Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Just announced: Colson Whitehead, Saeed Jones, Jerry Craft win Kirkus Prize

Joe Gross
Colson Whitehead is the author of “The Nickel Boys,” which won the 2019 Kirkus Prize for fiction. [Madeline Whithead/Random House]

Kirkus Reviews, which is based in Austin and is one of the nation’s leading book review magazines, announced the winners of the sixth annual Kirkus Prizes on Thursday night. Colson Whitehead is the winner for fiction, Saeed Jones for nonfiction, and Jerry Craft and Jim Callahan for young readers’ literature.

Each winner receives a cash prize of $50,000, making the Kirkus Prize one of the most substantive literary awards in the world.

This year’s winners were chosen from the 1,264 titles that received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews over the past year. A panel of judges composed of writers and booksellers, librarians and Kirkus critics select the Kirkus Prize finalists and winners each year.

Whitehead won for the well-regarded “The Nickel Boys” (Doubleday), a grim, powerful novel about two African American boys in a savage Florida reform school at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Related: In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead reflects on how Jim Crow horror haunts the present

The judges for the fiction category were author Min Jin Lee; editor, writer and critic David L. Ulin; and Michelle Malonzo, buyer and bookseller at Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona.

“Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Nickel Boys’ evokes race in America not as a concept but as a condition of being,” the judges said in a statement. “With profound compassion and the elegance of a skilled craftsman, he reveals the tragedy of our not-too-distant past, which is also the tragedy of our present. Like all classics, the book works on many different levels: A significant social drama, it is direct, accessible and unrelenting both as allegory and as cautionary tale.”

Related: ‘Nickel Boys,’ ‘Say Nothing’ among Kirkus Prize finalists

Whitehead is the bestselling author of the 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award.

The nonfiction prize went to poet Saeed Jones for “How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir” (Simon & Schuster). The judges for the nonfiction prize were Kirkus Prize–winner and Pulitzer Prize–winner Jack E. Davis; critic Richard Z. Santos; and Aaron John Curtis, bookseller at Miami’s Books & Books.

“‘How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir,’ by Saeed Jones, is a tightly crafted work that explodes with vitality,” the judges said in a statement. “Like the best of memoirs, Jones’s is a journey of exploration, discovery and reassurance. Yet, through his years of coming of age and coming out, he does not travel alone. His journey is our journey — the reader’s and, most importantly, society’s. (The book) is never pushy, preachy or emphatic; it is simply palpable and seductive and, with just the right touch at just the right moments, delightfully humorous.”

Jones is the author of “Prelude to Bruise,” which won the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award. The poetry collection was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Jones will be in Austin for a panel at the Texas Book Festival called “On the Topic of Mothers” at 11 a.m. Saturday in Capitol Auditorium E1.004 and later that day at 3:45 p.m. on the “Toni Morrison: A Celebration” panel in the same room.

Related: Get ready for Texas Book Fest with these good reads

“New Kid,” written and illustrated by Jerry Craft with color by Jim Callahan (HarperCollins), won for young readers’ literature. The judges for the young readers’ category were author Mitali Perkins; Kirkus critic Hanna Lee; and Pauletta Brown Bracy, library science professor at North Carolina Central University.

Said the judges: “‘New Kid’ is a laugh-out-loud combination of art and story that showcases the beauty of graphic novels. Author and illustrator Jerry Craft, along with colorist Jim Callahan, illuminates the angst of an African American child leaving his neighborhood to start seventh grade in a predominantly white private school. We are invited to befriend Jordan, the likeable protagonist, as well as the richly-drawn members who inhabit his communities. It could only be written by someone who himself has responded to microaggressions and successfully navigated power structures.”

Craft is an author and illustrator who has worked on numerous picture books, graphic novels and middle grade novels; he is also the creator of the award-winning syndicated comic strip “Mama’s Boyz.” He has won five African American Literary Awards and is a co-founder of the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival. He will be appearing at the Texas Book Festival 10 a.m. Saturday in the Kirkus Reviews tent.

Previous winners of the Kirkus Prize include Ling Ma, Rebecca Solnit, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Cherie Dimaline, Susan Faludi, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roz Chast.

The Kirkus Prize ceremony is two days before the Texas Book Festival, which is Saturday and Sunday on the Capitol grounds and nearby venues. The festival is free and open to the public, with a few ticketed events.