eventually, he admits it’s the aurora borealis) home with him, they are very upset. They huddle together in deep discussion about how taking things without permission is wrong. Their conviction to not steal shows kids that it’s OK to stand up to friends who are asking you to do something you feel is wrong. When Hallie finally approaches Captain No Beard and gently asks “What did you want to take home, Captain?” her nonjudgmental approach is a great lesson in reminding kids (and adults!) to get all the facts before reacting. When their beloved captain shows them the aurora borealis, they are all in awe of its beauty, basking in the magnificence of nature. As they discuss the fact that taking the aurora borealis is wrong—plus, he can’t do it anyway because it only works in that particular sky—the crew subtly educates the reader with some facts about the amazing phenomenon. The clever solution to Captain No Beard’s dilemma is creative and fun, showing that sometimes you can get everything you want if you just take a moment to figure things out. The text is filled with the same cleverness that populates all the Captain No Beard books, and the intense loyalty of good friends is heartwarming, even as Roman teaches children about the boundaries of friendship.
A fantastic addition to any young pirate’s library.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-1496138705

Page Count: 42

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

An utterly sublime debut and a must for pop-culture fans.

CITIZEN SIM

CRADLE OF THE STARS

In this YA sci-fi debut, a young man mysteriously gets smarter while dreaming and invents a life-changing device.

Fifteen-year-old Johnny Clark of River City, New Jersey, loves junk food and the Internet as much as he loathes school. He’s a mediocre student (who barely passed algebra), and yet he’s somehow built a small, battery-powered device from scratch; what the electronic device does, he’s not sure. When Johnny realizes that the knowledge to create it has come from his dreams, his slacker friend, Billy, notices his anxiety. He tries to cheer Johnny up with the latest headline about Citizen Sim, a hacker/prankster who’s targeted Google and Times Square. It also occurs to Johnny that he’d dreamed accurately about Citizen Sim before the anonymous hacker even appeared. Soon, Johnny’s reality starts to become dreamlike when his trigonometry class is briefly interrupted by four nearly naked strangers. Later, as he’s called to the principal’s office at the request of two detectives, fearsome skeletal creatures begin stalking him. A message from Citizen Sim appears on a television screen telling him to “ENTER THE CODE.” He types furiously into the device, and it displays the word “Gone.” Johnny, without immediately knowing it, turns invisible, and everything about his life changes. Debut author Solana crams enormous detail into setting up a delicious, go-anywhere plot. His narrative thrives on showing readers the unexpected, doing so in a giddy, winking tone. “The Clarks,” for example, “were the most dreadfully ordinary people.” Solana also revels in numerous geeky nods to superheroes (such as the Fantastic Four’s Susan Storm) and video games. As the book becomes more of a cyberspace action/love story, it expands into gorgeously rendered terrain (especially the overgrown Penn Station as a “living jewel”). Solana’s cliffhanger ending is perfect, too.

An utterly sublime debut and a must for pop-culture fans.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-1632260130

Page Count: 292

Publisher: Thought Catalog Books/Prospecta Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

A visually stunning work addressing themes of peace, generosity, and forgiveness.

A Wolf at the Gate

Van Steenwyk (The Unkingdom of God, 2013, etc.) offers an illustrated chapter book about an angry red wolf who encounters a saintly beggar king.

The Red Wolf is born into a pack that lives deep in the woods outside of the town of Stonebriar. Her parents raise her with tales of the history of her kind, the Lords of the Forest, who have slowly ceded their territory to the growth of human settlement. They also teach her the necessity of never taking more food than necessary and sharing what she has with others. The Red Wolf grows up angry; eventually, her parents die, and she loses her pack before becoming the rage-fueled Blood Wolf that haunts the dreams of Stonebriar’s residents. It takes the appearance of the Beggar King, a man of peace who holds the respect of both the townsfolk and the forest animals, to calm the Red Wolf’s anger and teach her to live in harmony with her neighbors. The Red Wolf then takes these lessons and uses them to solve a problem: a band of outlaws lives in her woods and terrorizes the surrounding towns. She must decide whether there are better solutions to cruelty than violence and whether such solutions are practical in a world short on sympathy. The story is an imaginative retelling of the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio; though rooted in Christian tradition, the book contains no overt religiosity, and secular parents should feel comfortable recommending it to their children. Van Steenwyk writes in sharp, muscular prose highly suitable for the fabulistic subject matter, deftly navigating both the darker and lighter segments of the story. The true standouts of the book, however, are the illustrations by Joel Hedstrom. Taking Japanese woodblock printing and Greek vases as his inspiration, Hedstrom supplements the text with full-page illustrations in brilliant colors that feel simultaneously ancient and stylishly contemporary. The result is a book out of time: a coupling of narrative and illustration that should stoke the imagination of any young modern reader.

A visually stunning work addressing themes of peace, generosity, and forgiveness.

Pub Date: March 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-0986233302

Page Count: 80

Publisher: Mennonite Worker Press

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

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