Ahead of the National Book Awards, the annual Teen Press Conference took place on November 14 at the Peter Norton Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Each year, the Teen Press Conference invites New York City students to learn more about the five finalists in the running for the NBA for Young People’s Literature.This year’s finalists were Vashti Harrison’s picture book Big (Little, Brown), Dan Santat’s graphic novel memoir A First Time for Everything (First Second), Huda Fahmy’s graphic novel sequel Huda F Cares (Dial), Kenneth M. Cadow’s YA novel Gather (Candlewick), and Katherine Marsh’s middle grade historical novel The Lost Year (Roaring Brook).
Jordan Smith, deputy director of the National Book Awards, kicked off the festivities by welcoming more than 600 students from 23 schools, and taking a moment to recognize that young readers are living through a time of unparalleled book banning. “We believe that everyone, no matter where they live, should have access to books that tell diverse, complex, and important stories,” Smith said. “And we believe that everyone deserves the right to read what they want, and everyone deserves to have books be a part of their life.”
The host for the morning was Dhonielle Clayton, who began by describing the experience of being an author as “the honor of a lifetime. In these turbulent times that we are living in right now, I believe that stories are the things that will save us,” she said. “They are the things that make this weird world feel a little smaller, a little less scary—a place where we can work out the dark and scary parts of this human existence.”
Clayton then introduced each of the NBA finalists and invited them onstage, where they were warmly welcomed by the students. Cadow began the readings with a scene from Gather where teen Ian Gray meets Gather, a large dog that soon becomes Ian’s sole companion as he struggles to help his family stay afloat. The book highlights the power of community and the problems facing young people dealing with homelessness.
Fahmy headed to the podium next and when faced with some technical difficulties, she used her comedic chops to keep the audience engaged. Expertly voicing several different characters from her graphic memoir, Fahmy shared the humorous moment when her protagonist Huda learns she will be taking a 24-hour road trip with her family, and captured some rapid-fire sisterly banter.
For her reading of Big, Harrison took a slower approach, allowing the audience to sit with the images from her mostly wordless picture book. Her intimate reading of a story about a girl reclaiming the word big from peers and adults resonated with the audience, who “aww”-ed in empathy with the character’s struggles.
Marsh brought lots of energy to her reading of The Lost Year, based on her grandmother's family history during the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33. In the novel, while helping sort through the belongings of his grandmother who has recently moved in, tween Matthew uncovers a photo that his grandmother refuses to expound upon, leading him to investigate her past.
The final reading was from Santat, whose admission that he had his first experience with alcohol at 14, caused an excited stir among students. After acknowledging the importance of being safe, but also wanting to remain truthful about his own experiences as a teen, Santat read a scene from his graphic novel about having his first taste of beer in Germany while studying abroad with his peers.
Asked and Answered
Clayton took to the stage to thank the authors and to encourage the young audience “to all be brave. Be irreverent. To challenge things, to be rebellious. To read something, anything. Just read, because you are supposed to become the next writers, the next generation of authors. And so we need you to tell the truth, so that people will listen.”
The last portion of the conference was a q&a where students had the opportunity to learn more about the stories they’d heard and about the author’s experiences creating their work.
Marsh discussed the line she walked in sharing a book about characters based on real people like her mother and grandmother, without writing about them directly. “I use her stories in this book, and some of my grandma’s stories,” she said. “However, all the characters are composites, meaning I mixed different real stories with my imagination and with research I did, because I also work as a journalist. I did a lot of research to make sure I was telling that history correctly.”
When asked about why she wanted to write a book, Fahmy discussed wanting to blend a personal exploration of her identity and universal middle school experiences in one story. “I wanted to write about identity, about what it felt like to be a Muslim, what it felt like to be a hijabi, what it felt like to be American. But at the same time, just what it felt like to be a teenager and feeling like a fake and a phony and feeling like I had to pretend to be somebody else with different people.”
A student asked Santat if his parents ever found out about his mischief abroad; in his response Santat reflected on how the experience allowed him to get to know himself better, even if it was sometimes outside of the bounds of what his parents may have wanted. “When I went to Europe, I just decided to try different things, to go on different adventures, and one of which was to try alcohol. I’m not encouraging you to drink, but I do want you all to understand that we as adults understand that we’ve done the same things, but we just don’t care to admit it. But that’s a part of growing up.”
A student then asked what encouraged Harrison to write her book. “You get to decide who you are, the kind of person you’re going to be,” Harrison said. “People are going to throw things at you: labels and all kinds of things. And you don’t have to let any of that stick to you. It was something I needed to hear when I was growing up. So I wanted to make that book for other people.”
A question for Cadow around the breed of the dog in the story, and people’s commentary on its size, gave Cadow the chance to discuss how size was an important factor in the story. “I wanted a big dog because [the protagonist] was going through big, tough times. He needed a companion that was unquestioning and going to stand by him. This was a dog that was exclusively about love. And that love needed to be really, really big to counteract all of the systemic, uncaring stuff that was happening, for taking in.”
The event closed with a book signing, in which each student received a free copy of one of the finalists’ books.