The NBCC’s John Leonard Prize is awarded each year for an author’s first book. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, in recent years most of the attention (and the nominations) have fallen on first-time works that happen to be fiction. But there are lots of other noteworthy first books published, including, this year, a moving illustrated memoir about a Vietnamese family in America and a melancholy history of a single Polish town.
Because the spotlight so often falls on fiction, I thought it might be worth mentioning some notable first books that aren’t fiction here. This list is by no means complete, and while all of these are to my knowledge debuts, please drop me a line if you discover that any aren’t. Books that aren’t unequivocally debuts will be disqualified. (Thanks to tireless NBCC member Peter Lewis for bringing many of these to our attention.)
To reiterate what we’ve said before: Leonard finalists are nominated by the membership, and the winner is chosen from these by a panel of members who read all of them in a year-end frenzy of concentration. We invite any NBCC member to join this year’s judges by signing up using this form.
Feeling Jewish by Devorah Baum (Yale)
The Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime by Ben Blum (Doubleday)
The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown (Persea)
The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank (FSG)
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris (FSG)
In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary (Flatiron)
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidhla (FSG).
Janesville by Amy Goldstein (Simon & Schuster)
Inferno: A Doctor’s Ebola Story by Steven Hatch (St. Martin’s)
The Inheritance: A Family on the Front Lines of the Battle Against Alzheimer's Disease by Niki Kapsambelis (Simon & Schuster)
The End Of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming of the Dark Age by James Kirchick (Yale)
Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar (Random House)
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul (Picador)
Whereas: Poems by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf)
The Fact Of A Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Flatiron)
Blitzed: Drugs and the Third Reich by Norman Ohler (Houghton)
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke (Pantheon)
An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal (Penguin Press)
The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It by Joanna Scutts (Liveright)
Ordinary Beast: Poems by Nicole Sealey (Ecco)
Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (Pantheon)
Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe by Inara Verzemnieks (Norton)
The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Cost of Defeating Disease by Meredith Wadman (Viking)
Unaccompanied: Poems by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon)
Daniel Akst is an NBCC board member and coordinator of the Leonard Prize.