The five finalists for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature spoke with nearly 500 students from New York City schools at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, November 13, on the eve of the book award ceremony. Since 1998, the Teen Press Conference has brought together high school and middle school students to meet the finalist authors. The presenters read excerpts from their nominated books and answered questions about writing, reading, and the characters they create. The event was hosted by Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Simon & Schuster).

Han welcomed attendees and spoke about her love for books as a child and teen. Though she never anticipated becoming an author back then, she told the audience she wished to give young readers what she hadn’t had herself: “I wanted young Asian-American girls to read books by authors with faces like mine,” she said. Before introducing the finalists, she urged the aspiring writers in the audience to “find your voice and we’ll be here to listen.”

Elizabeth Acevedo spoke about creating the Dominican-American protagonist in her NBA-nominated novel, The Poet X (HarperTeen), calling her “a secret poet.” When writing the book, Acevedo drew from her own experiences as a young Dominican-American writer, who found refuge through performing her poems in poetry slams.

M.T. Anderson (r.) discussed his novel, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Candlewick), illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (l.), which he described as “a book about a goblin showing an elf around his beloved city.” After reading a passage, Anderson and Yelchin presented several of the book’s illustrations.

Next, Leslie Connor read from her book, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle (HarperCollins/Tegen) which is about a boy who is grieving the death of his best friend. Connor spoke about the power of the many “different voices” being represented on the stage today.

The Journey of Little Charlie (Scholastic Press) by Christopher Paul Curtis takes place in 19th-century South Carolina. In the novel, a boy faces a moral dilemma when he attempts to recover a debt from fugitives who have escaped slavery. Before reading, Curtis thanked Connor for her years spent as an eighth grade teacher: “No offense to the eighth graders in the audience, but that’s not a fun job,” he joked.

Speaking next was Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who discussed and read from his graphic memoir, Hey, Kiddo (Scholastic/Graphix), which is based on Krosoczka’s own difficult childhood, during which he dealt with his mother’s heroin addiction. As he read, Krosoczka also presented his illustrations from the book.

Han closed out the day’s presentations with a confession: “Books and I haven’t been spending as much time together as we used to,” she said. Han explained that “when books become your job, you think about them differently.” But, even though she has a different relationship with books today than she did when she was younger, she focuses on remembering what they first meant to her. “You can read to feel less alone; you can read to fall in love or be scared out of your mind, or both at the same time. You never forget your first love, and books are my first love,” she said.