National Book Awards Handed Out In New York City



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The winners announced Wednesday night included Adam Johnson in fiction, Ta-Nehisi Coates in nonfiction, Robin Coste Lewis in poetry and Neal Shusterman in young people's literature.

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Now in this week that has forced us to think about security and culture and civilization, it is fitting that people have taken a moment to honor writers. They're the people who got us to think more deeply about ourselves. The National Book Awards were announced last night in New York City. NPR's Lynn Neary was at the publishing industry's annual celebration of the written word.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Novelist James Patterson was honored for his efforts to get more people to read. Patterson, known for churning out one blockbuster bestseller after another, opened his remarks with a self-deprecating nod to his standing in a room full of literary heavyweights.


JAMES PATTERSON: Well, I am the elephant in the room, the bull in the china shop, the Big Mac at Cipriani.

NEARY: Poking fun at an industry that can take itself a little too seriously is something of a tradition at the National Book Awards, and no one did it more effectively last night than Neal Shusterman, whose novel "Challenger Deep" took home the prize for Young People's Literature.


NEAL SHUSTERMAN: I finally achieved my father's dream for me...


N. SHUSTERMAN: ...To be an NBA star.


NEARY: Shusterman's book is based on his son Brendan's struggle with mental illness as a teenager. Brendan Shusterman's drawings illustrate the book. The father and son sat next to each other at dinner as they talked about what it meant to work together on the novel.

N. SHUSTERMAN: Brendan helped with every aspect of the book, and it's been a fantastic experience for both of us.

BRENDAN SHUSTERMAN: It's been a very healing experience for me. And it's - I think it's been a very healing experience for a lot of people who have been through things that are similar to what I went through.

NEARY: Nonfiction award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates' book "Between The World And Me" was written as a letter to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. Coats said the book had its roots in the killing of his friend Prince Jones when they were both students at Howard University.


TA-NEHISI COATES: I have waited for 15 years for this moment because when Prince Jones died, there were no cameras. There was nobody else looking. The office that killed him was not prosecuted. He wasn't even disciplined by the police force. He was sent back out into the streets to work, as though nothing happened, as though Prince Jones' life did not matter at all.

NEARY: The times we live in call for a new kind of story, says Adam Johnson, who won the fiction award for his collection of short stories "Fortune Smiles," which mixes elements of realism, science fiction and fantasy.

ADAM JOHNSON: Times of great stability lead to conservativism in arts. And I think we're going through flux and change in our society, and that leads to experimentation in arts and hybridization. And I do feel that the stories that are mixing the personal and the real are important now.

NEARY: Stories may be one way of making sense of the times. Poetry is another. Robin Coste Lewis, who won the poetry award for her collection "Voyage Of The Sable Venus," reminded the audience of that when she read a poem by Pablo Neruda at the end of her acceptance speech.


ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: In light of what is happening all over the world and has been happening all over the world - not just for centuries, but for millennia - I'd like to read a beautiful poem by him before I leave called "Keeping Quiet."

NEARY: The poem begins with a call to stillness and imagines a time when there would be no war.

LEWIS: (Reading) Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors would put on clean clothes and walk about their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

NEARY: Books and writers - there's a reason we celebrate them. Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.