The 2020 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction

from O'Dell Award Committee Chair Deborah Stevenson:

Champaign, IL (January 15, 2020)—The 2020 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction goes to Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhhà Lại, published by HarperCollins.

It’s 1981, and eighteen-year-old Hằng has arrived in Texas determined to find her younger brother, who’d been babylifted out of Vietnam years earlier. She browbeats kind young LeeRoy into helping her, and together they end up at the ranch where Linh, now known as David, lives happily with his American family and wants nothing to do with his long-lost sister. Hằng is hurt yet unwavering, and she and LeeRoy take jobs at the ranch, leading to a summer where she comes to a different understanding of her brother, lets go of her old dreams of family reconstruction, faces her terrible losses, and readies herself for a different kind of life in America.

The story is tenderly, compellingly personal as it plays out on a small human scale the consequences of America’s complicated relationship with Vietnam. At its heart, though, it’s about character: Hằng’s losses and tragedies are heartbreaking (“Her brother is the only person left from her youth. Grandmother gone, Father gone, Mother gone”) but she is still magnificent in her fierce determination and hugely sympathetic as she impatiently navigates a strange country. Lại is especially clever in her transcription of Hằng’s novice English, using corresponding Vietnamese for the English sounds as she searches for her “bờ-ró-đờ” (brother), vividly conveying the sophisticated poetry lover struggling to wrestle a recalcitrant foreign language into submission. Ultimately, Butterfly Yellow is the deep and rewarding story of a resilient girl who loses her dream yet manages to build a new life; it therefore speaks to refugee experiences present as well as past, and to the enduring human capacity to survive, thrive, and hope.


The Scott O’Dell Award, created by Scott O’Dell and Zena Sutherland in 1982 and now administered by Elizabeth Hall, the widow of Scott O’Dell, carries with it a prize of $5000 and goes annually to the author of a distinguished work of historical fiction for young people published by a U. S. publisher and set in the Americas. The winner is chosen by a committee appointed by Elizabeth Hall; its members are Elizabeth Bush, former librarian at St. Damian School and adjunct faculty at the iSchool at the University of Illinois; Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book; and, as chair, Deborah Stevenson, editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. For more information about Scott O’Dell and the Scott O’Dell Award please visit or contact Deborah Stevenson at

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Butterfly Yellow here.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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