A Week to Remember: The National Book Awards

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
National Book Awards banner
National Book Awards

On November 15, the winners of the National Book Awards were announced. Awards are given in four categories – Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature. Since 1988, the Awards have been administered by the National Book Foundation, which has brought consistency and stability to an award with a turbulent history.

The earliest version of the National Book Award was created by the American Booksellers Association in 1936, and lasted through 1941 before being abandoned during World War II. The award was re-established in 1950 by a group of book industry organizations. The pre-war awards had been open to all authors, but the new version of the award was limited to books published in the United States by US authors. The National Book Foundation officially recognizes only the post-war winners of the Award.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the National Book Award frequently changed the number and categories of its awards. In the early 1980s, the award was renamed the American Book Award, and the number of categories expanded to almost 30. The goal was to make the award more like the Oscars or the Grammys, with its own televised awards show.

The new format was not a success. The large number of categories was cumbersome, and publishers disliked the Foundation's frequent choices of dual winners, splitting the prize when the judges could not come to a decision. The Award was nearly abandoned before being drastically restructured in 1984, when there were only three awards – Fiction, Nonfiction, and First Work of Fiction – and dual winners were no longer allowed.

By 1986, the First Work category had also been eliminated, and the "National Book Award" name returned in 1987. Since the creation of the National Book Foundation in 1988, only two categories have been added – Poetry in 1991, and Young People's Literature in 1996. The stability has been good for the National Book Award, which is now among the most respected literary awards.

Each year, the Foundation selects five judges in each category. They are mostly writers, many of them previous NBA winners themselves; since 2013, critics, librarians, and booksellers have also been allowed to serve as judges. The judges spend the year reading the submitted books in their category before announcing a longlist of ten boooks in September. That list is trimmed to five finalists in October, and the winners are announced in November.

This year's National Book Award finalists are:



  • Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (e-book, e-audio, print)
  • Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (e-book, print)
  • Winner: Masha Gessen, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (e-book, print)
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (e-book, e-audio, print)
  • Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (e-book, e-audio, print)


  • Winner: Frank Bidart, Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (e-book)
  • Leslie Harrison, The Book of Endings (e-book)
  • Layla Long Soldier, WHEREAS (e-book)
  • Shane McCrae, In the Language of My Captor (e-book, print)
  • Danez Smith, Don't Call Us Dead: Poems (e-book)

Young People's Literature

In addition to the four National Book Award winners, the National Book Foundation holds a separate "5 Under 35" honor ceremony each November. Five writers under the age of 35 are honored for their debut book of fiction, either a novel or a collection of stories. This year's "5 Under 35" honorees are:

Also This Week

  • November 18, 1865: Mark Twain's short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is published for the first time, in The New York Saturday Press. The story was instantly successful, and widely re-published, with Twain making minor changes over the next several months. Among those changes was the story's title; in its first publication, it had been called "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" is among the stories included in The Portable Mark Twain (e-book, print).
  • November 15, 1887: Georgia O'Keeffe was born. O'Keeffe was a painter known for her southwestern landscapes, New York city scenes, and large paintings of flowers, usually seen in extreme close-up. In 2014, one of her paintings was sold at auction for more than 44 million dollars, more than three times the previous record for any work by a female artist. O'Keeffe was also an important artistic inspiration; she was the subject of more than 350 photographic portraits by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Roxana Robinson's biography, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, is available as an e-book and in print.
  • November 17, 1942: Bob Gaudio was born. Gaudio was an original member, and one of the primary songwriters, of The Four Seasons. He'd gotten his start at 15, as a member of The Royal Teens, and co-writer of their hit "Short Shorts." In the 1960s, Gaudio and Bob Crewe wrote a string of hits for The Four Seasons – "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man." He stopped performing with the group in 1971, but continued to write hit songs for them, including "Who Loves You" and "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." Much of The Four Seasons' music is available for streaming at Hoopla.
  • November 17 is Homemade Bread Day. There are a lot of cookbook options for the aspiring breadmaker. You might start with Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible (e-book, print), or Betty Crocker's The Big Book of Bread (e-book, print). Peter Reinhart's Bread Revolution (e-book, print) focuses on whole grain breads; Alexandra Staffod's Bread Toast Crumbs (e-book, print) includes recipes that will keep those last few slices from going to waste; and Jeff Hertzberg offers Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (e-book, print).

This article was originally published on November 14, and has been updated to reflect the winners.