The life-changing power of literacy was front and center at the 73rd National Book Awards, which took place November 16 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. The ceremony was held in-person for the first time since 2019, lending the evening an extra layer of poignancy.
Padma Lakshmi, producer, food expert, television host, and author, served as emcee, kicking off the festivities by underscoring how “books can also feed us, by sparking new ideas, exposing us to new people and culture, and expanding our understanding of the world.” The author of the picture book Tomatoes for Neela, about three generations of Indian girls and women cooking together, Lakshmi said that “today, in schools across the country, books like mine are under attack.” She denounced the “unprecedented wave of book bans” and the “massive censorship campaign” sweeping the nation, which is especially targeting books by and about LGBTQ and BIPOC individuals. She declared that “deciding what books are in libraries is the job of librarians, not politicians.”
Echoing Lakshmi’s support of libraries and the freedom to read, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of several antiracist books for children and adults, presented the 2022 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community to American Library Association executive director Tracie D. Hall. She is the first Black woman in this role. Hall received a standing ovation as she took the stage. “One of the central things we learn in library school,” she said, “is that information wants to be free. Let history show that librarians were on the frontlines of upholding democracy.” She concluded her remarks with the words of wisdom, “Remember: free people read freely.”
Next, acclaimed author of books for adults and young readers Neil Gaiman bestowed the 2022 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Art Spiegelman, whose groundbreaking graphic novel Maus has been frequently banned for its depiction of the Holocaust. Although Spiegelman claimed he didn’t set out to write a children’s book or to teach a lesson with the book, he said, “I’m grateful that Maus may now have an afterlife as a cautionary tale, that it might make readers insist ‘never again’ in the future, even if the past for othered minorities has been a matter of ‘never again, and again, and again.”
Following remarks from National Book Foundation executive director Ruth Dickey and chairman of the board David Steinberger, the main awards ceremony got underway. Author Lilliam Rivera presented the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature on behalf of jury chair Jewell Parker Rhodes, who at the last minute was unable to attend. “This is one of the most important awards,” Rivera said, thanking Rhodes and her fellow judges Becky Albertalli, Joseph Bruchac, and Meghan Dietsche Goel. In addition to congratulating all of the finalists in the category, she said, “If you’re a creator and you created anything these past few years, you’ve already won. Because how is it that we’re able to even embark on this journey with all of these obstacles?” Rivera then announced Sabaa Tahir as the winner, for her YA novel All My Rage (Razorbill).
The book, which PW called in its starred review a “powerful, viscerally told novel,” follows a working-class Pakistani American family across two generations, delving into themes of grief, racism, financial struggle, trauma, and addiction. The NBA judge’s citation stated, “Tahir has created a compelling cross-generational story where characters are interconnected in their search for community. All My Rage is of the moment, urgent in its honest depiction of abuse, debt, and the significance of forgiveness.”
Tahir delivered a tearful acceptance speech, noting, “I am the first Muslim and Pakistani American woman to win this award.” Thanking the judges and her fellow finalists, she dedicated the honor to “my Muslim sisters in too many places to count, who are fighting for their lives, their autonomy, their bodies, and their right to live and tell their own stories without fear. Sisters, may you rise and may you be victorious against the oppressors.”
Recounting her family history, from her grandfather who was a sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, her grandmother who was illiterate, and to her parents who came to America almost 40 years ago to the day, she said, “This feels like an impossible dream.” Speaking as the child of immigrants, she said, “So many of our parents’ dreams died so that the dreams of my generation could live.” To her parents she said, “Your love and prayers and sacrifice have lifted our stories beyond my imagining.”
She then thanked her agent, Alexandra Machinist at ICM Partners. “I told her about this book while I was actually under contract for a different project,” Tahir explained. “She could have said ‘don’t you dare,’ but instead she said ‘write it and I will deal with the rest.’ ” The author also thanked her entire team at Penguin Young Readers who “supported me through so many blown deadlines —including the next one,” and her “editor and advocate Rūta Rimas, who put great trust in my storyteller instinct.”
After thanking her writing family “who got me through this weirdly difficult year with tea, samosas, hugs, and cat videos,” she expressed gratitude to her brother, “who has saved my life more times than I can count, and who taught me everything worth knowing,” and to her children, “who have since birth shared me with these imaginary worlds with such generosity of spirit.” She told the audience how her husband Kashi “insisted that I tell this story, even when I was afraid to.” She thanked him “for all the Ben & Jerry’s—and there was a lot. And for reminding me that my spirit is stronger than my fear.”
The author went on to acknowledge “every librarian and educator and bookseller who has put my work into the hands of a young person who needs it.” Tahir concluded by addressing her “beautiful readers [who] have told me my books make them feel less alone. You make me feel less alone. I have been a misfit and an outcast and lonely and lost, but when I write for you I am none of those things. I thank you with all my heart for that gift.”