This year's National Book Awards were a source of many celebrations for the children’s book world on Wednesday night at Cipriani Wall Street. To start off the evening, host Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) presented Kyle Zimmer, president and co-founder of First Book, with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, for her work connecting book publishers with community organizations that provide children in need with access to new books. “In this country that we are so proud of,” she told the audience in a moving and impassioned speech extolling the power of books. “45% of our children are being raised in homes that are poor or near poor. We are fighting our own Lord Voldemort. We know what the crucial key is. It’s books. They can change the life trajectory of a child forever.” At First Book, she said, “We believe books are the most powerful force in the universe.” And she ended by exhorting the audience to “find your Bilbo. Find your Captain Ahab. I urge you to join us. There are some great chapters for us to write together.”
Next, author Neil Gaiman introduced Ursula K. Le Guin, who received the 2014 National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. When he was young, Gaiman said, “I read everything I could by Ursula. Other writers I would copy. I couldn’t figure out how she did it. Her words [were] so precise and well-chosen.” He bought a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea when he was 11. “Now I had a new favorite author.” And he credited her for teaching him about language and how to use it. “She raised my consciousness.”
In her widely discussed and praised speech, Le Guin thanked the National Book Foundation for the “beautiful reward,” and said “I rejoiced in accepting it for the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, [her] fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”
Her comments turned sharper when she turned her attention to the state of the publishing industry. “Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and a practice of an art,” she said. Le Guin then called out Amazon and its business practices, charging it with being a “profiteer” trying to “punish a publisher for disobedience.”
“Hard times are coming,” she predicted, “when we will be wanting writers who can imagine real grounds of hope, who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. I have had a long career and a good one, in good company. Now, here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It is freedom.” She exited the stage to a standing ovation.
The first author award of the night was for Young People’s Literature, or, as Handler put it, “the finest literature in the world.” NBA judge Sharon Draper told the audience that the winner of the Young People’s Literature Award has been a unanimous decision by the jury. And then she read out Jacqueline Woodson’s name, to a huge roar and shrieks of delight. Taking the stage to accept her award, Woodson praised the collegiality among her fellow nominees and writers, saying, “I love how much love there is in the world of young adult and children's literature.”
Her winning book, Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen), is a memoir in verse that tells of being growing up in both the North and South of Brooklyn and South Carolina. Her beloved grandparents and their lives figure heavily in her memories, which was reflected in her comments to the NBA audience: “It’s so important that we talk to old people before they become ancestors, and get their stories,” she said. “The world wouldn’t be complete without all our stories in it.”
Woodson gave thanks to her “fabulous, fabulous, fabulous editor,” Nancy Paulsen, as well as her partner and her family: “Yes, I did pay to stock this audience with people who love me,” she said. And she also thanked her “my fabulous blended family, also known as Penguin Random House.”