As the shadow of the pandemic lingers, last night’s 72nd annual National Book Awards ceremony was a fully virtual event for the second consecutive year. Author, publisher, and comedian Phoebe Robinson hosted the celebration, appearing live from the Penguin Random House building. She spoke about embracing her early passion for books and reading while growing up in Cleveland, and how books continue to be her “safe space and happy place.” Throughout, her bright energy and jokes—including calling herself the “Susan Lucci of the National Book Awards, minus her bank account and nominations”—helped set a brisk pace for the proceedings.
Moving into the heart of the awards presentations, a pre-recorded voiceover by actress Gabrielle Union introduced the NBA Young People’s Literature category. Of the finalists, she said, “Across illustration, verse, and prose these extraordinary books offer young people a connection to community and a reflection of their experiences. They ask us to revel in our imaginations and to build a future worth celebrating.” She then introduced the chair of the category’s panel of judges, Cathryn Mercier, director of Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.
Mercier thanked her fellow judges—Pablo Cartaya, Traci Chee, Leslie Connor, and Ibi Zoboi—recalling some of the distinct strengths and insights they brought to evaluating this year’s submissions. “Having been recognized by the National Book Awards themselves, they carry deep understanding of the cultural capital of these awards as they put books in the hands, the hearts, the minds of young readers,” she said. “Pablo, Traci, Leslie, and Ibi experienced personally the exuberant audiences and the engaged readers the National Book Award has brought to their books.” Grateful for the “privilege it has been to participate,” Mercier noted, “I learned new ways of interrogating, appraising, appreciating books for young people. I will never read and I will never teach the same ever again.” She then announced the winner: Malinda Lo for her YA novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Dutton).
Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954 during the height of McCarthyism, Last Night follows the love story of 17-year-old Chinese American Lily and white Kath. PW named it a Best Book of 2021 and in a starred review said, “Smoothly referencing cultural touchstones and places with historic Chinese American significance, Lo conjures 1950s San Francisco adeptly while transcending historicity through a sincere exploration of identity and love.” According to the NBA judges’ panel’s assessment, the book “glows with desire and hums with sensuality as Sapphic romance flashes against fear and intolerance.... Lo beckons readers sentence by restrained sentence into this incandescent novel of queer possibility.”
The livestream then moved to Lo, who appeared onscreen to deliver her acceptance remarks. “Oh my God! Wow!” she said. “It has been an incredible experience to be part of the National Book Awards.... I am so, so honored.”
Lo explained how Last Night at the Telegraph Club began as a short story and thanked her friend Saundra Mitchell “for giving me the opportunity to write that story.” (The original story, called “New Year,” appeared in Mitchell’s 2018 anthology, All Out: The No-Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages.) Lo then went on to acknowledge her publishing team. “Thank you to my agent, Michael Bourret, for seeing the novel in that story and inspiring me to see it, too,” she said. And she paid tribute to her editor, Andrew Karre, noting, “Working with you has been transformative and I am so grateful to have you on my side.” Dutton publisher Julie Strauss-Gabel, “everyone at Penguin Young Readers” and “everyone at my agency, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret” also received praise. “So many people have worked so hard behind the scenes to get this book in front of readers, thank you.” Lo added.
Lo became emotional when she turned to thanking her family. “Parts of this novel are in Chinese and I wouldn’t have been able to write them without the help of my parents and my aunt,” she said, before giving them a brief shoutout in Chinese. “And to my grandmother, Nai Nai, you may not be in this world anymore, but you are here with me in every book,” she continued. “To my wife Amy, thank you for all the ways that you support me, I love you.”
Lo then spoke with urgency about diversity and inclusion and living in a time when many books are under siege from people advancing and attempting to enforce conservative views. “When my first novel came out in 2009,” she said, “it was one of 27 young adult books about LGBTQ characters or issues published that year. This year hundreds of LGBTQ YA books have been published. The growth has been incredible. But the opposition to our stories has also grown. This year, schools across the country are facing significant right-wing pressure to remove books about people of color, LGBTQ people, and especially transgender people from classrooms and libraries.” She went on to issue a call to action. “I urge every one of you watching to educate yourselves about your school boards and vote in your local elections,” she said. “2022 is coming and we need your support to keep our stories on the shelves. Don’t let them erase us.”