National Book Foundation to Present Lifetime Achievement Award to Nancy Pearl

September 2021



The former librarian to be honored at the 2021 National Book Awards for her expansive service to readers and the literary community

Literarian medal, 2014. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan.

The National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards, announced Nancy Pearl, the former librarian, as the recipient of its 2021 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. For nearly four decades, Pearl worked in the public library systems in Detroit, Tulsa, and lastly, Seattle, where she was the Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book. From the creation of the pioneering One Book, One City program to her commitment to promoting books and authors, Pearl is an energetic champion for readers across the country. The Literarian Award will be presented to Pearl by The Washington Post’s Ron Charles.

“Libraries are an empowering force in the United States, and are vital to our communities,” said David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “The work that librarians do to ensure free and open access to our shared culture is unparalleled, and Nancy Pearl’s lifetime of service is a reinforcement that libraries are of the utmost importance for all. We are honored to recognize her contributions, and we are grateful for her passionate advocacy to connect readers with books.”

Inspired by her childhood libraries, Pearl worked as a bookseller and studied to be a librarian, receiving her Master of Library Science from the University of Michigan. During her tenure as the Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book, she initiated the community reading program “If All Seattle Read the Same Book,” which encouraged every adult and adolescent in the city to read the same book at the same time. The popular One Book, One City initiative has been replicated in all 50 states and around the world.

“Nancy Pearl’s energetic commitment to spreading the joy of books has truly helped build our national culture of reading,” said Ruth Dickey, the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “For decades, Nancy has worked closely with libraries, literacy organizations, and community groups, in the US and abroad, to share her infectious love of books with individual readers and entire communities. We are delighted to celebrate her long career of important work keeping literature at the center of conversations.”

Pearl also is a bestselling author and literary critic. She wrote the Book Lust series, four titles filled with book recommendations, as well as a novel and a co-written book of interviews with authors. She regularly discusses books in the media, including on her Book Lust with Nancy Pearl television show on the Seattle Channel.

Pearl will be honored with the Literarian Award at the 72nd National Book Awards Ceremony on November 17, 2021. This is the seventeenth year that the Foundation has presented the Literarian Award, which is given to an individual or organization for a lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading. Past recipients include Dr. Maya Angelou, Joan Ganz Cooney, Terry Gross, Kyle Zimmer, the literary organization Cave Canem, Richard Robinson, Doron Weber, Oren J. Teicher, and most recently, Carolyn Reidy.

Nominations for the Literarian Award are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, and judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. Final selections are made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal.


Nancy Pearl’s life has been shaped by books and reading. Inspired by her childhood librarians, Pearl went on to become a librarian herself, receiving her Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Michigan in 1967 and working in the public library systems in Detroit, Tulsa, and Seattle. Pearl retired as the Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library and went on to write the Book Lust series, four titles filled with recommendations of good books to read.

Pearl is the creator of the internationally recognized community reads program “If All Seattle Read the Same Book” (now known as “Seattle Reads”) and was the inspiration for the Archie McPhee Librarian Action Figure. Her many awards and honors include being named the 50th recipient of the Woman’s National Book Association Award; the Librarian of the Year Award from Library Journal; and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Pearl speaks about the pleasures of reading to literacy organizations, libraries, and community groups throughout the world and comments on books regularly on KWGS, the flagship National Public Radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On Book Lust with Nancy Pearl, her television show on the Seattle Channel, she has interviewed authors such as Terry Pratchett, Paul Yoon, and Kevin Young.

Her first novel, George & Lizzie, was published in 2017. The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives, a collection of author interviews, co-authored with Jeff Schwager, was published in 2020.


Ron Charles, Book World/The Washington Post. Photo credit: Washington Post Studio

Ron Charles came to The Washington Post in 2005 and became the editor of “Book World” in 2016. He is now a full-time writer for the Post, where he reviews books, writes a weekly books newsletter, and produces a satirical video series called “The Totally Hip Video Book Review.” Previously, Ron was editor of the book section at The Christian Science Monitor. His work as a reviewer has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle, the Society for Features Journalism, and the American Library Association, and in 2014, he served as a judge for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Since 2013, he has hosted “Life of a Poet,” an interview series co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife, Dawn Charles, a high school English teacher.