Raven Leilani, Mychal Denzel Smith, Gordon C. James, and Derrick Barnes were revealed to be the Kirkus Prize 2020 winners on November 5, 2020.

Kirkus Reviews is a US book review magazine that publishes previews of books prior to their publication founded by Virginia Kirkus in 1933. The Kirkus Prize was created to celebrate the years of criticism that Kirkus Reviews had contributed to both the publishing industry and readers at large. It is one of the richest literary awards in the world, with $50,000 bestowed annually to authors of fiction, nonfiction, and young readers’ literature.

Lesley Nneka Arimah won the fiction category for her short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky in 2017. Those who have been shortlisted have been Dinaw Mengestu (2014), Tomi Adeyemi (2018), and Laila Lalami (2019). 2019 was a truly Black year at Kirkus as Colson Whitehead won in the fiction category, Saeed Jones took the honours in the nonfiction category and Jerry Craft was recognised in the Young Adult Category.

Just like in 2019, there was a Black sweep as the awards were given to Raven Leilani, Mychal Denzel Smith, and Derrick Barnes.


Raven Leilani
Raven Leilani

The judges in the fiction category were Chang-rae Lee, author; Veronica Santiago Liu, Bookseller; and Amy Reiter, Critic. Raven Leilani’s won in the fiction category for her debut novel Luster published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, described as Sharp, strange, propellant—and a whole lot of fun focuses on a troubled young artist finds herself living with her much-older lover, his inscrutable wife, and their adopted daughter a day after losing her day job.

Speaking about the win Leilani said, “I won’t get over this. Thank you @KirkusReviews for this incredible honor. Thank you Chang-rae Lee. Thank you to @fsgbooks and everyone who supported this book and supported me as I found my way through it. To be honored along with so many incredible writers. It’s unreal.”


Mychal Denzel Smith
Mychal Denzel Smith

The nonfiction category was judged by Kiese Laymon, Author; Nick Buzanski, Bookseller; and Erika Rohrbach, Critic. The winner in that category was Mychal Denzel Smith for his book Stakes Is High described as “an urgent and provocative work that deserves the broadest possible audience.”

Mychal Denzel Smith’s response on Twitter was, “My first official act as an award-winning author is to announce that I’m an award-winning author Second will be to drink a bunch of champagne (second was actually cry, but I’m skipping that in the record) STAKES IS HIGH WON THE KIRKUS PRIZE FOR NONFICTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Young Readers Literature

The young readers’ literature category was judged by Nicola Yoon, Author; Roxanne Hsu Feldman, Librarian; and Kyle Lukoff, Critic. The award went to the book I Am Good At Everything written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James published by Nancy Paulsen Books. Barnes and James are the first repeat winners. They previously took home a prize in 2018 for “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” a picture book.

All three category winners go home with the US$50,000 prize money with those in young readers’ literature sharing the spoils. And the literary glory.