For author Meg Medina, chair of the judges for this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, “The books we read as young people are sacred. And they’re sacred because they guide us through growing up, and remain imprinted on us for a lifetime.” Medina told the members of the publishing industry who had gathered for the award ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street Wednesday evening about the standards that she and her fellow judges—Suzanna Hermans, Brendan Kiely, Kekla Magoon, and Alex Sánchez—used when evaluating the many books they read for the prize. The books were “judged by their literary quality, staying power, and whether they expand readers’ understanding of themselves in the world,” she said. She then read the names of the five shortlisted authors, and announced Robin Benway as the winner.
Benway’s novel, Far from the Tree (HarperCollins), follows three teenagers who discover they are adopted siblings, and explores the notion of what it means to be a family. Benway called her nomination process “a magical experience,” as she thanked the National Book Foundation and the Young People’s Literature judges. To her fellow shortlist finalists she said, “To share this experience with you has been an absolute honor.” She also thanked the other five Young People’s Literature nominees on the longlist: “I am so proud to see our 10 titles together. I am proud to share this with you.”
Saying that “if you write or publish a book it takes a village,” she went on to thank “my village.” First up: her agent, Lisa Grubka at Fletcher + Co.—“I met her in 2006, she sent me an email and we have been partners in metaphorical crime ever since.” She thanked her team at HarperCollins—and their assistants (“assistants, I feel, make the world go round”)—and her “dear friend and editor” Kristen Pettit, “my guiding light in this process.” She offered an apology for Pettit, too: “I’m very sorry this book was over a year late,” she said. “I hope this absolves me somewhat.” She also thanked her “lovely, lovely friends,” who “sometimes literally propped me up and gave me the will to write this book, and teach me what friendship is all about.”
Her novel Far from the Tree, she said, “is about family. I need to thank mine.” Her father and grandmother have both passed away; she credited her grandmother with teaching her that creativity “is not inspiration, not that bolt of lightning, it’s about getting up and making the coffee and getting to work to find the room that that lightning lit up for that one moment.” Her father, she said, “did not get to see this career of mine. But he taught me that you work hard not only for yourself but for your family. If he was here he would be so proud, and then he would immediately say, ‘You’d better get to work on that next book, kid.’ ”
She dedicated Far from the Tree to her brother, who encouraged her to write, and said: “Because of him I’m standing here today. I’m so grateful to him.” Her mother, she said, “was the one who supported me throughout the entire process of this book.” When Benway and her brother were young and ran across a word they didn’t recognize, her mother would say, “Let’s look it up!” and she and her brother hated that because it meant having to go pull the dictionary off the shelf. But she now credits her mother, saying, “She taught me to be curious, and how to be unapologetic as a woman about that curiosity, and how important it is to have empathy.”
And in conclusion, she spoke about her readers, saying, “Teenagers are the toughest audience because they need to hear the truth more than anything, especially in days like today. Writing for them has been the absolute biggest honor of my life.”
Earlier in the evening, Scholastic president, CEO, and chairman Dick Robinson was given the 2017 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. “I always wanted to be a writer,” Robinson confessed, “to be at these book awards to receive a prize for a novel.” When he became an English teacher in his early 20s, Robinson realized that most of his students did not read well or did not want to read, “often because the books they were assigned were not connected to their lives. This became a personal challenge: “how could I get more students to read?”
When he joined his father’s company, after two years as a teacher, he realized that Scholastic provided “an ideal platform to make reading more exciting and more accessible for kids, by connecting directly to their lives.” So being awarded the Literarian prize for reading, instead of writing, was very meaningful to him.
In the last 50 years, Robinson said, Scholastic has “sold globally more than 13 billion copies of more than 100,000 titles,” and its classroom magazines have circulated about 15 billion copies during this period. “America would be a different place without the influence of all this reading in the lives of children.”
At Scholastic, he said, “We are happy to publish and sell award-winning books, and equally happy to find books that make you laugh, because we know that reading for fun is likely to turn you into a lifelong reader.”
Since 50% of students in U.S. schools these days are of color, Robinson said, and since their backgrounds are increasingly economically diverse, he underlined the importance of publishing books that contain “a wider range of diverse experiences.” And he urged writers, artists, teachers, librarians, booksellers, and publishers to “join me in recognizing the importance of tonight’s message and battle cry: reading for all.”
Click here to see our photo essay from the evening.