Author Robin Benway, chair of this year’s panel of judges for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and winner of the 2017 award, greeted the audience by happily noting that she was “approximately 1000% less nervous than I was at this time last year.” She thanked her fellow judges—Lamar Giles, Grace Greene, Valerie Koehler, and Mitali Perkins—for “not only reading hundreds of books this year but for doing so with critical eyes, sensitive hearts, and incredible senses of humor.”
Judging the Young People’s Literature category, she said, “is a very interesting task because we’ve been asked to choose a book for a readership that is no longer our own. It’s not a responsibility that we took lightly, mostly because we all remembered that singular pleasure of falling into a book as a child, of discovering a world that perhaps looked nothing like your own, but still resonated with you long after you became an adult.”
The word that Benway said the judges kept coming back to was propulsion: “Is this a book that will propel and enrich the joyful experience of reading? Is this a title that will not only hold the reader’s attention as a youth, but also serve as a crucial step in the process of creating a curious and lifelong reader?” Saying it had been an “absolute pleasure” to read the nominated titles, she announced Elizabeth Acevedo as this year’s winner for The Poet X, a debut free-verse novel about a Dominican-American teenager growing up in Harlem, which PW called “a complex and sometimes painful exploration of love in its many forms.”
Accepting her award, Acevedo said she didn’t often cry at public events, but felt “completely overwhelmed at this moment.” She gave thanks to her agent, Joan Paquette, “who in 2012 let someone who had no manuscript reach out to her and say here are 10 pages of a thing that might be a thing, and kept asking what I was working on, and believed in my voice enough to keep checking in.”
She also thanked a number of people at her publishing house, HarperCollins, especially Rosemary Brosnan, “the most incredible editor I could have imagined having, who saw this story and didn’t make me ‘other’ myself with writing it, and who stands behind me on every decision and fights for me.”
Saying that she comes from “an amazing Dominican household” and was “raised in a home of storytellers,” she expressed gratitude to “my family, my homies, my hood,” and her ancestors, “without whom I would not be here.” She also praised her husband for his unwavering support: “I’ve never told him a dream that I might have had that he didn’t stand behind, and I’m so lucky to have him by my side.”
Acevedo closed with a moving tribute to the affirmation that her writing can provide to young readers, particularly those who may not often see themselves represented in books. “I walk through the world with a chip on my shoulder,” she said. “I go into so many spaces where I feel like I have to prove that I am allowed to be in that space. As a child of immigrants, as a black woman, as a Latina, I always feel like I have to prove that I am worthy enough. And there will never be an award or accolade that will take that away. But every single time I meet a reader who looks at me and says, ‘I have never seen my story until I read yours,’ I am reminded of why this matters, and that it’s not going to be an award and it’s not going to be an accolade, but it’s looking someone in the face and saying, ‘I see you,’ and in return being told, ‘I am seen.’ And so thank you again to the readers, who time and again remind me why I took this leap, why it matters, and why books matter.”
Click here to see our photo essay from the evening.