As the country shelters in place during the COVID-19 crisis, the Los Angeles Times unveiled the winners of its 40th Annual Book Prizes on Twitter on April 17, rather than at the customary ceremony that usually launches the newspaper’s annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The festival, celebrating its 25th year, had been scheduled for April, but the organizers have moved the event to October 3 and 4 on the University of Southern California campus. The awards covered 12 different categories, and each winner shared a video speech that was posted on YouTube.
"This coordinated, collaborative effort came off in just a matter of a few weeks," said Ann Binney, the special projects coordinator for the Los Angeles Times. "While we will miss the community that would have gathered here in Los Angeles in person, we all came together to reinvent the celebration for the moment that we’re in right now."
The Book Prizes recognized outstanding literary works in 12 categories, adding a category to the traditional list this year: the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction. "There is something kind of ironic about winning an award in tribute to the creator of the original American dystopia when we are in a kind of dystopia,” said Marlon James in his video, who won the inaugural prize for his novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Riverhead). “Makes me think even more about Ray Bradbury.”
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers won the history award for They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, noting her groundbreaking win during her video acceptance speech. "I am deeply honored to be the first African American and the third woman to receive the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History since it was first awarded 40 years ago,” she said.
Eleanor Davis won the graphic novel/comics award for her graphic novel, The Hard Tomorrow (Drawn & Quarterly). The author juggled her toddler as she accepted the award in a pre-recorded video. “Right now, the world is enduring tremendous pain and upheaval with, those who are already the worst-off being the hardest hit,” the Davis said. “We fear for tomorrow, we hope for it, we fight for it. A baby doesn’t care,” she said. “No matter how much tomorrow will hurt him, nothing can ever erase his bright, burning today."
Steph Cha won the mystery and thriller prize for her novel, Your House Will Pay (Ecco), and also mused on the future as her dogs pawed through the frame in her shelter-in-place acceptance video. "I'm very pregnant right now,” she said. “Chances are good that I will have brought a poor, innocent baby into this nightmare world by the time we actually have the Book Prizes.” Shortly after recording the video, Cha revealed on Twitter, her son was born.
Readers responded to the digital awards with digital praise. "Their speeches made me cry," wrote author Liska Jacobs on Twitter. There's something special about seeing authors speak from home as they accept their awards," wrote author Sherri Spelic. "It makes me want to listen a bit more closely."
In addition to those 12 awards, Walter Mosley received the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the WriteGirl nonprofit took the annual Innovator’s Award for its campaign to promote girls’ literacy and creativity.
The complete list of winners is as follows:
- Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift: A Novel (Hogarth)
- Biography: George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf)
- Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose: Emily Bernard, Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine (Knopf)
- Current Interest: Emily Bazelon, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration (Random House)
- Fiction: Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (FSG)
- Graphic Novel/Comics: Eleanor Davis, The Hard Tomorrow, (Drawn & Quarterly)
- History: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press)
- Mystery/Thriller: Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (Ecco)
- Poetry: Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (Graywolf)
- Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction: Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Riverhead)
- Science & Technology: Maria Popova, Figuring (Knopf)
- Young Adult Literature: Malla Nunn, When the Ground Is Hard (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers