The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

A Novel

Book - 2019
Average Rating:
Rate this:
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling 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).


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






Publisher: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Edition: First edition.
Copyright Date: ©2019
ISBN: 9780385537070
Branch Call Number: WHITEHEA
Characteristics: 213 pages ; 22 cm


Featured Blogs and Events

Second Thursday Book Club

Second Thursdays of the month | 7 PM | Oread Hotel, 1200 Oread Avenue Read and discuss a new title each month over food and cocktails at The Oread! Free valet parking for book club members. Please contact Polli with questions about the club: Reading List for Second Thursday: Jan 10: Mem by Bethany C Morrow Feb 14: When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors Mar… (more)

Social Justice Book Club

Second Sunday each month | 4 PM | Meeting Room A This book club gets us thinking and talking about inequality and injustice in the U.S. Nonfiction, novels, memoirs and more–we seek multiple perspectives, with multiple points of entry, and we work to center the voices of marginalized communities and people through our exploration. Please contact Polli Kenn ( for more… (more)

View All Staff Blog Posts »

From Library Staff

Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction | A spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.

Colson Whitehead is the 2020 Ross and Marianna Beach Author. Whitehead earned the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction in 2016 for The Underground Railroad.

Alex Award

LPL_SarahM Sep 11, 2019

Yesterday I was describing a chapter of Underground Railroad to a co-worker and I almost started crying. It's been well over a year since I've read that book! Colson Whitehead is a dang genius. This book has ripped my heart out once again.

LPL_PolliK May 03, 2019

Colson Whitehead delivers another stellar novel, and this one is a heartbreaker. "Nickel Boys" is an emotionally intense, spare, and compelling historical fiction that is based on a true story. Elwood is an idealistic black boy carving out the brightest future he's able in the Jim Crow ... Read More »

From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Nov 04, 2020

A good true story. The ending was a surprise. The lives of black boys put into detention is very sad and explains some of the feelings of black lives matter.

Oct 28, 2020

Definitely worth reading (or listening to).
This short and powerful book does a great job giving the reader an idea of the violence suffered at the "school", while not going into too much detail.

Oct 27, 2020

The Nickel Boys follows the perspective of two young men: Elwood and Turner, currently enrolled in a juvenile reform school. The readers witness the haunting tragedies behind the gates of the school through glimpses of racial injustice and cruelty based on a true story. The Nickel Boys was a book recommended to me by a close friend, and I was glad I read it! The book was beautifully written, with no hesitation in disclosing raw details. The writing was hauntingly descriptive, and the setting was well researched to acknowledge the true story. A plot twist was extremely well-executed, and I did not expect it at all. Overall, I would rate it a memorable 4.5/ 5 stars because of the book’s beautiful writing to educate on pressing societal matters combined with fast pacing that allowed for a quick read that will stay with you beyond the end. I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of heartwarming, educating, and suspenseful stories. The age recommendation would be for readers in the range of 14+ for brief mentions of graphic violence. The Nickel Boys will change your perspective on the past, to question the meaning of friendships, and enlighten your knowledge of racial injustices.

This story is based on Florida's Dozier School for Boys, a notorious place that boys were sent to for a multitude of reasons. None that I could imagine warranted the treatment they had to endure. This is a book of fiction, but after delving into the history of the Dozier School, I felt that Whiteheads book didn't depict the horror that I have read about. Don't get me wrong, the fictional story he writes was bad enough, but it's painful to read other accounts of what went on there. This is the second of his books I've read, both Pulitzer Prize winners. As much respect I have for the author, I have found both of the books I've read by him hard to follow. Anyone reading this novel may want to read up on the actual Dozier school. It's beyond belief. It's incredulous to me that this place could remain open for over one hundred years.

Oct 19, 2020

In this fictional reimagining of the realities of life within an actual Florida Prison Reformatory for Boys, the author, has captured the universal experience of children incarcerated. While the setting and events presented mirror that of a specific institution (Dozier) the operation of the prison and the experience of those subjected to its regime are widely shared by such institutions in the past and today. Residential Schools, Reformatories, Immigration Detention Facilities, share the traditional aims of carceral institutions, the "breaking of the spirit" and the viciousness of its staff in accomplishing this goal. Whitehead's novel addresses the additional ingredient of USA society. racism, and its traditional embodiment in carceral control and brutality.

Aug 29, 2020

Great read. Sobering to think that such a place could exist and to realize how a well-brought up young black man with a supportive mom was placed there.

Aug 28, 2020

Clumsy, brutish storytelling; juvenile.

Aug 23, 2020

This was a really good book in that it’s based on a story that is not well known but is really important. Elrond is a young black ambitious student who was wrongly accused of a crime and therefore sent to a “reformatory school” which really was just a bunch of torture buildings to young boys who were enslaved for years. Elrond’s personal hero is Martin Luther King and he draws on his inspiration to survive his torture. While the story was important, I felt that the book was difficult to follow because the author says “He” a lot and it takes a lot to figure out who/which “he” the author is writing about. I wish his writing was a little bit more clear to get rid of the confusion but was glad that I read it.

Aug 22, 2020

Pulitzer 2020

Jul 31, 2020

I liked this book. This is the first time I've ever commented publicly on a book, but The Nickel Boys is just that good. There's a truth in this novel that just so sobering, and I'm glad it won the Pulitzer Prize this year, I do believe it deserved it. It's really brutal though, so it's good to know what you're getting into before reading the book.

View All Comments


Add a Quote
Sep 16, 2020

“He had to trust a stranger to do the right thing. It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.”

Sep 16, 2020

“To forbid the thought of escape, even that slightest butterfly thought of escape, was to murder one’s humanity.”

ArapahoeAnnaL Sep 19, 2019

The more routine his days, the more unruly his nights. He woke after midnight, when the dormitory was dead, starting at imagined sounds -- footsteps at the threshold, leather slapping the ceiling. He squinted at the darkness--nothing. Then he was up for hours, in a spell, agitated by rickety thoughts and weakened by an ebbing of the spirit....In keeping his head down in his careful navigation so that he made it to lights-out without mishap, he fooled himself that he had prevailed. That he had outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed. pg. 156


Add Age Suitability
Sep 16, 2020

kaitoryn thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over


Add a Summary
Dec 30, 2019

The novel opens in the early 1960s. Elwood Curtis in an African-American boy growing up in Tallahassee, Florida. He is being raised by his grandmother since his parents moved to another state when Elwood was six years old. Elwood is cognizant of racial tensions and divisions in America, and he becomes even more aware of them after his grandmother buys him a record of Martin Luther King speeches. Elwood begins attending civil rights protests in his teenage years. Elwood is studious and hard-working, and he aspires to attend college. One day, when Elwood is about sixteen years old, he is unjustly targeted by a white police officer. The officer falsely charges Elwood with stealing a car. Elwood is convicted and sentenced to attend Nickel Reformatory School for a year. Nickel is an all-boys reform school that is segregated by race.

After Elwood arrives at the school, he is dismayed to see that the class offerings are virtually nonexistent. The students are forced to spend most of their time performing unpaid labor that generates profit for the school and the state. Elwood also soon learns that the staff often beat students, which is illegal, and they sometimes even kill students. Early in Elwood’s time at Nickel, the staff beat Elwood quite severely after he tries to protect a student who is being bullied. Elwood befriends another black student there, who is named Jack Turner (but he is simply called Turner by other people.) Elwood tries to shorten his time at Nickel by being docile and subservient, but the staff seem to administer punishments almost at random.

One day, the school holds its annual boxing match, in which a black student must box against a white student. This year, black boxer is a boy named Griff, who is strong, unintelligent, and who often bullies others. The school superintendent, Maynard Spencer, privately tells Griff to lose the match on purpose. However, Griff wins the match when he accidentally knocks out the other boxer. The black students are excited by Griff’s victory. At the order of Superintendent Spencer, some of the staff members take Griff behind the school and kill him. One day, when state inspectors arrive at Nickel, Elwood writes a report of what he has witnessed and experienced at Nickel. Turner helps Elwood covertly give the report to the state inspectors. However, the state takes no action against the school.

In retaliation for the report, Spencer and the school staff plan to kill Elwood. Elwood and Turner decide to try to escape together. Turner successfully escapes, but staff members catch up with Elwood and shoot him to death. Turner adopts Elwood’s name as a way of honoring him. Turner eventually moves to New York City and establishes a moving company there. He does not talk about his time at Nickel, and he attempts to simply repress those memories. However, he suffers persistent emotional trauma. Eventually, in the 2010s, archaeologists discover human remains on the grounds of the now defunct Nickel school. The remains have evidential marks of the violence suffered by the students. As the truth about Nickel begins to become public, Turner decides to finally speak publicly about the things he experienced while at Nickel.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at LPL

To Top