Meet the 2011 National Book Award Winners


Last night’s National Book Award ceremony, hosted by John Lithgow, was held at Cipriani on Wall Street in New York City (“I thought I should point out, since nobody else has,” said poet Ann Lauterbach, introducing John Ashbery, “that we are occupying Wall Street”). At first, Lithgow seemed a little anxious about, or at least humbled by, his status as an actor hosting such an event, joking, “Am I crazy to envision Philip Roth hosting the Oscars?” and demurring, “I am an actor. I read words written by writers.” But don’t worry — he also got a little plug in for his own memoir, reminding us that, “My first book for grownups came out in September.” Before the official awards were announced came the honorary ones: the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was presented to Mitchell Kaplan, and the 2011 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ashbery, who quipped, “What I write makes no sense. It lacks accessibility,” and made knowing references to the fuss over ‘readability’ around this year’s Man Booker Prize. Hooray insider book industry jokes! We admit that we love them. Then, the official book awards began — click through to find out who won!

Young People’s Literature: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Book awards don’t often see a juicy scandal, so we were sure we would hear a little bit about this year’s infamous nomination snafu during the YPL award announcement. Sure enough, presenter Marc Aronson, who chaired the panel of judges for the Young People’s category, who said it had been a bad year for “oral malfunctions” and thanked the Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, for maintaining the “integrity of the judging process.” But there is no way to mistake Thanhha Lai’s book, title or otherwise, for anyone else’s. The Vietnamese-American’s debut novel, based on her own childhood experiences, tells the tale of Hà, a 10-year-old girl who flees to Alabama with her family during the fall of Saigon. The language is beautiful and the story, as you might predict, incredibly touching.

Poetry: Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney

When Finney was announced, she (and her incredible, urgent book of poems) got an awful lot of applause, and definitely earned it with a beautiful, eloquent speech. “We begin with history, the slave codes of South Carolina,” she declared. “We shiver together… Black people were the only people in the United States who were ever officially not allowed to become literate. I am now officially speechless.” When Lithgow retook the stage, he said, “That was the best acceptance speech that I’ve heard for anything. It’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone cheer for an award for poetry.” Not too bad an endorsement, we’d say.

Nonfiction: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s book is the history of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, and a study of how its rediscovery after a thousand years changed human thought and fueled the Renaissance. “I find myself fighting back tears,” Greenblatt said. “My book is about the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space, time, and distance. To have someone long dead seem to be in the room with you and speaking into your ear.” This book is an incredible read for book lovers, history lovers, or just people who love stories.

Fiction: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

There was no danger the award would go to The Tiger’s Wife, as far as we’re concerned — there’s been too much press on that book already, and that’s not the NBA’s style. Ward’s book is about a girl, fourteen and pregnant, and her family as they face down Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. “I was in my early 20s and my brother had just died,” Ward said about her interest in writing. She realized that life was a “feeble, unpredictable thing,” and that she “wanted to do something with my time here that would have meaning.” There’s certainly meaning in this book, a wrenching look at rural poverty and the strength of family.