I can’t believe this is the eighth annual Kirkus Prize. It seems like just last week we were awarding the inaugural nonfiction prize (and $50,000) to Roz Chast, our first winner, for her groundbreaking graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? This year’s judges, Kirkus critic Margaret Quamme and veteran bookseller Karen Maeda Allman, summited a veritable Everest of books—they considered more than 400—to arrive at these six remarkable works.
Over the next six weeks, they will join National Book Award–winning author Masha Gessen and me to determine our winner. Congratulations to all the finalists; here’s what our critics had to say about their vital books, all of which are certain to endure:
Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome (Mariner Books): “As a dark-skinned Black boy in Ohio, Broome’s childhood was fraught with peril; at school, it was made abundantly clear that God ‘made white people and Black people and meant for us to stick to our own kind.’ His parents used shame and abuse to try and toughen him up, tactics the author describes in heart-wrenching detail.…Beautifully written, this examination of what it means to be Black and gay in America is a must-read.”
People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present by Dara Horn (Norton): “A guided tour of the hypocrisy that serves as the mechanism by which antisemitism rages on unchecked. The cold fury and in-your-face phrasing of the title of acclaimed novelist Horn’s essay collection sets the tone for this brilliantly readable yet purposefully disturbing book.…A riveting, radical, essential revision of the stories we all know—and some we don’t.”
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles (Random House): “A professor of history at Harvard chronicles the historical journey of an embroidered cotton sack, beginning with the enslaved woman who gave it to her 9-year-old daughter in the 1850s.…With careful historical examination as well as empathetic imagination, Miles effectively demonstrates the dignity and mystery of lives that history often neglects and opens the door to the examination of many untold stories.”
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke, illustrated by the author (Pantheon): “Radtke’s second graphic memoir feels almost custom-made for the social-distancing era: She explores our need for connection and touch and the negative social and personal effects of isolation. But the book is a much broader and deeply affecting study of loneliness, uncovering the host of ways our craving for community manifests itself in ways that are sometimes quirky and sometimes terrifying….Superb. A rigorous, vulnerable book on a subject that is too often neglected.”
Lightning Flowers: My Journey To Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life by Katherine E. Standefer (Little, Brown Spark): “A sharp examination of the ways that a heart condition affected the author’s life as well as those of strangers halfway across the world.…Packed with emotion and a rare, honest assessment of the value of one’s own life, this debut book is a standout. An intensely personal and brave accounting of a medical battle and the countless hidden costs of health care.”
Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico, by Juan Villoro, translated by Alfred MacAdam (Pantheon): “Trained as a sociologist but well known to Spanish-speaking readers as one of Mexico’s most acclaimed novelists, Villoro writes appreciatively of a city that is constantly changing—and whose landmarks are different for each generation, if they haven’t been torn down in the course of rebuilding or destroyed by earthquakes.…Celebrating food, wandering through earthquake-struck ruins, reflecting on literary heroes, Villoro makes an excellent Virgil.”
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.