The Nickel Boys (Winner 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

A Novel
Length: 6 hrs and 46 mins
4.6 out of 5 stars (4,603 ratings)

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Interview: Colson Whitehead shares why he was called to examine the horrific activities in one Florida reform school through the eyes of a young black boy in his follow-up to the award-winning Underground Railroad.

Pulitzer Prize-Winner Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys Uses Fiction To Confront A Tragic Past.
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  • The Nickel Boys (Winner 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
  • Pulitzer Prize-Winner Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys Uses Fiction To Confront A Tragic Past.

Publisher's Summary

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times best-selling follow-up to The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys unjustly sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

When Elwood Curtis, a Black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow "delinquent" Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.

Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers and “should further cement Whitehead as one of his generation's best" (Entertainment Weekly).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

One of the Best Books of the Year: Time, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Vox, Variety, Christian Science Monitor, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, Literary Hub, BuzzFeed, The New York Public Library.

New York Times best seller

National Book Critics Circle Award finalist

One of Time Magazine's 10 Best Fiction Books of the Decade

Winner of the Kirkus Prize

Longlisted for the National Book Award

Longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2020

©2019 Colson Whitehead (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"A necessary read." (President Barack Obama)

"This is a powerful book by one of America's great writers.... Without sentimentality, in as intense and finely crafted a book as you'll ever read, Whitehead tells a story of American history that won’t allow you to see the country in the same way again." (Toronto Star)

"Colson Whitehead continues to make a classic American genre his own.... The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks.... Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves.... Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here." (The New York Times)

Featured Article: 20 Best Historical Fiction Audiobooks


Often based on real people, events, and scenarios, historical fiction gives us the opportunity to learn about worlds and times we will never experience while introducing fascinating characters and stories set in their midst. Sometimes, the genre can even give us a peek into hidden storylines that routinely go unmentioned in traditional history books, showing us that those of ages past are perhaps not so different from ourselves.

Editor's Pick

He’s done it again
"Nobody does historical fiction like Colson Whitehead. His Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad knocked us all out in 2016 and I’m pretty sure The Nickel Boys is on that same trajectory. Based on a real reformatory school and set in the last years of Jim Crow, this story focuses on Elwood Curtis, a young black man trying to survive the horrors that go on within the grounds of The Nickel Academy—an institution more akin to a torturous prison than the academic institution it’s been advertised as. What keeps him going? The words of his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a belief that it will get better. The Nickel Boys is a beautiful and devastating story that gives a voice to the boys who were abused and killed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys all those years ago."
Aaron S., Audible Editor

What listeners say about The Nickel Boys (Winner 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

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  • Overall
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Who spoke for the black boys?

“If it is true for you, it is true for someone else, and you are no longer alone.” ― Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys I'm absolutely sure that there is something beautiful about losing a limb; a leg or arm. This book is beautiful too, but on the first read I'm still just bent over trying to handle the hit in the cut, the pain and the blood. Maybe, if I read it a second time I could experience it without the horror and the pain. But, all of that is necessary, and because of my privilege temporary. Many Americans experienced/experience this book without the ability I have to exit the experience and 'close the book.' Whitehead is an amazing writer. He is clever, funny, and writes amazing prose, but behind that is an axe and a steamroller. He destroyed me. Sorry if this is disjointed. I'm trying to piece myself together after. Obviously, the Nickel Academy can stand for a lot of things. It can be a metaphor for how we treat black men and boys. It can be a metaphor how we treat minorities in America. It can be a metaphor for our prison system (6 times as many blacks are incarcerated in America than whites). It is all of these things. The horrible thing is this isn't a metaphor. It happened, or something close to it happened, at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL. It is hard too not to love the two main characters who take two different approaches to the experience of racism and the experience at Nickel. Elwood Curtis is an idealist, raised on an MLK record, who feels like doing the right thing is important, despite the consequences. Turner, his friend, is a skeptic and a survivor. He will shift and move AND survive. Nickel Boys shows how these two friends experience the abuse and power of a racist, white Florida. This is a story that, like many James Baldwin and Toni Morrison novels, MUST be read.

10 people found this helpful

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Good, but lacking

This is an overall good book. The book reads as if the story should be longer, but is cut short for some reason.

5 people found this helpful

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not bad really

After experiencing The Underground Railroad, this one left me feeling at times uninterested. It's a topic that has been done before, like with the novel Sleepers, in terms of abuse at a school for boys. Possibly due to the lack of character exploration in this one, I did not sympathize for the boys as much as I felt that I should. I'm on the fence about the narration.

5 people found this helpful

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Possible written for high school students

I expect this will be a great pick for high school literature classes. The topic should provide a LOT of great discussion. However, students will certainly not gain a lot of depth about the reform school subject and its impact on discrimination from this book. Luckily, Whitehead provides his resources in the epilogue.

5 people found this helpful

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4.08 stars...

This audiobook is good, and the narrator is good. While I didn't love The Nickel Boys as much as many of the other reviewers did, it held my attention, and I was interested in the outcome. To me, it felt like a shortened version of a much longer tale, as if the original story had been hacked in to snippets by an overzealous editor. I found Whitehead's previous novel, The Underground Railroad, to be a better read/listen. It's still good, though. Overall rating: 4.08 stars

15 people found this helpful

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A New Classic

It's difficult for me to put into words how much this book has meant to me and impacted me. It's an unforgettable story, that reaches deep down into your bones. The author uses rich metaphors and beautifully descriptions to paint a harrowing picture of how hope mixes in with the meanness and blindness that evil can display. It's not a dark book; in fact, it's the opposite. It is filled with hope, filled with a story of perseverance, and the importance self-definition and resilience. To me, it represents a story about boys and men. How they impact each other, in productive and non-productive, and very harmful ways. It's also a story about friendship and connection, when most of your life has lacked those two vital things. I've sent a copy to all of my friends, begging them to read it. As a woman, I think it's important to recognize that the environment men were raised in, and how it deeply impacts their present day reality.

18 people found this helpful

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True life Jim Crow that tears my heart apart.

Unreal. A true story that is more than a disconcerting life experience. This is Jim Crow, alive and snarling . Do well written, I was there, a prisoner

14 people found this helpful

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The Social History Beats the Narrative

Important and interesting social history and a fine and unexpected ending make this book worth listening to even though the narrative and the narration are a bit dull.

6 people found this helpful

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Hard to Believe

This book is very well written and has the ability to take you into the lives of the characters. I had to put the book down several times to digest the horrors done to these young men. This book is a serious representation of racism and injustice and the lasting internal and external scars of abuse.

9 people found this helpful

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Wonderful Book!!

What an amazing story - beautifully written, brilliantly narrated. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Just profoundly moving. I’ve read Underground Railroad, which I also loved. Will be eagerly looking for more books by Mr. Whitehead.

7 people found this helpful