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'The Rabbit Hutch,' a novel by Tess Gunty, wins National Book Award for fiction

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The big names in the literary world gathered in New York City last night for the National Book Awards. How did they not invite me? Anyway, it was a big night celebrating the best American books and authors from the past year. But a recent rise in book bannings hung over the night. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

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PADMA LAKSHMI: Hi, everybody.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The issue of parents and politicians restricting books in schools and libraries, particularly books that include LGBTQ characters or that tackle themes of racism, was something many of the speakers last night addressed directly. Television host and author Padma Lakshmi hosted the ceremony and brought it up in her opening remarks.

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LAKSHMI: Deciding what books are in school libraries is the job of librarians, not politicians. Where are my librarians at?

LIMBONG: And so did the two recipients of the lifetime achievement awards - Tracie D. Hall from the American Library Association, who was given the Literarian Award...

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TRACIE D HALL: It is a universal truth that one of the real tests of liberty is the right to read.

LIMBONG: ...And Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel, "Maus," became the center of a book banning culture war at a Tennessee school district earlier this year. The book depicts his father's journey through Auschwitz. After being awarded for his distinguished contribution to American letters, he said he didn't think the incident was driven wholly by antisemitism.

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ART SPIEGELMAN: Everyone just wanted a kinder, gentler Holocaust to teach, as well as wanting to control thought and maybe eviscerate trust in public education so that tax money can be diverted toward private and religious schools.

LIMBONG: But then there was the business to get on to - awarding the best books of the year. In fiction, the award went to Tess Gunty, whose debut novel, "The Rabbit Hutch," is about four teenagers, too old for the state's foster care system, living together in a subsidized apartment building in a fictional town in the post-industrial Midwest. Here she is at an event the previous night, reading the opening.

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TESS GUNTY: (Reading) On a hot night in apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She's only 18 years old, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen.

LIMBONG: The translated literature award went to Samanta Schweblin from Argentina and translator Megan McDowell for the short story collection "Seven Empty Houses." The award for young people's literature went to Sabaa Tahir, whose YA novel "All My Rage" jumps between Lahore, Pakistan, and Juniper, Calif. And the poetry award went to John Keene, whose acceptance speech hit on the big topic of the night.

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JOHN KEENE: Lastly, I urge you to support libraries and librarians.

LIMBONG: But also the other thing hanging over the night's proceedings - the nearly 250 workers for publisher HarperCollins who are currently on strike demanding better wages.

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KEENE: Support workers in the publishing industry and every industry.

LIMBONG: And the nonfiction award went to professor Imani Perry, whose book "South To America" is a rigorous examination of the American South. But as you can tell from her acceptance speech, her writing doesn't come from a place of rote history.

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IMANI PERRY: I write for my people. I write because we children of the lash-scarred, rope-choked, bullet-ridden desecrated are still here, standing.

LIMBONG: But instead, like the rest of the writers, it comes from somewhere deeper.

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PERRY: I write for you. I write because I love sentences, and I love freedom more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.