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The 2021 National Book Award Finalists

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 10, 2021

First awarded in 1950, the National Book Awards are granted to authors in five distinct categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translation, and young people's literature. Last year's winners included Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown and Kacen Callender's King and the Dragonflies, as well as The Dead are Arising, a Malcolm X biography by father-daughter team Les and Tamara Payne. Here are this year's five finalists for each category.


Cloud Cuckoo Land
Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr weaves together multiple storylines and timelines in this novel about children on the cusp of adulthood in a broken world.

Lauren Groff's new novel is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity amidst corruption in twelfth-century Europe.

Set in the early twentieth century, against a harsh, gorgeous, American landscape, Laird Hunt's empathetic and poetic novel offers an intimate portrait of one tenacious woman.

The Prophets
The debut novel from Robert Jones, Jr. depicts the passionate and dangerous love affair between two enslaved young men in the antebellum South.

Hell of a Book
Bestselling author Jason Mott's novel, both incredibly funny and deeply honest, goes to the heart of racism, police violence, and the hidden costs exacted upon America.


A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance
In this collection of essays, Hanif Abdurraqib offers an exploration on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture.

Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains
Anthropologist Lucas Bessire's intimate reckoning with environmental change in the place where five generations of his family have lived as farmers and ranchers.

Tastes Like War: A Memoir
Grace M. Cho explores her upbringing in a xenophobic American town during the Cold War in this book—described as part food memoir, part sociological investigation.

Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America
An absorbing chronicle by Nicole Eustace examining a little-known, yet pivotal, act of brutality that challenged the definition of justice in colonial America.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Renowned historian Tiya Miles traces an object handed down through three generations of Black women, from slavery and into the twentieth century.


What Noise Against the Cane
Desiree C. Bailey's poems offer a lyrical quest for belonging and freedom, exploring themes like political resistance, immigration, and Black life in America.

Martín Espada bears eloquent witness to anti-immigrant bigotry with this collection of exuberant odes and defiant elegies, songs of protest and songs of love.

Douglas Kearney's poems are sonic in their espousal of Black vernacular traditions, while examining histories, pop culture, myth, and folklore.

A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure
Multilayered, plaintive, and provocative, Hoa Nguyen's latest collection is meditation on her personal and cultural history.

The Sunflower Cast A Spell to Save Us From The Void
By sharing her personal index of dreams with scenes of solidarity and resilience, Jackie Wang embodies historical trauma and communal memory.


Winter in Sokcho
Franco-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin's debut explores shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation. Translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Peach Blossom Paradise
An enthralling story of revolution, idealism, and a savage struggle for utopia by Ge Fei, one of China's greatest novelists. Translation by Canaan Morse.

The Twilight Zone
An engrossing, incantatory novel about the legacy of historical crimes by Chilean actress, author, and screenwriter Nona Fernández. Translation by Natasha Wimmer.

When We Cease to Understand the World
Chilean author Benjamín Labatut imagines the lives of real-life scientists and thinkers whose discoveries wreaked substantial moral consequences. Translation by Adrian Nathan West.

Planet of Clay
In vivid and poetic language with a sharp eye for detail, Syrian writer Samar Yazbek offers a surreal depiction of the horrors taking place in her homeland. Translation by Leri Price.

Young People's Literature

The Legend of Auntie Po
By Shing Yin Khor, this is the story of thirteen-year-old Mei, working in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885 and telling stories about Paul Bunyan—reinvented as a Chinese heroine.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Acclaimed author Malinda Lo returns with a gripping novel about two girls falling in love in San Francisco's Chinatown during the 1950s.

Too Bright to See
Kyle Lukoff's haunting ghost story set in rural Vermont is about navigating grief, growing up, and growing into a new gender identity.

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People
With passion and precision, Kekla Magoon relays an essential account of the Black Panthers as human rights advocates working to defend their community.

Me (Moth)
A debut novel-in-verse by Amber McBride about a teen girl grieving the deaths of her family after an accident. Then she meets Sani, a boy searching for his roots.

The winners, to be announced on November 17, will receive $10,000. In addition, the National Book Foundation bestows two lifetime achievement awards. This year's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters will be presented to groundbreaking Japanese-American author Karen Tei Yamashita and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community will go to renowned Seattle librarian and author Nancy Pearl.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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