2021 Malka Penn Award Winner
This is My America
By Kim Johnson
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers
This compelling young adult novel exposes the unequal treatment of blacks within the criminal justice system. Seventeen year old Tracy Beaumont, whose father sits on death row convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, writes weekly letters to Innocence X (an organization modeled after the Equal Justice Initiative), imploring them to take on her father’s case. When her brother becomes a suspect in another murder, Tracy sets out on her own to unearth the truth behind both crimes and reveal the deep-rooted prejudice in the American justice system.
The author draws on her experiences as a social justice advocate to create an important and timely story. Written in the style of a thriller, the book weaves together themes of historical racism, inter-racial relationships, police brutality and corruption, and the heavy toll on the families of incarcerated people. Above all, it shows how one determined person, with the help of family, friends, and organizations working toward criminal justice, can make a difference. – Michele Palmer
2021 Books of Honor
Everything Sad is Untrue
By Daniel Nayeri
Published by Levine Querido
Everything Sad is Untrue is a gorgeous autobiographical novel that celebrates the tradition of epic storytelling and invites readers to consider the immigrant experience through new eyes. The narrator is twelve-year-old Khosru, a refugee from Iran who has been forced to flee from the secret police with his mother and sister after his mother’s conversion to Christianity.
Now a middle schooler in Oklahoma, Khosru recognizes that he is exoticized and perceived as “super weird” by his classmates. He defends himself through storytelling—presenting a series of connected tales in the epic tradition of Scheherazade, the legendary Persian Queen and narrator of 1001 Nights, Khosru reveals his family history and the history of his homeland to his classmates and teacher—an increasingly captive audience. Khosru also uses his stories to both explore and embrace his own identity, pondering issues of divorce, domestic abuse, family tradition, and survival and growth in an unfamiliar culture. The western reader may find the text a challenge at the beginning, as it does not follow a typical linear narrative, but the payoff is enormous. Woven together, Khosru’s stories create a multidimensional tapestry that evokes empathy and engenders new cultural understandings. – Douglas K. Kaufman, Ph.D.
2019 Malka Penn Award Winner
The White Rose
By Kip Wilson
Published by Versify HMH
This stunning novel-in-verse is based on the true story of Sophie Scholl, who along with her brother Hans and some of his friends, formed White Rose – a secret anti-Nazi resistance movement in Germany during World War II. Sophie distributed leaflets urging fellow students to protest the horrors of Hitler’s regime. Unfortunately, she and the other members of White Rose were caught, interrogated, and executed. The novel moves back and forth in time, starting near the end of Sophie’s life after her arrest, and going back through her childhood and adolescence. Despite a loving family and a budding romance, a cloud of oppression hangs over her – the relentless war, her mandatory work in a Hitler youth labor camp and an armaments factory, repeated arrests of her brother and father, increasing discriminations and deportations of Jews – until finally she’s impelled to take action. Sophie was proud of what she and the other members of White Rose did, and hopeful that her life would be an inspiration to others. Indeed, her story remains relevant today when human rights are still endangered and the need to speak out is still necessary. – Michele Palmer
2019 Books of Honor
The Bridge Home
By Padma Venkatraman
Published by Penguin Random House
The Bridge Home tells a story of homelessness with extraordinary depth, complexity, and honesty. Fleeing their abusive father, eleven-year-old Viji and her sister Rukku, who has developmental disabilities, make their way to the coastal Indian city of Chennai. The girls befriend brothers Arul and Muthu and adopt a stray dog. With resourcefulness and determination, they learn to navigate the challenges of finding food and shelter and protecting themselves from untrustworthy adults, and they quickly evolve into a loyal and protective family. Inspired by the stories of real children growing up homeless in urban India, the book is unsparing in its depiction of the daily danger and tragedy they face. Refusing to ignore endemic realities of abuse, sickness, and death, it also illustrates the children’s ingenuity and strength, and it leaves us with complex feelings of both mourning and hope. When read with recognition of the many children worldwide who experience homelessness and poverty, the book’s themes become universal. It is an extraordinary book for beginning discussions about the human rights of children, the forces that take them away, and the possibilities for taking them back. – Doug Kaufman
2018 Malka Penn Award Winner
The Night Diary
by Veera Hiranandani
Published by Dial Books for Young Readers
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani is set during one of the most tumultuous events in human history, the 1947 Partition of India, when that newly independent country was split in two: predominantly Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India. Twelve year old Nisha feels split as well. Her deceased mother was Muslim, her father is Hindu. It’s become unsafe for her family to remain in their home, which overnight has turned into Pakistan. They must make a dangerous journey across the border into the new India. Nisha relates the terrors and hardships of the journey, as well as the ups and downs of everyday life, through a series of letters she writes to her mother in her diary, the only place she feels safe enough to fully express her feelings. As chaos swirls around Nisha, she ponders fundamental questions: why can’t people of different religions get along? Why is there so much hate and suffering? And, most of all, where is home? Nisha documents her fears and hopes in her diary as she searches for her true home within herself and her family. Slowly, she reaches out to others in friendship, perhaps the only way to confront hate – with love. – Michele Palmer
2018 Honor Books
By Kheryn Callender
Published by Scholastic Press
Author Kheryn Callender artfully unfolds the trials of Caroline Murphy, a 12-year-old girl who lives in the Virgin Islands. Caroline feels like an outsider during this crucial time in her young adolescence because she is hated by her classmates, her mother has abandoned her, and she has visions that wed fantasy with reality. All begins to improve when Kalinda arrives at her school and the two form a bond unlike any Caroline has experienced before. Callender subtly deals with issues of homophobia, peer pressure, abandonment, bullying, and LGBT+ identity through beautifully poetic prose. – Ellen Cavanaugh
2017 Malka Penn Award Winner
My Beautiful Birds
by Suzanne Del Rizzo
My Beautiful Birds embodies the intention behind the Malka Penn Award: to present stories of individuals who have been affected by social injustices, and who, by confronting these injustices, have made a difference in their own lives and/or the lives of others. Using simple, poetic language and stunning illustrations created from polymer clay and acrylic paints, the author/illustrator tells the story of a young Syrian boy fleeing war with his family. As Sami struggles with the loss of his home and pet birds, he slowly adjusts to a new life in a refugee camp. Eventually he finds hope in a trio of wild birds, as well as by expressing his feelings through art, and by reaching out to help another refugee child. The award was announced November 4, 2017 at the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair during a reception at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The award will be presented this spring, at a date to be announced, at a special program at the Dodd Center.
2017 Honor Books
By Alan Gratz
A compelling middle-grade reader about refugee children from three different historical periods, who attempt to escape persecution, poverty and war.