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National Book Critics Circle honors 2021′s outstanding books

Awards were presented to a diverse range of books in six categories in a virtual ceremony.
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers won the NBCC fiction award for her debut novel, "The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois."
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers won the NBCC fiction award for her debut novel, "The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois." [ Sydney A. Foster ]
Published Mar. 18|Updated Mar. 18

On Thursday night, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its annual book awards, honoring outstanding books published in 2021 about World War II, Black history, sexual identity and more.

For the third year in a row, the awards ceremony was presented virtually, preceded by virtual readings by all of the book award finalists.

I’m a member of the NBCC board and such a book nerd that I had a wonderful time in the 5 ½-hour Zoom meeting where 23 board members vigorously discussed the 30 finalists and chose the six winners.

The NBCC awards, presented since 1974, are the only book prizes chosen by book critics. Most of the winners are selected by the board of the almost 800-member organization after a yearlong process of reading and discussion.

The ceremony also honored winners of several previously announced awards. The inaugural Toni Morrison Achievement Award, to honor institutions that have made lasting and meaningful contributions to book culture, was given to Cave Canem Foundation. The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to novelist Percival Everett.

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to NBCC member and New Yorker contributing writer Merve Emre.

Here are the winners of the NBCC book awards, given in six genre categories.

The award for autobiography went to Jeremy Atherton Lin for Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. It’s an engaging and frank look at his personal experiences in gay bars and how they helped shape him. It’s also a history of gay bars around the globe and how they have influenced queer identity and politics, and how they’re changing in a new cultural climate.

The biography award was given to Rebecca Donner for All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. The book is the astonishing true story of the little-known life of Mildred Harnack, an American who joined the Resistance and was so hated by Hitler than when she was captured he ordered her beheaded on the guillotine. Deeply researched, the book reads like a first-rate thriller.

Melissa Febos is the author of "Girlhood."
Melissa Febos is the author of "Girlhood." [ Beowulf Sheehan ]

The winner of the award for criticism is Melissa Febos, for her book Girlhood. Combining memoir, investigative reporting and cultural criticism, it’s a fierce and compelling examination of the narratives that surround girls and women about their bodies and what they choose to do with them — and whether those choices belong to them.

The award for fiction went to Honorée Fanonne Jeffers for The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. This debut novel is the epic tale of a Black family from colonial times to the present, focused on the coming of age of a young woman named Ailey and bursting with memorable characters, exuberant language and irresistible storytelling. Jeffers was a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Virtual Festival of Reading in November; you can watch an interview with her here.

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Clint Smith is the author of "How the Word Is Passed."
Clint Smith is the author of "How the Word Is Passed." [ Carletta Girma ]

The nonfiction award was given to Clint Smith for his timely and moving book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America. Starting with his hometown of New Orleans, Smith tours the U.S., from historic landmarks like Monticello to places whose stories are largely erased, like Angola Prison. Combining deep research with personal interviews, Smith makes crystal clear how slavery shaped our history and continues to shape our present.

The award for poetry went to Diane Seuss for her collection Frank: Sonnets. These powerful poems expand the formal boundaries of the sonnet and its traditional subject matter — Seuss writes about class and gender, about addiction and childbirth, as well as about art and love in beautifully crafted, unforgettable language.

The NBCC’s John Leonard Prize is awarded to a first book in any genre. Unlike the other book awards, which are chosen by the board, books are nominated for the Leonard and the winner is chosen by NBCC members. The 2021 winner is Afterparties, the stellar, hilarious short story collection by Anthony Veasna So. It’s a bittersweet award — So died at age 28 of a drug overdose a few months before the book was published.

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