Before kicking off this year's National Book Awards, held at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City’s financial district on November 15, host LeVar Burton got some housekeeping out of the way. "Before we get going, are there any Moms for Liberty in the house?" he asked. "No? Good. Then hands will not need to be thrown tonight."
The actor and author, who also hosted the NBAs in 2019 and this year replaced previously announced host Drew Barrymore, didn't mince words about book banning in his opening remarks. "On the home front, we are fighting for control of truth and how we interpret truth in this country," he said. "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."
Echoing Burton's sentiments was special guest Oprah Winfrey, whose knockout speech drew a swift standing ovation. She recalled receiving her first library card "and being so overwhelmed by the power of authors and their words."
"I couldn’t understand how you all did that," Winfrey said, addressing the writers in the audience and holding back tears. "And now for me to be able to stand in the same room with all of you who do that is such a privilege and great joy for me."
Winfrey concluded her speech with an impassioned defense of "diverse books"—the first "diverse book" she ever read, at 15, was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the most frequently challenged books in the nation—and a fierce condemnation of book bans. "Make no mistake: to ban books is to snuff out the flame of truth, of what it means to be alive, what it means to be aware, what it means to be engaged in the world," she said. "To ban books is to cut us off from one another."
In attendance at the ceremony were the usual publishing heavyweights, including Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp, former PRH CEO Markus Dohle (and National Book Foundation board member) and, as of January 1, former Hachette Book Group CEO (and newly named chairman of the combined HBG/Hachette UK) Michael Pietsch. The world of literary criticism also came out in full force, with Gilbert Cruz and Lauren Christensen of the New York Times Book Review and Parul Seghal, Doreen St. Felix, Merve Emre, and Julian Lucas of the New Yorker among the evening's guests.
Following a brief intermission outlining the National Book Foundation's year-round initiatives outside of the NBAs, the evening's two lifetime achievement awards were presented. The Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community was presented to City Lights bookseller Paul Yamazaki, who accepted the prize from Miami Book Fair cofounder and Books and Books owner Mitchell Kaplan. In his speech, Yamazaki honored Lawrence Ferlinghetti, cofounder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers and the inaugural winner of the Literarian Award in 2005, who hired Yamazaki to help get him out of San Francisco County Jail, where he was serving a sentence over his activism at the time.
Poet Rita Dove was the recipient of this year's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which she accepted from fellow poet Jericho Brown. Critiquing "today's endangered intellectual climate" and the scourge of "reactionary book burners," Dove affirmed the role of poetry in contemporary life. "The poet is called upon to use words like stepping stones," she said, "to carry herself and her readers across that unarticulated turbulence, the unworded depths within us."
The awards portion of the evening began with the Award for Young People's Literature, presented by jury chair and Center for the Study of Multicultural Children's Literature executive director Claudette S. McLinn. Dan Santat took home the award for his middle grade graphic memoir A First Time for Everything (First Second), and remarked that the diversity of the category's finalists—a picture book, two graphic novels, a middle grade novel, and a YA novel—"demonstrate that a wide variety of stories can be worthy of high praise."
The Award for Translated Literature was presented by novelist, playwright, and literary translator Jeremy Tiang, who announced The Words that Remain (New Vessel) author Stênio Gardel and translator Bruna Dantas Lobato as the winners. Gardel, who is from Brazil, thanked Lobato for "capturing the heart and the breath of the book and writing them down in your own beautiful words." Lobato, who translated the novel from the Portuguese, expressed her gratitude to New Vessel for "putting my name on the cover of that book where it belongs."
"#NameTheTranslator," Lobato said. "We are not mysterious fairies working in the dark!"
Presenting the Award for Poetry was poet, editor, and jury chair Heid E. Erdrich (sister to Louise), who announced from unincorporated territory [åmot] by Craig Santos Perez (Omnidawn) as the winner. "When I started writing, my mission was to inspire the next generation of Pacific Islanders," said Perez, who hails from Guam, in his acceptance speech. He concluded by reading the final poem in from unincorporated territory [åmot], "The Pacific Written Tradition."
Ada Ferrer, author of the Pulitzer-winning Cuba: An American History and jury chair, presented the Award for Nonfiction to Ned Blackhawk for The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History (Yale University Press). "The subject of American Indian history, while often simultaneously unfamiliar and discomforting, is also a shared experience that touches us all," Blackhawk said at the conclusion of his acceptance speech. "The currents of the past run deep and inform the topography of the present—a theme that we have seen throughout the work of so many finalists this year."
The evening's final prize, the Award for Fiction, was presented by author and jury chair Mat Johnson, who announced Justin Torres's novel Blackouts (FSG) as the winner. Torres kept his remarks very brief, inviting writers up to the stage who were participating in a planned statement on the ongoing Israel-Hamas War.
As more than a dozen finalists joined Torres onstage, Fiction finalist and Temple Folk author Aaliyah Bilal took the podium to read a prepared statement, thus concluding the evening's ceremony.
"On behalf of the finalists we oppose the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and call for a humanitarian ceasefire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestine civilians, particularly children," she said, adding that the group "opposes antisemitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia equally, accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed does nothing to secure lasting peace in the region."