Published December 23, 2020

With the end of 2020 just around the corner, it’s the time of year when book critics from newspapers, journals, and literary organizations release their best-of book lists. Keep reading to check out the 2021 Festival’s headlining authors that appeared on some (or many!) popular end-of-the-year lists. Then, stay tuned for more details about when you can see these authors in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book when we announce our schedule in January!

Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies

Featured on 9 lists

What story does it tell? A deeply personal work about identity and belonging in a nation coming apart at the seams, Homeland Elegies blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of longing and dispossession in the world that 9/11 made. Part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque novel, at its heart it is the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home.

Why critics love it: “This beautiful novel, about an American son and his immigrant father, has echoes of The Great Gatsby and circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.”—The New York Times

“Akhtar’s work is a provocative and urgent examination of the political and economic conditions that shape personal identity, especially for immigrants and communities of color… this tragicomedy is a revelation.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind

Featured on 9 lists

What story does it tell? A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong. From the bestselling author of Rich and Pretty comes a suspenseful and provocative novel keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class. Leave the World Behind explores how our closest bonds are reshaped–and unexpected new ones are forged–in moments of crisis.

Why critics love it: “A riveting novel that thrums with suspense yet ultimately offers no easy answers—disappointing those who crave them even as it fittingly reflects our time. Addressing race, risk, retreat, and the ripple effects of a national emergency, Alam’s novel is just in time for this moment.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“It is the rarest of books: a genuine thriller, a brilliant distillation of our anxious age, and a work of high literary merit that deserves a place among the classics of dystopian literature.”—The Washington Post

Kerri Arsenault, Mill Town

Featured on 4 lists

What story does it tell? Mill Town is a personal investigation, where Arsenault sifts through historical archives and scientific reports, talks to family and neighbors, and examines her own childhood to illuminate the rise and collapse of the working-class, the hazards of loving and leaving home, and the ambiguous nature of toxins and disease.

Why critics love it: “[A] powerful, investigative memoir… Arsenault paints a soul-crushing portrait of a place that’s suffered ‘the smell of death and suffering’ almost since its creation. This moving and insightful memoir reminds readers that returning home–the heart of human identity—is capable of causing great joy and profound disappointment.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“In this masterful debut, the author creates a crisp, eloquent hybrid of atmospheric memoir and searing exposé… Bittersweet memories and a long-buried atrocity combine for a heartfelt, unflinching, striking narrative combination.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Megha Majumdar, A Burning

Featured on 8 lists

What story does it tell? Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely—an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor—has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear. An electrifying debut novel about three unforgettable characters who seek to rise—to the middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies—and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India. 

Why critics love it: “Powerful… propulsive… This is a book to relish for its details, for the caress of the writer’s gaze against the world… The interplay of choice and circumstance has always been the playing field of great fiction, and on this terrain, a powerful new writer stakes her claim.”—The New York Times

“The must-read novel of the summer… This all-consuming story rages along, bright and scalding… Majumdar demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the vast scope of a tumultuous society by attending to the hopes and fears of people living on the margins. The effect is transporting, often thrilling, finally harrowing.”—The Washington Post

Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone and Before the Ever After

Featured on 5 lists

What stories do they tell?

An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other, from the New York Times-bestselling and National Book Award-winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming. Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As a charming, talented pro football star, ZJ’s dad is as beloved to the neighborhood kids he plays with as he is to his millions of adoring sports fans. But lately, his dad is having trouble remembering things and seems to be angry all the time. ZJ’s mom explains it’s because of all the head injuries his dad sustained during his career. ZJ can understand that—but it doesn’t make the sting any less real when his own father forgets his name. As ZJ contemplates his new reality, he has to figure out how to hold on tight to family traditions and recollections of the glory days, all the while wondering what their past amounts to if his father can’t remember it. And most importantly, can those happy feelings ever be reclaimed when they are all so busy aching for the past? Before the Ever After is a stirring novel-in-verse exploring how a family moves forward when their glory days have passed and the cost of professional sports on Black bodies.

Why critics love them: “In less than 200 sparsely filled pages, this book manages to encompass issues of class, education, ambition, racial prejudice, sexual desire and orientation, identity, mother-daughter relationships, parenthood and loss… With Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson has indeed risen even further into the ranks of great literature.”—NPR

“Profoundly moving… With its abiding interest in the miracle of everyday love, Red at the Bone is a proclamation.”—The New York Times

“A beautiful and heart-wrenching story… Eloquent prose poetry creates a moving narrative that reveals the grief of a child trying to understand why his father has changed and why nothing can be done… [Before the Ever After] unveils the intense nostalgia and hope one can feel despite realizing that sometimes what is lost can never be regained.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Woodson again shows herself to be a masterful writer, and her meaningful exploration of concussions and head injuries in football, a subject rarely broached in middle-grade fiction, provides young athletes with necessary insights into sport’s less glamorous side. In addition to this, it is a novel that explores family, mental illness, and the healing that a tight-knit, loving community can provide.”—Booklist, starred review

How did we come up with these stats? Here are the twenty-three best-of lists the Festival reviewed:

  • Barnes & Noble’s 10 Best Books of 2020
  • Barnes & Noble’s 2020 Book of the Year Finalist List
  • BookPage’s Best Fiction Books of 2020
  • Carnegie Medal in Fiction, Shortlist 2021
  • Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction 2020
  • Library Journal’s Best Books of 2020
  • Literary Hub‘s 65 Favorite Books of 2020
  • National Book Award for Fiction, Longlist 2020
  • National Book Award for Fiction, Shortlist 2020
  • The New York Times Best Children’s Books of 2020
  • The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2019 (for Red at the Bone)
  • The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2020
  • The New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2020
  • NPR Best Books of 2020
  • Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Books of 2020
  • Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2020
  • Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books for Politics & Current Events
  • Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of 2020
  • TIME‘s Must-Read Books of 2019 (for Red at the Bone)
  • TIME’s 100 Must Read Books of 2020
  • The Washington Post’s 10 Best Books of 2020
  • The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Fiction in 2019 (for Red at the Bone)
  • The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Fiction in 2020

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