November 17, 2017

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Neal Shusterman Takes NBA Prize for “Challenger Deep”

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Brendan Shusterman (left) and Neal Shusterman at the NBA ceremony.

“Labels for mental illness are just labels,” author Neal Shusterman said while accepting the National Book Award (NBA) for Young People’s Literature at the 66th NBA ceremony last night in New York City. “I hope that Challenger Deep will open up a dialogue about mental illness and [help it] lose its stigma.”

Shusterman’s novel (HarperCollins, 2015), about a teenage boy struggling with schizoaffective disorder, was inspired his son Brendan, who has the condition. The title also won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor earlier this year. Brendan’s illustrations appear throughout the book, and he accompanied his father to the ceremony and to the podium to accept the award.

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Noelle Stevenson (center) with her parents.

“I learned from my son Brendan that Challenger Deep is the deepest place in the world,” Shusterman said, referring to the location in the Marianas Trench that is believed to be the deepest spot on Earth, a fact the author learned years ago when Brendan was a second grader working on a report about the Pacific Ocean.

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Ali Benjamin (right) with her husband.

Years later, when Brendan was grappling with mental illness, the teen told his father that schizophrenic episodes felt as if “you are screaming at the bottom of the ocean, and no one can hear you.” It was this image and his son’s journey through that darkness that inspired Shusterman’s award-winning novel.

Thanking his supporters, Shusterman said, “A career is made by so many people believing in you…for this book, mostly Brendan.”

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Steve Sheinkin (right) and his wife.

The glittering ceremony was held at the Cipriani Wall Street ballroom. Other short list finalists included Noelle Stevenson, author of Nimona (HarperCollins); Steve Sheinkin, who wrote Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (Roaring Brook); Ali Benjamin, author of The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown); and Laura Ruby, who wrote Bone Gap (HarperCollins). The judges were  Laura McNeal, John Joseph Adams, Teri Lesesne, G. Neri, and Eliot Schrefer.

Challenger Deep is written in chapters alternating between two modes—the protagonist’s day-to-day experience as he descends and emerges from illness, and his internal narrative about a boy who is an artist on a ship traveling to the ocean depths.

“Poetic, compassionate, and thrillingly inventive,” is how the judges described the book that “affirms the power of narrative to describe the indescribable.”  In a light moment, Shusterman joked that he had now fulfilled his father’s dream for him “to be a NBA star.”

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Judges (l. to r.) Teri Lesesne, Laura McNeal, Eliot Schrefer, and G. Neri.

McNeal, chair of the judges’ panel, said that group came to a quick, unanimous decision about their choice, which they made over lunch at New York City’s Jean-Georges restaurant on the day of the ceremony. Lesesne, professor of library science at Sam Houston State University, added that the group reviewed over 200 titles for this year’s award, while Neri described how the geographically disparate judges convened via Skype to discuss the books and present cases for ones they believed should advance.

Among the other finalists, 23-year-old Stevenson, also a co-creator of the tween-favorite comic series “Lumberjanes,” is the youngest person ever to be a NBA finalist, and she brought her parents along to celebrate. Debut novelist Benjamin was escorted by her husband and daughter. Ruby dazzled the red carpet in a sequin gown.

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Rocco Staino interviews judging chair Laura McNeal (center), with her son.

Sheinkin, whose nonfiction titles have been named NBA finalists for three of the last four years, brought his young children along to an NBA Teen Press Conference which took place the day before the ceremony. He and other finalists read aloud to students from around New York City who had gathered at the 92nd Street Y. Jacqueline Woodson, 2014 NBA winner for Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin), moderated that event. LeVar Burton also made a special appearance and discussed Skybrary, the modern, digital incarnation of Reading Rainbow.

When students asked the authors why they wrote their books, Stevenson, who described herself as that “weird girl who spent all her time in the library,” answered that she wrote it for herself.

School libraries were also in the spotlight during the gala when James Patterson accepted the Literarian Award. The prolific author was honored for his outstanding service to the American literary community, including his grants to school libraries, bestowed in collaboration with Scholastic. Patterson noted that in the first 20 days of his school library initiative, he received grant applications from over 28,000 school librarians. Carmen Fariña, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, presented the award.

Patterson said that he is compelled to do what he does because of a simple mission: So kids will say, “Please give me another book.”

In other categories, Ta-Nehisi Coates took the nonfiction award for Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau); Adam Johnson won the fiction prize Fortune Smiles: Stories (Random); and Robin Coste Lewis took the poetry award for Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf).

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