The Kirkus Prize is one of the richest literary awards in the world, with a prize of $50,000 bestowed annually to authors of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature. This year’s winners are The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones, and New Kid by Jerry Craft.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, The Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked and the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.
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How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence, into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a more extensive examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what people all do for each another, and to each another, as people fight to become ourselves.
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New Kid by Jerry Craft and Jim Callahan
Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. As he makes the daily trip from his Washington Heights apartment to the upscale Riverdale Academy Day School, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds–and not really fitting into either one. Can Jordan learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself?
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