This year’s National Book Awards honor stories about society’s most marginalized

Image: Courtesy publishers, collage by Quartz
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Last night (Nov. 18) in New York’s downtown Wall Street district, four writers received one of the United States’ highest honors for literary achievement, the National Book Award.

The 2015 winners go to fiction writer Adam Johnson, essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, poet Robin Coste Lewis, and writer Neal Shusterman. Each of this year’s recipients take us to the limits of society and to those marginalized within it. Exploring mental health issues, a system of oppression, and political isolation, the honored books ask us to see others with new eyes.

The first annual awards of the prestigious prize were held in 1950, and have honored now house-hold names like William Faulkner, Philip Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates.


Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles: Stories (Random House)

Johnson’s collection of dark, discomfiting short stories “feature characters reeling from displacement, dislocation or emotional and cultural vertigo,” says The New York Times. The first story, about two North Korean defectors, gestures to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, about the harshness of life in the totalitarian state.


Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau/Penguin Random House)

Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me, written as an address to his son, recalls his intellectual growth as a young man and focuses on the idea of the black body, and the people and institutions that lay claim to it. Slate calls it “a love letter written in a moral emergency.” The intensely personal nature of Coates’ short book stands in contrast to his deeply historical journalistic work.


Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf)

In her debut collection, Lewis traces the relationship between desire and the black female body in art and culture throughout history. The New Yorker remarks on her tight lyrical form: “Lewis’s technique returns the humanity to these anonymous women, which, in turn, makes the objects depicting them feel like examples of, and even instruments of, real historical violence.”

Young people’s literature

Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep (HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Shusterman’s arresting novel is about high school student Caden Bosch’s slow descent into schizophrenia. As friends and family gather anxiously around him, they watch Bosch drift in and out of a hallucinated journey to reach the real-life deepest point on Earth, called Challenger Deep. Kirkus writes of the prolific YA author’s latest, “Nothing is romanticized—just off-kilter enough to show how easily unreality acquires its own logic and wit.”

See the 2015 shortlist.