Presented virtually on Monday, November 16, the annual Teen Press Conference, held two days before the 2020 National Book Awards ceremony, looked slightly different this year. While the event has served mainly New York City-based middle and high school students since 1998—and has been held at the 92nd Street Y’s cultural and community center in Manhattan for the past five years—festivities moved online in light of ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. In partnership with the 92nd Street Y and co-presented by Miami Book Fair Online, NBA gave New York City and Miami-Dade County schools the opportunity to digitally engage with the finalists for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Interested individuals nationwide could also access the livestream after creating an account on the Miami Book Fair website.
Jordan Smith, deputy director of the National Book Foundation, kicked off the morning by describing the judging process. This year, the five judges read 311 submitted titles and narrowed their selections down to a longlist of 10 books before deciding upon five finalists.
Bestselling author Jason Reynolds (Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, Atheneum/Dlouhy)—National Book Awards 2020 host, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Newbery Honoree, and 2019 National Book Awards finalist—then took the virtual podium. After introducing Jason Kujawa, the American Sign Language interpreter for the event, Reynolds launched into a recollection centering Maya Angelou, whom he named “the patron saint of poetry.” Comedically relaying how he called Angelou multiple times as a young person after finding her contact information in the phone book (“Now, let me explain to all the young people out there what a phone book was”), Reynolds confessed he wasn’t successful at reaching her. However, “just the notion I could call her was enough to inspire me.” That opportunity to engage with literary heroes and those adults writing about your lives, Reynolds said, “is what the Teen Press Conference is actually about.”
With a few digs at the selection of smooth jazz for the introduction music, Reynolds introduced each of the finalists before asking the first student-submitted question: “What made you want to become an author?”
“Final Fantasy VII, which I started playing when I was in middle school,” admitted Chee (We Are Not Free, HMH) with a grin, calling the sprawling characters and story of the action roleplaying game “enthralling.” Since she didn’t have access to coding classes, she used paper and pen to emulate the gameplay through stories.
“My story’s kind of similar,” Callender (King and the Dragonflies, Scholastic Press) replied. “I’m super into anime and started out writing fan fiction when I was 10 years old, and I just kept kind of going. As I got older, I also wanted to see more representation for people that I never really get to see—like Black, queer, trans people—so that kind of became a bit of a motivation to become a published author, too.”
Debut author Iloh (Every Body Looking, Dutton) answered, “I had a lot to say; I grew up being taught that young people should be quiet and shouldn’t talk back to adults. Becoming an author gave me the opportunity to say things I wasn’t allowed to say as a kid.”
Savit (The Way Back, Knopf) said he “was always a reader and always enjoyed making up stories, but what really finally spurred me to start writing was boredom.” He confessed he was tired of waiting his turn as an actor in New York City.
Mohamed, one of the co-authors of When Stars Are Scattered (Dial), stated, “I want to be a voice for the voiceless.” Newbery Honoree Jamieson, the book’s other co-author, said, “I came about it from a different way because I was an illustrator first. I started writing books just because I wanted to draw certain things.”
When asked about their personal experiences that led them to write this book, Iloh said, “I went to Howard University, and it was one of the most life-changing experiences I ever had.” It was the first time they were away from home, making their own decisions, and they were “inspired to write a book about a Black girl who is changed by the world, when she thinks she’s going to be the one to change everybody else. I had never seen a YA novel about college, so I wrote the book that I craved: about the drama of college and what happens to you when you leave home.”
Jamieson was then asked, “How did you first meet Omar, and how did this book come about?”
Jamieson met Mohamed at his place of work, Church World Service in Lancaster, Pa., a place where new arrivals to the U.S. can find resources, and they began discussions of writing a book together.
“Was life hard after moving to America?,” the next student asked Mohamed.
In talking about refugees, “we forget those who lost their lives while seeking refuge,” Mohamed noted, acknowledging his good fortune in surviving. “After living in a refugee camp for 17 years, coming to America was very, very hard, because everything was different—the food, the people, the language, the housing—everything.”
The following student question was for Chee: “Did you have present-day issues in mind when writing this story, and how do they connect to the story?”
“Yes, I started the research in earnest the summer before the 2016 election,” Chee answered. “As I began listening to these interviews with my relatives again, I began seeing that there was a pattern of injustice—with people being put into detention centers now along the border and incarceration camps in the 1940s because of their race.” Chee identified the contemporary Muslim ban and family separations and the egregious abuses of enslaved families “before the birth of this country” as other glaringly similar acts perpetrated by the U.S. government. “I don’t feel like you can write about history without also writing about the present,” Chee concluded. “And I feel like it is a responsibility and also a gift to be able to do that.”
The subsequent question, for Savit, had a bit more levity: “What was the weirdest place you sat down to wrote this book?”
“Cemeteries are awesome,” Savit enthused. “Cemeteries are like outdoor libraries, dude. They’re usually beautiful.” He shared a particularly amusing gravestone he found in a cemetery in Indianapolis: one belonging to an individual named Emma Sells Graves. “I don’t know how you could possibly not start thinking about Emma, who is in that grave, whose last name is Graves,” Savit observed.
The next student asked Callender, “Was it hard to write such a sad story, and if so, what were the challenges you faced?”
“It was really hard,” Callender said. “I think most of my books do deal with traumas or wounds that the characters have to heal from, and a lot of those traumas link back to my own stories. So it can be hard, but it can also be therapeutic; it can be difficult in the same ways that healing from our own trauma is hard.” They noted the importance of balancing the book—and our own lives—with joy, love, and happiness.
One class requested the whole panel to answer: “Do you see your writing as a form of activism?”
Mohamed answered succinctly: “Yes.”
“I wonder if almost every book is an act of activism, as long as it’s telling the truth about what’s happening in our current world,” Callender mused. “I kind of feel like telling the truth is itself a form of activism.”
Iloh agreed. “In 2020, it really does feel like activism to tell the truth and to shed light on something that people misconstrue or are ignorant about.” They continued with a caveat: “But I also feel that activism is really intentional when it comes to bringing awareness to a certain issue, and I think my book is more so bringing awareness to what’s going on inside of a person and how it connects to those issues on the outside.”
Savit added, “In some ways, activism and art share a lot of DNA, but aren’t identical,” clarifying that art changes things on individual levels, which is not the same as effecting widescale political change.
“I don’t feel like the work is the same,” Chee said, speculating on her burgeoning activist journey and her hesitation to accept more kudos than perhaps deserved. “I don’t want to undersell the work that political activists are doing out there,” she explained. “Although I do agree with Kacen that everything you create is a political statement about what the world is or should be or both, and that is important.”
A student directed the next question to Iloh: “Candice, why did you decide to write the novel in verse?”
“Simply put, that’s how the story came to me,” Iloh revealed, praising Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson as inspiration, and calling the use of verse “unavoidable.”
After that, a student addressed the whole panel: “What was your favorite book as a young person?”
“The Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary,” Jamieson began. “I just love her simplicity of language and how she speaks honestly to kids.” Reynolds recommended Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson as a rich supplement featuring a Black girl.
“I really, really loved Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” Iloh said. “To me, that is still one of the best picture books, and I still revisit it a lot.”
“My answer’s a little sad,” Callender prefaced, “and I was trying to think if I could pretend it wasn’t Harry Potter, but it is. That book and that series was my entire life, really, and J.K. Rowling has turned out to be quite transphobic, so it’s a sad answer for me, but it’s the truth nonetheless.”
“I really loved Watership Down,” Chee said. “I reread that book every year.”
“First, I hate this ‘favorite books’ thing, because that’s not how books work,” Savit jested, before naming Mossflower by Brian Jacques: “It’s mouses with swords! Who doesn’t love that?”
Mohamed passed, as he did not have access to books until he was older.
Reynolds segued to the penultimate student question: “How does creativity come into play when writing a book with a personal connection?”
Iloh said, “Creativity comes into play for me by creating a fun way for me to engage the subject matter.”
“My experience was a little bit different,” Chee reported, as her book was inspired by her relatives’ history rather than her own. “I tried really hard to get to the heart of what happened to them. The creativity came in [because I was] trying to be as respectful of those experiences and the people who lived them while also trying to spin an entertaining, engaging tale for young people in the 21st century.”
“In my experience, any act of storytelling is a creative act,” Savit answered. “Figuring out how any events are related in your mind. There’s creativity everywhere!”
The final question was perennial, if still endearing: “If there was one piece of advice you could give to aspiring authors, what would it be?”
“You have to be willing to try,” Iloh said. “Even if it seems really ridiculous. Try to accept that the ideas you create matter. Just start there.”
“Follow your passions,” Jamieson answered. “Explore those, and don’t be afraid to see where it leads you.”
“1) Always keep learning, and 2) Hold fast,” Chee recommended.
“Stay true to the authenticity of the message and the truth inside of you. Don’t be afraid to write your own story,” Callender said.
“1) Try it out, 2) Finish it, 3) Make it better,” Savit advised.
“Never give up hope,” Mohamed said. “Be committed to what you want to do.”
Wrapping up the event, Reynolds gave thanks to those who made the event happen and offered words of encouragement and affirmation for the young people in the audience: “That’s even more important than the things that [authors] make: to know that you exist in the minds of many, many of us who love you and carry you with us everywhere you go.” In closing, “Be safe, wear a mask, and wash your hands,” Reynolds counseled.