At a ceremony Thursday in Austin, Texas, three writers took home Kirkus Prizes: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hanya Yanagihara and Pam Muñoz Ryan. The literary award, now in its second year, awards $50,000 to the winner in each category — nonfiction, fiction and young readers' literature.
Coates' Between the World and Me earned the honors in nonfiction. In a statement, the judges praised it as "a formidable literary achievement and a crucial, urgent, and nuanced contribution to a long-overdue national conversation."
They added: "Not only does it ask the right questions at the right time, its refusal to appease readers by offering simplistic answers underscores the writer's uncommon journalistic and literary courage."
The book, written as a letter to his son, also focuses a lens on a vaster subject: what it means to be black in America. In an interview with Morning Edition, Coates told NPR's Michele Norris those topics aren't all that distant.
"I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it," Coates said. "But no definition of family that I've ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly."
Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life continued its sterling run this literary awards season, winning the Kirkus for fiction. Already a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and for the National Book Award — which will be decided next month — Yanagihara's novel is "disturbing yet humane, capacious yet intimate, and never less than brilliant," according to the judges.
A record of the intertwined lives of four friends, the book is "long, page-turny, deeply moving, sometimes excessive, but always packed with the weight of a genuine experience," writes NPR's John Powers. And, like the prize she's winning, the novel marks a sophomore effort; it was released just a year and a half after Yanagihara's debut.
Pam Muñoz Ryan's Echo, a novel aimed at middle-grade readers, garnered the prize in young readers' literature. The book, a quest tale centered on a mysterious harmonica, is nothing less than "a masterwork by a virtuoso storyteller," the judges said.
To be considered eligible for the prize, writers had to receive a starred review from the literary journal Kirkus Reviews. The winners were selected from a pool of 1,032 eligible books.