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November 23, 2015

National Book Awards

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Wednesday, November 18th was one of the biggest literary nights of the year --- The National Book Awards! I was thrilled to get to be a part of this night (especially since Neal Shusterman won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for one of my very favorite books of 2015 --- CHALLENGER DEEP), but I also loved going to the events leading up the awards themselves, including 5 Under 35 and the Teen Press Conference. Below, I outline my favorite things about the week.

All things Neal Shusterman --- I'll just go ahead and say it --- I was pretty obsessed with CHALLENGER DEEP this year, and might even call it my favorite book of 2015 (along with THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS by David Almond). So, getting to see Neal recognized for that truly amazing novel? Unbeatable. What took his win to the next level, though, was twofold. First, I got learn a lot more about CHALLENGER DEEP's backstory. As Neal shared in his acceptance speech (as well as at the Teen Press Conference), he came up with the title "Challenger Deep" years before he had a topic to go with it --- he was helping his son with a school project and learned that "challenger deep" was the name of the deepest part of the worlds' oceans. Only years later did he find his subject; his son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and once said he felt like he was "at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of my lungs and nobody can hear me." Neal wasn't able to actually sit down and write CHALLENGER DEEP for many years afterwards --- an experience he called "cathartic" and "healing" --- but seeing Neal talk about this beautiful book in such personal language was incredibly moving. The second amazing thing (hint: look at the picture on the left!) was meeting both Neal and Brendan at the reception before the ceremony. I did my very best not to fangirl, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't too successful. 

Learning what a Literarian was --- Have you ever heard this word before? No? Well, you’re not the only one! Even though the National Book Awards gives out a Literarian Award every year, it was a bit of a running joke that no one knew what it meant, including Andy Borowitz, the Master of Ceremonies, and James Patterson, the recipient of the award, who joked “let’s all be literarians, whatever the hell that means.” Later in the night, though, we got an explanation: a literarian is someone who dedicates his or her life to the study or enjoyment of literature, and, although the word itself went out of fashion centuries prior, the National Book Foundation "brought it back" about 10 years ago. After learning this lovely new bit of vocabulary, I’m determined to follow NBF's lead and spread it around, because seriously, we’re all literarians here, aren’t we?

Kids reading along with the authors at the Teen Press Conference: There were a lot of awesome moments at the Teen Press conference --- last year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature winner Jacqueline Woodson interviewing former "Reading Rainbow" host LeVar Burton, the authors answering the teen attendees' questions, and chatting with three very enthusiastic seventh graders --- Samantha, Fatou and Isabel --- before the show. Oddly, though, the part that touched me the most was seeing all three girls read along from their signed copies of the book when "their" author went to the stage. Samantha and Fatou had read Ali Benjamin's THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH before the Teen Press Conference, and I saw them eagerly flipping pages to the second chapter, where Ali decided to begin her reading, so they could follow along. Similarly, Isabel opened her book as soon as Neal Shusterman started reading from CHALLENGER DEEP. While the girls were thrilled to participate in the event as a whole (meeting authors? Getting their books signed!? What could be better?) this simple action made it clear that it was still the words, the books, that mattered the most.

Angela making crazy eyes at LeVar Burton --- As mentioned above, there’s nothing more fun than seeing kids and teens get excited about meeting literary stars, but there’s something extra special about seeing published authors having similar reactions, which happened a lot at the 5 Under 35 event. Why? Because LeVar Burton, the host of “Reading Rainbow” for 23 years, introduced the event. Before she began reading from her book, THE TURNER HOUSE, author Angela Flournoy admitted she couldn’t believe she was in the same room as Burton, and couldn’t help making “crazy eyes” at him. This got a laugh, of course, but the trope continued throughout the night --- the introducers and nominees both talked about making “crazy eyes” at Burton over and over because he had played such an important role in all of their childhoods. There’s something warm and fuzzy about seeing authors get excited by the same people as the rest of us, and witnessing firsthand that role models like Burton can not only produce lifelong readers, but some of our nation’s best writers, too.

Jennifer Egan’s quote about writers – When Jennifer Egan introduced Don DeLillo, the winner of the 2015 Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award, she said that many people wonder what will happen to reading and writing in the next century. Her theory? “it’s up to us, the writers. If we capture the cadences and textures of contemporary life in ways that feel essential, people will read us.” I thought this was a truly beautiful way to capture the importance of literary activities. While there are clearly many books that don’t cover contemporary life (oh hello, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc.), I still think that her words  ring true. As long as books, characters and situations feel real, readers will respond to them and keep coming back for more.

All the authors being so supportive of each other at the Teen Press Conference  --- One of the seventh graders at the Teen Press Conference asked the nominees how they would feel if they won, and I’ve got to say, the authors’ answers were incredibly heartwarming. Ali Benjamin said that she read Neal’s book first, and when she got to the last page, she just shut it and thought, “if he wins, I’d feel so good,” and then started CHALLENGER DEEP all over again. And then she read all of the other nominees' books, and felt that way again and again --- she would truly feel happy for everyone. Don't believe her? Well,  MOST DANGEROUS author Steve Sheinkin backed her up, explaining that really, everyone in the children’s/YA world is really supportive of everyone else, which Jacqueline Woodson echoed further. While we all love YA and children's literature for the books themselves, it certainly doesn't hurt to know that the writers in that community are so good-hearted and continuously build each other up.