The winners of the 66th National Book Awards were announced on November 18 at New York City’s Cipriani Downtown. Winners included Adam Johnson (Fiction), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Nonfiction), Robin Coste Lewis (Poetry), and Neal Shusterman (Young People’s Literature).
Receiving the Fiction award for Fortune Smiles (Random House), Pulitzer Prize winner Johnson admitted to having found notes from serving on the panel of last year’s National Book Awards in his tuxedo. He said that the panel allowed him to read books he might have never read, before thanking his family.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), took home the Nonfiction prize. Of the book, which tells the story of Coates’s friend Prince Jones who was killed by a police officer, the author said, “We are not enrolled in a lie.”
“It comes out of a very real place, we had at the core the death the murder the killing of my friend Prince Carmen Jones… for being mistaken for a criminal,” said Coates.
The Poetry award went to Robin Coste Lewis, author of Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf), which is her first book. Accepting the “unfathomable” award, Lewis thanked her teachers and fellow writers whom she claimed to have “studied with and stolen from.” The author ended with a poem by Pablo Neruda, "Keeping Quiet."
Neal Shusterman was the winner of the Young People’s Literature award for Challenger Deep (HarperCollins). “I finally achieved my father’s dream, for me to be an NBA star,” he said jokingly. On a more serious note, Shusterman gave a moving speech about his son Brendan’s struggles as a teenager with mental illness, upon which Challenger Deep is based.
In addition, New York City Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña presented the Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literacy Community to James Patterson, author of many bestselling series. “It’s a gift as a writer to get people to read your books,” said Fariña. “James Patterson, in my eyes, is a hero.”
After thanking Little, Brown and others in the publishing industry during his acceptance speech, Patterson urged those in the book world to innovate. “There is so much to do right now,” he said. “Let's all be literarians, whatever the hell that means. Let's make sure there’s another generation of readers, of bookstores, libraries, and publishers.”
The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters went to Don DeLillo, author of Libra and White Noise (both Viking), as well as his upcoming book, Zero K (Scribner). Pultizer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan presented the award to DeLillo, crediting the writer for proving to her generation that “fiction can still do anything it wants.”
Accepting the award, DeLillo said, “Here, I’m not the writer, I am the grateful reader. Thank you for this honor.”
For the third time, comedian Andy Borowitz served as host at the event, which celebrates the best in American literature.
“Like you, I’m here because I love books, even the agents here love books,” said Borowitz as the crowd erupted in laughter.
Also during the ceremony, executive director of the National Book Foundation Harold Augenbraum, who is retiring this year, took the stage to clear one thing up: the definition of a literarian. He then took the time to thank the foundation as well as the audience for giving him the opportunity to work with books.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Adam Johnson as Andrew Johnson. The story has also been updated to show the correct spelling of Ta-Nehisi Coates.