Held the day before the National Book Awards ceremony, the annual Teen Press Conference gave approximately 600 New York City students the opportunity to meet and engage with the finalists for the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Since 1998, the Teen Press Conference has allowed middle and high school students access to finalists and a complimentary copy of one of their books. For the fifth year, the National Book Foundation paired with the 92nd Street Y’s cultural and community center to co-host the event, which took place on Tuesday, November 19, in Manhattan. The conference was also livestreamed for students nationwide.
Jordan Smith, deputy director of the National Book Foundation, kicked off the morning by presenting an overview of the judging process. This year, the panel of five judges read 325 books and narrowed their selections down to a longlist of 10 books before winnowing the field to five finalists.
Angie Thomas, bestselling author of The Hate U Give and On the Come Up (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), took the podium, and was warmly welcomed by the audience. Referencing her own youth, Thomas confessed she had hated reading, as she was unable to connect with the books she was given. “They didn’t show me myself; they didn’t show me my world,” she explained. The one book she was able to connect with—“besides Harry Potter, because it’s Harry freakin’ Potter—shoutout to all the Ravenclaws”—was Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial). “By simply seeing someone like me as the hero of the story, I suddenly realized I could be the hero of the story.” Professing her hope that the audience would also be able to see themselves reflected in the books they read, Thomas then introduced the finalists.
Akwaeke Emezi read from their novel Pet (Random House/Make Me a World), which features a trans girl named Jam. When Jam accidentally bleeds on her mother’s painting, a magical creature is summoned, and the duo subsequently hunts for a monster in Jam’s best friend’s house. The novel is about recognizing monsters when society denies their existence.
Jason Reynolds then delivered a passage from Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks (Atheneum/Dlouhy), which relays a different story on every block. Reynolds revealed that the Simeon and Kenzi section he read from was based on Fulton Street in Brooklyn and Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem.
Randy Ribay read a letter written to his protagonist, Jay, from Jay’s cousin Jun, revealing Jun’s decision to become a vegetarian in Patron Saints of Nothing (Penguin/Kokila). In the novel, Jay is a Filipino-American teenager whose Filipino cousin Jun is killed as part of Duterte’s war on drugs. Jay travels to the Philippines to figure out the truth of the matter.
Next, Laura Ruby read from the first chapter of Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray). The book features two girls: 19-year-old Frankie, who is living in a Chicago orphanage during the Depression and World War II, and a ghost girl who died during World War I. Frankie’s experiences were informed by the childhood of Ruby’s late mother-in-law.
Martin W. Sandler discussed his book 1919 The Year That Changed America (Bloomsbury), saying, “It’s the 100th anniversary of the year 1919, and it was truly an extraordinary year.” He mentioned a number of the year’s milestones: white women’s right to vote; the passage of Prohibition; the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic by Arthur Brown and John Alcock, eight years before Lindbergh; more race riots and lynchings than any other time; the civil rights movement; the greatest sports scandal; the largest medical epidemic; and “in my hometown of Boston, Mass., a 65-foot wave of molasses killed 61 people. You couldn’t make it up.”
Questions from the Audience
Thomas took the stage again to say farewell and segue into a q&a session with the attendees. “You remind me why I do what I do. And to see you so excited about books gives me so much hope for the world. I hope that every single one of you knows that you are able to change the world.”
Smith returned to moderate the discussion. When asked why she killed a certain character, Ruby answered, “When I first was working on this book, I had a lot of different readers, and for the longest time, I didn’t want to kill anybody.” Pushed by her reader friends, who reminded Ruby of the tragic realities of war, Ruby eventually decided that she “felt like the story demanded it.”
A boy then asked about Reynolds’s inspiration for writing Look Both Ways. Reynolds referenced the common trope of killing off parents in middle grade and YA literature. He wondered how to eliminate adults without having to do that, before recalling that many children’s daily schedules include an amount of unsupervised time. “Everything that’s good, and everything that’s bad, and everything that’s interesting and complicated happens on the walk home,” he pronounced. “When I was a kid, everything we got into, we got into [during] the walk home from school.”
A girl questioned whether Tito regrets kicking Jun out of the house in the passage Ribay read. “What’s interesting in that relationship is that Jun and his father are both very stubborn in what they believe is right, and that creates that conflict,” Ribay stated. “He’s genuinely doing what he thinks is best for his son in that moment. I don’t think it’s best for his son in that moment.” He continued, “I think he’s corrupted by certain ideas of how to treat people that kind of affects how he is trying to express his love.”
The next student asked Emezi if something happened to them as a young person that made them want to write this story. Emezi spoke about growing up in Nigeria under military dictatorship; the country was not a democracy until they were around 12. Though people were rioting and being murdered in their village, their own community existed in a bubble. Emezi explained, “I wanted to talk about what it’s like to look at something that other people don’t want you to look at.”
Another student asked Sandler for his inspiration on writing 1919. Alluding to a familiar adage, Sandler said, “We have to be careful that we really do understand history because if we don’t, we’re going to have to repeat it... and there are some things going on now that we’ll never want to repeat.” Sandler paused for a beat. “Political statement,” he added.
The final question regarded whether or not the authors enjoyed reading when they were younger. Sandler cited reading’s ability to provide an escape, and thanked the teachers for encouraging it.
Ruby said she enjoyed reading as well, but added that stories can be found anywhere, from music to films to video games, saying she believes we are wired for story and that we are consuming it everywhere.
Ribay relayed that when he was very young he liked to read, and then he fell out of it for a while, before starting to read again in college when he discovered works outside the canon.
Reynolds said he didn’t read until he was older, but the writers of his time were in rap music. “The truth is, I really wish that we had the books that y’all have now. So the excuses that I had when I was your age, y’all really don’t have that same excuse,” Reynolds said, noting the breadth of today’s children’s literature versus his own generation’s shortage of opportunities. “Y’all gotta do better than we did. This is why we’re working so hard to give you all more options, you feel me?”
The day concluded with the children bringing their books up to the authors for signing.