Guest Post: Finalist Rita Williams-Garcia on the National Book Awards

By Rita Williams-Garcia,
author of Jumped (HarperCollins)


The first thing I do each morning is read my Bible, but as I was reaching for my NIV, the phone rings.

Lord, you know I put you first, but I can’t read my Scripture if I’m fixated on the ringing.

I answer. It’s National Book Foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum, so I’m prepared to say, “Sure, I’ll interview the finalists.”

But that’s not what he’s asking me.

He’s telling, not asking.

Rita. Pay attention.

I listen. Then, the shock. Disbelief. I’m dumbstruck and sworn to secrecy! But I can’t contain myself. The first person I call is Grandma.

“Grandma. I have good news, but I have to wait until the announcement before I tell you. But it’s good!” Yes. This is what I tell my 92-year-old grandmother who’s on heart meds.

Then I put on two pairs of reading glasses and reach for my Bible.

The Announcement

The shock hasn’t worn off, but now I can’t stop smiling.

Have you seen my big, round face? Smiling and giggling. I call Grandma and Sis and tell them the good news.

Then Rosemary [Brosnan of HarperCollins] calls. “Why didn’t you tell me?

I’m a Brownie, sworn to secrecy.

She kvells, but I still can’t believe it.

After giving her a succession of “challenged” books, Rosemary deserves a medal. We kvell.

I’m finishing up my last packet (Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults) and am not sure if I’m coherent.

Focus, Rita. Stop smiling. That student has paid her money. Do what you’re supposed to do. Hii-hee. My Michael Jackson giggle is all over that packet letter.

Next, email. Facebook. Geez! People know! This stuff gets around!

I write back to everyone. It’s like playing Space Invaders. The messages are incoming, and I’m getting them all. I still can’t believe it.

I call Cyn (Eternal (Candlewick, 2009)). I yak and yak. I can’t believe it.

Oh! I’m late for the health care rally. “‘bye, Cyn!”

I walk out among the good people of Jamaica, Queens, frightening them with my jack-o-lantern smile. I walk a quarter mile to the now-closed Mary Immaculate Hospital, the site of the rally. I can’t stop smiling. I am of no help to the cause. I turn around and walk home, smiling.

Frightening the people.

I can’t go to sleep. My smile is keeping me awake.

The New York Times!

The day of the media announcement I call Grandma. “Get The New York Times!”

Exciting! I’ve only seen my name in The Times listed among the Young People’s panel for past National Book Awards. Now, I’ll be listed as a finalist!

I run out and get The Times. Two copies. Demonic smile. Demonic smile.

I race home. Got the coffee going. Cast aside everything not the Arts and Leisure section. National Book Awards…National Book–there it is!

I scan. In one second, I know. There’s no R with the W with the G? Where’s the “ita,” the “ll” the “cia”? A second. One second. And I know.

I didn’t make it to print. None of the Young People Finalists are named.

We’ve been robbed of our moment in print!

So I call Grandma. “Don’t get the paper!”

I go online and print the web version instead. Deborah, Laini, Phillip, David, and I are named as finalists. That’ll work!

Later I run over to Grandma’s so we can ooh and ahh over my online mention.

I’ve made it to the big leagues.

Later, Rosemary emails and says, pick up The New York Times in the morning.

But that’s all she says.

It’s payback for being a Brownie. I couldn’t sleep to begin with, but now I really can’t sleep.

I watch “Chelsea Lately” at 3 a.m. Hopefully she’ll mention another article my daughter’s written for The Chelsea always tosses them some free publicity.

Wow. It’s 7 a.m.

Go, Rita! Run outside. Get The New York Times. To the Arts Section! Page C7. Make haste!

“Look! Look! Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times!” And–here I am! Next to the crossword. The “ita,” the “R,” the “ll,” the “W” the “cia” and the “G” spring up pop-up style.

HarperCollins Children’s Books Congratulates our National Book Award Finalist.”

Both book and name have made it to the printed NY Times. I have arrived!

I can’t stop giggling. I smile standing on line at the DMV. I’m on the subway in full jack-o-lantern, frightening the good people of Manhattan.

Fairy Godmothers at Bed Bath & Beyond

I run around telling strangers I’m an NBA finalist. One such stranger teaches–or is a librarian–at Brandeis High School. She’s even heard of me and knows what I’m talking about.

I promise myself I’ll stop assaulting strangers with my NBA news. I promise.

I get a coffee and carrot cake at Café Beyond, the snack shop inside Bed Bath & Beyond. I’ve got a few pages to hammer out of my gaming novel. I’m way behind.

Get serious, Rita. Take out your netbook and get to key pounding.

The two ladies sitting at the next table exclaim that one of them had just bought the very same notebook. And that was all the permission I needed.

I start blathering on about the NBAs and being a finalist.

(The late Miss Essie is shaking her head right now.)

And so Gisele and Sarena, both song divas who tour in Israel (and happened to run into each other by chance), pull me in and we start talking.

They are fabulous. Fabulous. They’ve got make-up and accessories and hair know-how

(Geez. What tipped them off that I might need help in those areas?).

I’m even encouraged to dig out an unopened pack of false eyelashes from a book cover shoot, some 15 years ago. It turns out, Gisele knows all about Cipriani’s and paints the picture for me, and I’m getting excited about this whole magical thing that’s going to happen in less than a month. I’ve been to the NBA Ceremony a few times, but this is too different.

I hadn’t even thought about the what-to-wear aspect, but gorgeous Gisele and the radiantly expectant Sarena throw their wands at me and I’m psyched.

Not So Halloween-ish After All

The doorman buzzes. I go downstairs. They’re re-flooring and repainting. Our hallways and lobbies are a mess, but who cares?

I can’t stop grinning even before I see the bouquet of flowers. Beautiful fall flowers. Peach. Orange. Burgundy. Gold.

I take pictures, go on FB [Rita’s page], and because the winds of chance are all blowing my way, my connection is behaving and I’m able to post my photo sans tears.

Then I email my oldest daughter, Michelle in LA, to concede she was right. Orange will work just fine for her 2010 fall wedding. It’s not so Halloween-ish after all.

Don’t get me wrong. Love Halloween. In fact, I hang out with my friends in the Village, enjoy the parade and hand out candy to kids every Oct. 31.

Keeping with tradition, I’ve visited with my friend Vincent who flew in from Chicago, and then went about my merry way with my bag of candy for trick-or-treaters.

I’m on 6th Avenue and stop inside Books of Wonder. I take a peek to see if Jumped is shelved in the teen section. Sigh.

I get over it, hit 6th Avenue, and dole out candy to Spidermen, Hulks, Xenas, and assorted princesses.

The following Monday, Laura (my HC publicist) asks if I’m available to do the finalists’ author celebration at Books of Wonder.

I’d never let my students write such hokum, but this is real life and I’m silly and grinning. She also mentions the press, photos, and “red carpet” at the upcoming NBA ceremony.

I freak out and don’t want to go.

Museum Pieces

In stores. Out stores. In stores. Out.

No to strapless. No to glitter and beads. No to backless. All this looking, and no gown.

Then, light bulb! I go home, open the gown bag in the closet. I try on the Tina Turner ’80s thing to amuse myself. There is a ’70s bronze, black and gold disco thing from 1976.

Plenty of wifely formal wear from annual military balls. I am a proud Desert Storm ex-wife.

I look at my museum pieces. Alas, size 6 no more. Back into the memory bag the costumes go. But then there’s this one gown at the other end of the closet from four years ago.

I put it on. It fits. Just one adjustment needed.

I remove the rhinestones, and we’re good!

How does she do it?

How does Jackie Woodson do it? How does she not have a heart attack each year? I shriek when I see the silver finalist sticker on any book in Borders.

I’m wired. I jump up and down when I’m online at Starbucks, and it’s not the caffeine.

I jump up and down when I’m at the laundry. I’m thrilled my book is being read, discussed, and made available.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I summon my inner Jackie Woodson. I behave. I calm down. Take it all in with grace.

The first packet has arrived after two weeks of being left to my own devices.

Good. Go deep into the packet, Rita. Get grounded. Hii-Hee.

M.J. and I can’t stop giggling.

Books of Wonder

My transportation notes instruct me to take a cab. Nah. The subway is a block from my apartment. It’s a 45-minute ride.

I’ll allow myself 90 minutes so I can pick up the cord for my black knitted evening bag and then walk down to Books of Wonder.

I’m on the F Train. It’s a nice swift ride.

We’re 15 minutes in, at Kew Gardens. The train slows, then stops for 15 minutes. I’m still good. I’ve got more than enough time to spare, and we’re moving.

To the next stop. We stand for a good thirty-five minutes. Technically, I still have time, but me and Murphy’s Law’s got a thing going on.

I get out of the train in Forest Hills, hail a cab, and we’re off. The bag cord will have to wait for the next day.

Books of Wonder is spectacular. I meet Deborah, Phillip, and Laini, her illustrator husband, and their newborn. We introduce ourselves, do a Q&A and a lot of book signing.

A woman hands me an envelope with a card that I’ll read later. One of author-editor David Levithan‘s (Love is the Higher Law (Knopf, 2009)) students gifts me with a chocolate cupcake.

I’ve got my eye on the event poster and ask Peter, the manager, for it.

Hooray. It’s mine. All mine!

I get an autographed copy of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Melanie Kroupa, 2009)!

Even though I’m on a personal mission to not collect stuff, I’m enjoying my gifts.

The 2009 NYPL Teen Press Conference

Last year, while I was up in Harlem visiting the Thurgood Marshall School for Behind the Book, Chris (the coordinator) and I crashed the Teen Conference where Laurie Halse Anderson, Kathi Appelt, Judy Blundell, Emily Lockhart, and Tim Tharp were the star attraction for their finalist titles. It was a mob scene. Hundreds of kids getting their books signed. Wow! Amazing!

Now, here we are. Deborah Heiligman, Phillip Hoose, David Small, Laini Taylor and I up on stage at the New York Public Library on 42nd and Fifth Ave., reading and fielding questions from kids from schools all over.

It’s been a great presentation. Laini kicked things off with a wicked kiss. Deborah made us laugh and fall in love. David’s slide show got under our skins. Then it was my turn.

Confession: I couldn’t sleep last night. I couldn’t pick which passage I’d read. Trina, Leticia or Dominique. I kept settling on Leticia, and then I’d read a Dominique or a Trina.

This has been going on for weeks now. There’s no excuse!

But here we are. I step up to the plate. First a little Trina. Then Dominique and last, Leticia, along with Madame LeCoeur, her French teacher.

In the words of the late James Brown, the hardest working man in show bizness, I “hit it and quit it.”

And then the moment that made the event historical. Phillip Hoose and special guest star Claudette Colvin took the stage. Phillip set it off with his introduction, and then Claudette brought us the history and the pain. The kids went crazy. And we were all “the kids.”

The Finalist Reception and Reading

I am hyper. Too hyper. I walk down 6th Ave. after the conference. I pick up a black cord for my evening bag. Yes. Hyper knitted her evening bag out of black satin ribbon a few nights ago.

I walk from 42nd down to Bedford in the West Village and have a burger and tater tots at Daddio’s. I read the end of Kate DiCamillo’s, The Elephant’s Magician (Candlewick, 2009).

I’m still hyper.

We’re getting medaled in a few hours. And we’re reading. With the other finalists. The adults. The generalists. Them. Namely, poet Carl Phillips. Geez.

I walk around to wear myself down a little.


What’s that?

Ow, Rita. Ow. You’ve been dogging us, now ease up.

My feet and my Kenneth Cole Nip Squeaks have had it. I get a table at French Roast Café on 6th and have a coffee. That should calm me down.

Then I remember.

Deadline. The reason you got here in the first place! I take out my pad and write.

Someone says my name. I look up. It’s author and VCFA alum Bethany Hegedus (Between Us Baxters (WestSide, 2009)), who’s meeting with her writing group, including fellow alum Kekla Magoon (The Rock and the River (Aladdin, 2009)). I join them.

They’re here for the Finalists’ Reading, and I’m relieved that friends will be in the audience.

I leave the café and join the other finalists at the Reception in The New School.

I finally meet Harold Augenbraum after two terms of working as a panelist and being involved with the National Book Foundation’s community outreach, and I come up with this expression of exuberance. “Hi.”

Rosemary [pictured with Rita] and Laura greet me right away.

And then Dia Calhoun and Lori Ann Grover of readergirlz fame are there to support Laini and me.

I think: faerie ball from Holly Black‘s Tithe (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

All they need are wands.

Rosemary introduced me to poet finalist, Lyrae Van Cleif-Stefanon, whose Cornell tenure review comes up this Friday. How on time is that?

It occurs to me, as all twenty finalists disappear down a back staircase, that all of us, all twenty, will read. Five minutes each. But…come on.

We’re writers. Lovers of our own words. Five minutes?

But then Deborah ascends the steps, stand up to the mic and, boy, is she at home up there! That’s right. Young People’s Literature Finalist! We’ve arrived.

The readings, diversely wonderful. My butt, numb.

If Colum McCann‘s young daughter can hang in there, so can I.

Still, I time each reader to gauge what I’m going to do. I had four minutes planned, but I could go two minutes or three, and I thank Leticia for giving me options. Four, three, two, ripcord!

I hear myself marching across the wooden stage. I’m sure Kenneth Cole intended his chunky heeled pumps to be smartly percussive, but I feel like I’m my dad marching in military formation.

I read a few paragraphs from “Imaginary or Not.” They laugh. I only look up to find Rosemary in the audience. Three minutes, it is, so I “hit it and quit it.”

Afterward, my seat mate, Keith Waldrop (eventual 2009 NBA Poetry Winner) told me I read well.

Wefi, Where Art Thou?

Stephanie [Rita’s younger daughter] calls. She’s just made it in from DC on Amtrak. She’ll be at my house in less than an hour.

I take my Finalist medal out to Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up some bagels for the following morning. I show everyone–heaven help them, everyone–my medal.

Stephanie arrives. We catch up, and then we start getting ready.

I have an “I Love Lucy” premonition as I glance at the 15-year-old, never-tested false eyelashes.

Red carpet. Red carpet. Red carpet.

I nix the false eyelashes. My fairy godmothers will understand.

The doorman buzzes. Our chariot awaits.

He’s early! Yikes.

“Give us fifteen minutes!”

This Is It!

We’re in the limo, on our way. Guests are pouring in as we arrive. We check in and are ushered to The Dreaded Red Carpet. I smile too big. Too silly.

I silently promise to never laugh at Hollywood A-listers posing for the red carpet. School Library Journal is there. Publishers Weekly. The AP. Mediabistro.

I do the mini interviews and take some pictures. Mediabistro is the funniest. He asks what am I wearing. “Long black dress from Daffy’s.” I’m sure it’s from Daffy’s.

He asks about Twilight [by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown, 2005)], the book. I get it. Twilight needs a lot of press. I’m pulling for them.

Coe Booth (Kendra (Push, 2008)) spots us right away. Yay! YA people in the house.

She is so calm about this stuff–but it doesn’t rub off. I’m excited.

And Nancy Werlin (Impossible (Dial, 2008)), the YP Chair makes her way over. Arthur A. Levine is sporting a pink goatee in all-out Laini support. I meet Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese (First Second, 2006)).

We follow Coe upstairs to the cocktail party, and it is sardines on top of sardines. But I spot Rosemary and Barbara Lalicki immediately. I’m so claustrophobic that we have to go back downstairs to our table.

We take pictures and just pinch ourselves because this is all exciting. And then Kathi Appelt came by, and I was thrown by her new stylish bob. I kept staring.

My brain isn’t working, and on top of it, I’m mesmerized. Cipriani’s is everything Gisele and Sarena described.

The ballroom is filling up, and all of our table is present. I can’t believe I’m sitting with the HarperCollins heads of state. I’m so pleased to give Rosemary, Susan Katz [pictured below], and Barbara something to cheer about.

Comedian Andy Borowitz does his opening remarks, and then the still-luminous Joanne Woodward introduces Gore Vidal, and Gore Vidal…talks…and then his talk is followed by other people talking. And I’m soaking it all up because in the final words of Michael Jackson, “This is it.” The whole National Book Award experience.

And the food. The food is great. My favorites were the cheezy fried onion thing, followed by the potato tart. The wait staff kept pouring the wine and then brought out the dessert plates. Pumpkin pie and chocolate cake. Stephanie had her first flute of champagne.

I lost and found my pearl earrings twice. Finally, I put them away.

And now for the announcement! The naming of the winner!

I take my typed speech out of my hand-knitted, satin-lined, beaded, fringed bag. I printed it on card stock so I wouldn’t crumple it in my hand.

Rosemary advised me strongly to have one ready when she took me out for a lunch time celebration weeks ago. I went home that day and typed it up.

In it, I remembered my friend and colleague, Norma Fox Mazer (The Missing Girl (HarperCollins, 2008)[pictured]), thanked my family, friends, colleagues, my publisher, and Rosemary, my editor of 23 years.

I’ve timed myself saying it fast–one minute and forty-three seconds. And doing it in a normal speed — two minutes and fifteen seconds. I happily ate my last bite of pumpkin pie.

Nancy thanked the panel. She spoke about their task and made us proud that we were writers of books for Children and Young People.

Our jacket covers appeared on big screen as she read the titles, mine last and center. It was better than the Academy Awards.

And then she announced the winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Young People, Phillip Hoose for Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. The audience erupted!

As Phillip and Claudette made it to the stage, Rosemary and I stood.

It was a fine, fine moment.

I gave my speech to Rosemary. I think I was making it for her.

I reach out to the other finalists as the crowd was breaking up into parties.

Then Stephanie and I scarf up as many free books as we can carry.

I’m sorry I didn’t bring Tupperware for an extra piece of pumpkin pie, but Stephanie reminds me to behave. “Remember, Mom. You’re on a mother-of-the-bride-dress-fitting-mission.”

Then we get in the limo. Before we ride off, we spot Claudette and her assistant, and I call out to her, “Madame Colvin! Madame Colvin!”

She is one of the great dames of American civil rights history. It was a highlight to hear her speak and to later tell Grandma all about it.

It’s been a week since the festivities.

My smile has worn down to a happy sigh.

Cynsational Notes

Thanks to Lorie Ann Grover and readergirlz for photos of the table and big screen. Note: “readergirlz received the National Book Foundation’s first Innovations in Reading Prize. From over 150 entries, readergirlz was chosen as a program that innovatively sustains a love of reading for life.”

Read a recent Cynsations interview with Rita about Jumped. Peek: “Most books deal with the bully and victim, but the spectator also plays a large role in promoting the prowess of attacker. I was more interested in the spectator point of view, so I leaned on Leticia a lot. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t care less.”

Watch the book trailer for Jumped:

In January 2010, look for Rita’s next book, One Crazy Summer (HarperCollins)! Ages 9-up. Note: It’s her best work yet!