Think of them as the Oscars for books. Every November, 20 groundbreaking tomes, five finalists in each of the four categories, are shortlisted for a National Book Award, an honor bestowed on the year’s best stories. Before 2016’s NBA winners—the literary champs, that is—are announced on November 16, dive into a few of the acclaimed reads that took prizes in the past. From a spin on classic recipes to an exploration of race and even familial bonds, there is something for everyone.
1. INVISIBLE MAN BY RALPH ELLISON, WINNER OF THE 1953 FICTION AWARD
While accepting the award in 1953, Ellison explained the significance of his groundbreaking novel about an African American whose skin color makes him invisible. "I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization."
2. THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH BY WILLIAM L. SHIRER, WINNER OF THE 1961 NON-FICTION AWARD
Using documents, diaries, testimonies from trials and his own recollection as a reporter, Shirer crafted a comprehensive narrative about Hitler’s empire, from the dictator’s birth to the end of World War II. (And in just 1250 pages!) Widely praised for its serious interpretation, the novel once again made the Holocaust a talking point among Americans, and for some, was the first time they had seen a swastika, according to The New York Times. As historian Theodore H. White said, it is “a monumental work, a grisly and thrilling story.”
3. THE MOVIEGOER BY WALKER PERCY, WINNER OF THE 1962 FICTION AWARD
for the 1962 award included Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. And yet, in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in the awards' history, this little-known novel about a stockbroker living in 1950s New Orleans was crowned the winner. Debut author Percy was a Southern doctor who turned to writing after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His story propelled him into the spotlight, making him one of the major voices in the South at the time.
4. GOING AFTER CACCIATO BY TIM O'BRIEN, WINNER OF THE 1979 FICTION (HARDCOVER) AWARD
This surprise winner brought the horrors of the Vietnam War home. But, "to call Going After Cacciato a novel about war," praised The New York Times in a book review, "is like calling Moby Dick a novel about whales." A war veteran himself, O'Brien, also the Washington Post's Foreign Affairs reporter, was applauded for his gritty realism and imagery when detailing the terrorizing events he experienced. The Times even compared his work to Hemingway.
5. SOPHIE'S CHOICE BY WILLIAM STYRON, WINNER OF THE 1980 FICTION AWARD
This 576-page tome explores how our decisions haunt us. Upon arriving at the Auschwitz concentration camp, Sophie had to make a choice: Which of her two children will die immediately and which will live? Styron traces the consequences from Nazi Germany to 1940s Brooklyn, where Sophie must revisit her heartrending selection. The tale got a second life on the big screen, earning Meryl Streep her first Oscar in 1982.
6. JULIA CHILD & MORE COMPANY BY JULIA CHILD, WINNER OF THE 1980 CURRENT INTEREST (HARDCOVER)
An enticing second helping: In the follow-up to Julia Child & Company, the beloved chef serves up 13 menus for entertaining guests. Her unique twists on dinner classics—French casserole and braised beef, among others—won her the prize.
7. RAMONA AND HER MOTHER BY BEVERLY CLEARY, WINNER OF THE 1981 CHILDREN'S BOOK FICTION (PAPERBACK) AWARD
“People should not think being seven and a half years old was easy,” writes Cleary as the spirited Ramona, “Because it wasn’t.” In the fifth novel of the popular children’s series, Ramona's dad gets a new job, opening up plenty of alone time for the titular character and her mom. Cleary explores the unbreakable bond between daughter and mother—even when the latter won’t let her tot stay home alone!
8. THE COLOR PURPLE BY ALICE WALKER, WINNER OF THE 1983 FICTION (HARDCOVER) AWARD
It’s required reading for a reason. Set in rural Georgia and told primarily through letters, the powerful tale follows the barely literate Celie from the early 1900s through the mid 1940s, frankly addressing racism, sexism and discrimination along the way. Walker took home the NBA in 1983 and shortly after the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making her the first African American woman to earn the title. While the novel has gained critical acclaim—The New York Times called it a “poignant tale of women's struggle for equality and independence” and Walker’s “most impressive” work — it’s also been subject to controversy. With detailed scenes of rape and explicit language, the novel, which was adapted into a 1985 film and Broadway play, is on the American Library Association's 2009 list of most frequently challenged or banned books.
9. WHAT WORK IS BY PHILIP LEVINE, WINNER OF THE 1991 POETRY AWARD
This collection was released—and won its award—in 1991, when unemployment was at its highest in years. Relying on his own relatable blue collar roots, Levine vividly details physical labor, class identity and the gritty lives of everyday American workers in his prose.
10. ALL THE PRETTY HORSES BY CORMAC MCCARTHY, WINNER OF THE 1992 FICTION AWARD
Unlike McCarthy's previous work, his 1992 trophy winner emphasized emotion, individualism and romanticism. ("He puts most other American authors to shame," The New York Times wrote at the time.) The first in his Border trilogy, the tale follows John Grady Cole, who, at 16, must sell his father's farm. Leaving behind a legacy of Texas ranchers—and the only life he's known—the teen and two pals set out on an often comedic journey to Mexico. The novel was later turned into a 2000 film with Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz.
11. HOLES BY LOUIS SACHAR, WINNER OF THE 1998 YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE
Dig into this: Stanley Yelnats is plagued by bad luck. Literally. His family is cursed. And his latest adversity: He's been unjustly sent to a juvenile imprisonment and disciplinary facility in the middle of the desert. There, the 14-year-old must a dig 5x5 hole every day. No excuses.
As Sachar humorously depicts Yelnats's daily struggle, he weaves in past incidents and the origin of the family's unlucky streak. (Hint: It all starts with the teen's no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.) The 1998 young people's literature winner was adapted into a 2003 Disney film starring Shia LaBeouf, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Patricia Arquette.
12. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA BY NATHANIEL PHILBRICK, WINNER OF THE 2000 NON-FICTION AWARD
The 2000 nonfiction winner revisits the true story behind Moby Dick. In 1820, the whaleship Essex sank after an angry sperm whale attacked the boat. On their three tiny remaining boats, the crew drifted in the Pacific Ocean for more than 90 days, with most dying of starvation and dehydrated. Philbrick relied on the accounts of a cabin boy and the ship's first mate to piece together his poignant retelling. The story was adapted into a Ron Howard-directed film in 2015 and starred Chris Hemsworth.
13. JUST KIDS BY PATTI SMITH, WINNER OF THE 2010 NON-FICTION AWARD
The rocker's evocative memoir chronicles her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. On the cusp of fame, the pair make a pact to always take care of one another and what follows is a story not only applauding her romance with Mapplethorpe, but also their love affair with New York City through the 1970s.
14. THE GOOD LORD BIRD BY JAMES MCBRIDE, WINNER OF THE 2013 FICTION AWARD
Narrated by a teenage Kansas slave, the riveting abolitionist tale was the clear underdog in 2013. (He was up against Jhumpa Lahiri and her bestseller, The Lowland, which was also shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.) But the judges praised McBride for "a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain." In his novel, McBride imagines the teen joining John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry. "I love the language of, you know, the old, black, country man with a blues guitar and ... boots and the quick banter," he told NPR. "I just love that voice and I wanted this character to be an old man looking back on his life and then telling a, just a grand whopper."
15. BROWN GIRL DREAMING BY JACQUELINE WOODSON, WINNER OF THE 2014 YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE AWARD
In deeply personal, vivid poems, Woodson looks back on her childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, as she becomes more aware of the Civil Rights movement and seeks her place in society. Still, her 2014 prize was marred with racism. After her acceptance speech, host Daniel Handler returned to the podium, where he mocked Woodson for being "a black girl that's allergic to watermelon." He later apologized—and donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign—and Woodson chose to "move the dialogue forward in a positive light rather than a negative one."
Her latest tale, Another Brooklyn, is up for an award this year.
All images courtesy of Amazon.