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decade-50s

1950

January

The American Book Publishers Council, American Booksellers Association, and the Book Manufacturers Institute announce plans for an annual award for writers in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry to “honor the best contributions to American life and culture.” The fifteen judges—5 in each category—submitted titles for consideration, and booksellers and book industry figures across the country received postcards soliciting recommendations for “the most distinguished books written by Americans and published in America in 1949.”

Postcard soliciting recommendations for the first annual National Book Awards. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

Original design for the commemorative plaques given to National Book Award Winners. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

March 16

The first National Book Awards Ceremony is held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attends as a Finalist for This I Remember and delivers the keynote address. Awards are given in three categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1950 National Book Awards Ceremony. Photo credit: Elliott Erwitt

1950 National Book Awards Ceremony guests gathered on stage in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

1956

Senator John F. Kennedy delivers the keynote address at the 1956 National Book Awards:

“Freedom of expression is not divisible into political expression and literary expression … The lock on the door of the legislature, the parliament or the assembly hall, by order of the king, the commissar or the fuehrer—has been historically followed or preceded by a lock of the door of the printer’s, the publisher’s or the bookseller’s.”

The opening paragraphs of Senator John F. Kennedy’s keynote address. For the full text, please visit the JFK Library website. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

Senator John F. Kennedy and the 1956 Winners. From left to right: W. H. Auden (Poetry), John F. Kennedy, Herbert Kubly (Nonfiction), and John O’Hara (Fiction). Photo credit: George Cserna

1959

In its first decade, the National Book Awards recognized a myriad of authors who have become lasting figures in the American literary canon, including: James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Rachel Carson, John Cheever, ee cummings, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Muriel Rukeyser, May Sarton, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams.

Ralph Ellison (left) and William Faulkner (right) at the 1953 National Book Awards Ceremony. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

decade-60s

1964

The National Book Award for Nonfiction is divided into three separate categories: Arts & Letters; History & Biography; and Science, Philosophy & Religion.

The 1964 Winners and Awards Ceremony host. From left to right: John Updike (Fiction), Aileen Ward (Arts & Letters), Christopher Tunnard & Boris Pushkarev (Science, Philosophy & Religion), Mason Gross (host), William H. McNeill (History & Biography), and John Crowe Ransom (Poetry). Photo credit: Wagner International Photos/National Book Foundation Archives

1967

The National Book Award for Translation is introduced. Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch wins.

Original cover art for Hopscotch, Winner of the 1967 National Book Award for Translation.

1969

The National Book Award for Children’s Literature is introduced. Journey from Peppermint Street by Meindert DeJong wins.

Original cover art for Journey from Peppermint Street, Winner of the 1969 National Book Award for Children’s Literature.

decade-70s

1972

Three new categories are created, resulting in 6 Awards in the genre of nonfiction: Arts & Letters; Biography; Contemporary Affairs; History; Philosophy & Religion; and The Sciences. Alongside Children’s Books, Fiction, Poetry, and Translation, a total of 10 National Book Awards are presented.

1974

25th Anniversary of the National Book Awards. John C. Franz, Executive Chairman of the National Book Committee, marked the occasion with a letter that begins:

“The conferring of awards is an uncertain business, involving comparisons odious, judgments subjective, and selections controversial. The National Book Award program is an example, not an exception. But literary excellence deserves attention and American letters and American life would be poorer without the NBA.”

Anniversary logo for the 25th National Book Awards. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

Upon receiving the National Book Award for Poetry, Adrienne Rich delivers a joint statement that begins:

“We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world… We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class.”

Full text of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker’s joint statement, delivered by Rich at the 1974 National Book Awards. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

decade-80s

1980

The number of Awards categories, having never surpassed 10 until this point, proliferates to reach an all-time high of 28. Existing categories are divided into two, one for hardcovers and one for paperbacks, and several categories are introduced for the first—and only—time: Current Interest; General Reference; Mystery; Religion & Inspiration; Science Fiction; and Western.

Original cover art of the 28 Winners of the 1980 National Book Awards.

1984

The National Book Awards categories are pared down to three: Fiction, First Work of Fiction, and Nonfiction.

Left to right: Original cover art for Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories, Winner of the 1984 National Book Award for Fiction. Original cover art for Stones for Ibarra, Winner of the 1984 National Book Award for First Work of Fiction. Original cover art for Andrew Jackson & the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845, Winner of the 1984 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

1988

The first Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters (DCAL) is awarded to Jason Epstein, co-founder of The New York Review of Books and long-time editorial director of Random House.

1989

The National Book Foundation, Inc. is established as a not-for-profit organization to oversee the National Book Awards. Neil Baldwin is the founding Executive Director.

decade-90s

1991

The National Book Award for Poetry is reintroduced after 7 years. What Work Is by Philip Levine wins.

Left: Original cover art for What Work Is, Winner of the 1991 National Book Award for Poetry. Right: Philip Levine, author of What Work Is. Photo credit: Robin Platzer – Twin Images

1996

The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is introduced. Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida by Victor Martinez wins.

Left: Original cover art for Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida, Winner of the 1996 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Right: Victor Martinez, author of Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida. Photo credit: Rubén Guzmán

1999

50th Anniversary of the National Book Awards. The Foundation presents Oprah Winfrey with a special 50th Anniversary Gold Medal in recognition of her efforts to expand the audience for literature through Oprah’s Book Club.

Toni Morrison (left) and Oprah Winfrey (right) mingling at the 50th National Book Awards Ceremony. Morrison’s Song of Solomon was one of the first books selected by Oprah’s Book Club. Source: National Book Foundation Archives

decade-00s

2005

Lawrence Ferlinghetti—poet, and long-time publisher and owner of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco—is presented with the first Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti receives the Literarian Award from Jessica Hagedorn. Photo credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio

decade-10s

2013

The National Book Awards introduce the Longlists, celebrating ten outstanding titles in each category prior to the announcement of the five Finalists.

2016

March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, making it the first graphic memoir (or novel) to win in the current Awards categories.

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell accept the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

2018

The National Book Foundation establishes a petition process to expand eligibility in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature to include authors actively pursuing, or unable to pursue, US citizenship.

The National Book Award for Translated Literature Award is introduced. In National Book Awards history, this is the first Award for translation that is presented equally to author and translator, in addition to being the first Award without citizenship constraints on eligibility. Since 2018, this Award has recognized books originally published in: Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tamil.

Original cover art for The Emissary, Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Author Yoko Tawada (left) and translator Margaret Mitsutani (right) jointly accepting the first National Book Award for Translated Literature. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

decade-20s

2024

February 15

The National Book Foundation announces that authors who maintain their primary, long-term home in the United States, US territories, or Tribal lands—regardless of immigration status—will now be eligible for consideration in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature.

March 16

75th Anniversary of the first National Book Awards Ceremony, held on March 16, 1950.

The Empire State Building, lit in National Book Foundation–blue in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the first Awards Ceremony. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

register

November 20

75th National Book Awards Ceremony in Lower Manhattan, to be livestreamed for readers everywhere.

Register to watch this year’s Awards: