Out of Austin, Texas, three writers have emerged from a ceremony with fresh laurels in hand: C.E. Morgan, Jason Reynolds and Susan Faludi have won Kirkus Prizes this year — for fiction, young readers' literature and nonfiction, respectively. The prize, awarded by the literary publication Kirkus Reviews, doles out $50,000 apiece along with the honors in each category.
Judges plucked the three winning books from the pool of more than 1,100 books that received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews in roughly the past 12 months.
C.E. Morgan's novel The Sport of Kings "takes the kind of dauntless, breathtaking chances readers once routinely expected from the boldest of American novels," the panel of judges wrote in their citation. The book, which embraces decades of Kentucky horse-racing history, treats race with as much care as the competitions on the track. And its vast scope has attracted adjectives from critics like "sweeping," "daring" and — to borrow another description from the Kirkus judges — "profoundly orchestrated."
But then, if you've been listening to All Things Considered, you may have known that already. This summer, when the show asked booksellers for their recommendations, Californian John Evans broke out Morgan's opus as one of his suggestions:
Jason Reynolds, meanwhile, earned the Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature with the book As Brave as You, which features a risk-averse kid from Brooklyn on a visit to his grandparents in Virginia. In a statement, the judges explained their choice:
"Through eleven-year-old Genie's irrepressible curiosity, readers encounter a complex landscape peopled by an ensemble of richly developed characters. Reynolds' novel, told with compassion, humor, and an eye to historical context, introduces us to a phenomenal, truly unforgettable family."
Reynolds, who spent his own childhood in Washington, D.C., told NPR earlier this year that he's been inspired by a similar change of scenery in his own life — only in the reverse direction. When he left college, he headed to Brooklyn, where his struggle to make a life as an adult led him to a valuable lesson about fear.
"Be not afraid of discomfort. If you can't put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable then you will never grow. You will never change. You'll never learn. And I think for me, the discomfort of drowning is what taught me to swim."
The Kirkus Prize isn't the only literary honor to take notice of Reynolds this year. His novel Ghost is also on the shortlist for this year's National Book Award.
The winner in the nonfiction category, Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom, depicts another, much more intimate departure. In it, the Pulitzer winner tells of receiving an email from her estranged father, who delivers some startling news: He has undergone gender reassignment surgery. What follows is a "compelling, lyrical, and candid exploration of identity, gender, and the intensely complex relationship between a transgendered father and her daughter," according to judges.
"A lot of the questions I have about identity boil down to whether identity is something you choose or the very thing you can't escape," Faludi told NPR's Renee Montagne this summer. "And my father's own understanding of that exploration was essential to her figuring out something about herself and to attaining a certain peace with herself."
Faludi added: "Life doesn't give you any simple, quick fixes."