This is probably the first year that I’ve been excited about the National Book Awards, which took place on November 15th. According to its website, its mission is “to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” This has been the focus and mission since 1950, the first year of the National Book Awards, starting with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Throughout the years, it has expanded to include Philosophy and Religion, History and Biography, Arts and Letters, Translation, Contemporary Thought, Autobiography, First Novel, Original Paperback, and Children’s Books, which led to a feeling of too many categories and minimizing the award. Once the National Book Foundation was created in 1986 to oversee the awards, it reduced the number of categories back to fiction and nonfiction. Five years later, poetry was re-added as a category, and after another five years, the young people’s book literature category was also added.
The National Book Foundation also partners with the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Urban Libraries Council and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to distribute high-quality books to areas deemed to be book deserts as their Book Rich Environment Initiative mission. They distribute over a quarter of a million books in 36 housing communities!
This year’s winners in each category are as follows:
Fiction: Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
Ward holds an MFA, is an associate professor at Tulane, and a winner of the 2011 National Book Awards and a finalist for National Book Critics Circle. This is her third novel. Set in rural Mississippi, it centers on a family of a drug-addicted African-American mother who is tormented by the loss of her brother, an imprisoned white father, and the impact of both on their parents and on their children.
Nonfiction: Masha Gessen, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, has won several fellowships, including the Guggenheim. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and she has written several books. This book examines the lives of four individuals who were born under the promise of democracy, but have ended up with a stronger totalitarian society (and mafia state) than Russia has seen before.
Poetry: Frank Bidart, Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016
Bidart has written five other collections of poems and is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, among others. This collected works of his highlights the extremes of the human nature and experience, with a highly emotional connection.
Young People’s Literature: Robin Benway, Far from the Tree
Benway has won the National Book Awards before, among numerous other awards. This is her seventh young adult book. This novel tackles adoption and teen pregnancy, and how an adopted child raised as an only child starts to explore her biological family after she gives her own child up for adoption.
If you’re interested in the runners-up and longlist for each category, please go here. I personally was pleased to see that a number of runners-up were published by Graywolf Press, a Minneapolis-based publishing company.