Publishing professionals, writers, and illustrators gathered at Cipriani Wall Street in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday evening, November 15, for the National Book Awards ceremony to celebrate the breadth of this year’s outstanding literary works.
The evening’s host, LeVar Burton, used his opening remarks to discuss the urgent battle against book bans. “On the home front, we are fighting for control of truth and how we interpret truth in this country. Books are being banned, words are being silenced, and writers and others who champion books are under attack. There is a reason I believe why books are under attack—it’s because they are so powerful.” Burton then introduced the first speaker for the night, Oprah Winfrey, whose impassioned speech about the effects of book bans on children and the power of literature to help see oneself more clearly earned her a standing ovation.
Two Lifetime Achievement awards were given: the Literarian Award to Paul Yamazaki, bookseller at City Lights in San Francisco, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to poet Rita Dove. The first National Book Award of the night was for Young People’s Literature.
Dan Santat’s middle-grade graphic novel memoir A First Time for Everything (First Second), following Santat’s experiences abroad the summer before high school, won the National Book Award. PW’s starred review described the book as an “emotionally perceptive graphic novel memoir follow[ing] a teen’s arc from invisible to invincible.”
Santat began his acceptance by sharing that he had no intentions of writing a speech until a friend pointed out that as a shortlist nominee, there was a 20% chance of him winning. With “a lot of smart people in that room,” Santat considered what he would say if the moment came to be.
Santat first congratulated his fellow finalists and longlist authors, and then thanked the judges of this year’s panel “for selecting such a diverse range of books from YA to middle grade to picture books and graphic novels, which demonstrate that a wide variety of stories can be worthy of such big praise.”
Santat went on to thank his editor, Connie Hsu, who “has been my arbiter of literary taste for almost 10 years,” and who “studies my rough ideas like a large ball of clay and helps me mold it into a fine work that I can proudly share for all the world to see”; and his agent Jodi Reamer at Writers House, who for almost 15 years has been “a steadfast supporter of my ideas and ambitions of this once young, insecure artist, and helped me navigate the course towards a wonderful career that I have today.”
Santat’s wife, Leah, also received a special thank you for her support of her husband’s career while juggling family life and her own career. “You allow me the freedom to chase my ambitions,” he said. “Dreams remind me that the world is not worth living if you don’t occasionally pause for a moment to relax.”
Santat went on to thank Macmillan staffers, “far too many to name, who helped get A First Time for Everything out into the world,” including his art director, Kirk Benshoff, Morgan Rath, Molly Ellis, Jen Besser, and others. He closed his speech with a dedication to his mother, who was watching from home.
“I'd like to thank my mother, who saw her young, insecure child endure the struggles of growing up through the tumultuous years of adolescence, and gently pushed him out the door to show his young innocent mind that despite the awkward and awful experiences we can sometimes experience in life, that the world is immense. And that within that vast world, there's also great kindness and love,” Santat said.
Burton returned to give Santat’s mother a shoutout as well. “To Dan’s mom watching on the livestream, we are all big fans of your work.”