Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and host of the 71st annual National Book Awards, opened last night’s virtual ceremony and celebration by acknowledging the overwhelming nature of our current era. “I know there’s so much going on in the world, but this is still our night, and it’s a big deal,” he said from Washington, D.C.
Outgoing National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas, who appeared at the Los Angeles Public Library, echoed that sentiment, saying, “We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to do this show because of the pandemic but here we are.” She went on to stress the organization’s vital work of elevating writers, “One book, we know, can change a life.”
Kicking off the awards portion of the evening, Joan Trygg, panel chair for the Young People’s Literature category and general manager at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., congratulated the five finalists. A total of 311 books were submitted for this year’s prize, which was selected by Trygg, Randy Ribay, Neal Shusterman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Colleen AF Venable. Trygg thanked her fellow judges “for their insight, their kindness, and their commitment not so much to criticize but to find merit in every book we read.”
She then announced the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature: Kacen Callender for their middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies (Scholastic Press), which follows a 12-year-old Black child named Kingston “King” Reginald James as he mourns the death of his older brother and faces his Louisiana town’s homophobia on a deeply personal level. In a starred review, PW called the book a “powerful tale of grief, intersectional identity, and love.”
Callender joined the livestream to accept the award. “Thank you so much for this honor. I am trying not to cry, but I really appreciate it,” they said. Putting this moment in the context of global events, Callender remarked, “This is an interesting year to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. This has been the hardest, most painful, most devastating year in many people’s memories, in their lifetime. But this has also been an empowering year for many: a year when we’re forced to pause and reflect, not only on ourselves, but on the society we live in—to look at the wounds internal and external and to heal and to grow.” Callender added, “As an author for young readers I often talk about the necessary balance between pain and hope and joy. This has been a difficult year, but I’m grateful for this moment of joy, too.”
Expressing the tremendous value of writing for children and teens, Callender stated, “I know I’m not the only one who believes that these next generations are the ones who are meant to change everything. Young people already have changed the world in so many ways, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be given the platform and the opportunity to help in their guidance through the magic of story.”
The author gave special thanks to agent Beth Phelan and the team at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, “Beth, you are a rock and I’m so grateful for you, every day of this writing journey.” Callender also gave a shout-out to “my amazing editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, and David Levithan for his guidance and support,” along with the rest of Scholastic.
Finally, Callender said, “I want to thank my family—there’s too many of us to name. I love you so much. Thank you for your support. And of course I want to thank my mom, who has been there for me and this dream of mine since the very first moment I wrote my little picture book about the cow—through every worry and every hope I still have.”