It is, if I do say so myself, a spectacular list.
I am, of course, talking about the list of finalists for the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature. After months of reading (and stacks of books—some 515 titles were eligible), judges Deborah D. Taylor and Elizabeth Bluemle whittled their lists of favorites down to just six books, two of each in three subcategories.
Their picture-book choices are Thunder Boy Jr., by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, and Freedom over Me, by Ashley Bryan. The books could hardly be more different. In the first, Alexie and Morales conjure the title character, a little boy who adores his father but really wants his own name. It’s a boisterous, loving celebration of family. In the second, Bryan takes inspiration from the record of an 1828 sale of enslaved people, imagining in paintings and poems both their lives and their dreams—of freedom.
In the middle-grade category, they chose We Will Not Be Silent, by Russell Freedman, and As Brave as You, by Jason Reynolds, another study in contrasts. Working with primary sources, Freedman tells the stories of Germans Hans and Sophie Scholl and their movement of young people to resist the Nazis. Reynolds tells the story of 11-year-old Brooklynite Genie and one transformative summer with his Virginia grandparents.
And as their teen finalists, they chose The Reader, by Traci Chee, and Burn Baby Burn, by Meg Medina. In her debut, Chee creates a complex, layered fantasy that ponders the relationship between reading and reality. Medina, on the other hand, re-creates the sultry summer of 1977, when the Son of Sam held New York City hostage.
Diversity is the order of the day, both in the creators and their characters and in the forms and presentations of the books. Thunder Boy Jr. is a playful prose picture book for quite young children; Freedom over Me is an illustrated collection of poems for older-elementary children. We Will Not Be Silent is children’s narrative nonfiction at its best; As Brave as You offers readers a deceptively lazy book with uncommon psychological depth. The Reader is a lush, assured fantasy in an original world; Burn Baby Burn makes what happened 40 years ago feel like now.
With one debut author, two Pura Belpré Award winners, a National Book Award winner, and two Wilder Award winners for lifetime achievement (one of whom is also a Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award winner for lifetime achievement), the creators of the finalists span all stages of a distinguished career.
These books, without question, represent the best the industry has to offer.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.