At a June 24 reception at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, two of the most decorated writers in America today picked up their latest awards—the ALA’s Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction: Matthew Desmond took home nonfiction honors for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and Colson Whitehead for his novel The Underground Railroad.
“This one means a lot, because the ALA were one of the first promoters of Evicted,” Desmond told librarians. Whitehead, meanwhile, thanked librarians for “having his back” no matter what genre his books have taken over the last 18 years.
Now in its sixth year, The Carnegie Awards—which are now announced in January at the ALA’s Midwinter Meeting, with a reception to follow at the ALA Annual Conference—have become firmly established as coveted award.
This year’s ALA selection committee had plenty of validation on their choices: In March, Desmond won the National Book Critics' Circle (NBCC) nonfiction honors; In April, both Desmond and Whitehead took home Pulitzer Prizes, and last November, Whitehead won the National Book Award.
In his acceptance speech, Desmond also thanked librarians for all the work they do on behalf of those in need, and for embracing his book as a way to change the conversation about poverty in America.
“We wanted this book to have a real world impact. We wanted to change the public policy conversation today,” Desmond said. “This book has kind of made a dent. The fight continues, and there is still a lot of work to do, but whatever way out of this mess, one thing is certain: this degree of inequality, this level of social suffering, this wreckage that Evicted tries to tell about, this cannot be us.”
Whitehead acknowledged that he is just trying to enjoy what has been a “pretty much once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
“People say, ‘isn’t it going to be hard to follow this book up?’ And I go, ‘yes it will be hard.’ It was hard to write the first book. It was hard to write the second. They're all hard to write. If they were easy, they wouldn't be worth doing.”
Whitehead also thanked librarians for their unwavering support, despite his penchant for writing vastly different styles of books.
“People also ask me ‘are you worried about people's expectations? How are you going to follow this up,’ And I guess I've learned a few things about writing by changing styles. I am used to disappointing people. Sag Harbor brought me a new readership—it’s a coming of age tale about growing up in the ‘80s. And I followed that up with a book about a zombie apocalypse and lost all those people,” he said to laughter. “When I talk to booksellers, they tell me how hard it is to hand sell some of my books because I do keep popping around. But there’s this one group that doesn't seem to mind if I keep changing genres, and that you guys.”
In addition, to talks by Desmond and Whitehead, mystery and crime author Sara Paretsky delivered a rousing keynote, in which she urged librarians and book lovers to fight for truth, free speech, and the future of literature.
The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction are made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.