LeVar Burton to host National Book Awards

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LeVar Burton to host National Book Awards
LeVar Burton hosts the National Book Awards in New York, Nov. 19, 2019. The National Book Foundation has tapped a new host for its 74th award ceremony next month: the actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

by Alexandra Alter

NEW YORK, NY.- The National Book Foundation has tapped a new host for its 74th award ceremony next month: actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton.

Burton is stepping in to replace actress Drew Barrymore, who was scheduled to host but was dropped by the foundation after she decided to bring back her daytime talk show during the strike by television writers, and was widely criticized.

Although Barrymore reversed course and postponed her show, the foundation was still left scrambling for a new host for its awards, which are scheduled to take place Nov. 15 at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City.

With Burton, known for his roles in “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the foundation has brought in a seasoned and familiar host. Burton hosted the National Book Awards in 2019 and is a beloved figure in the book world for his promotion of childhood literacy. He hosted the PBS series “Reading Rainbow” for more than 20 years and has kept up the tradition with his podcast, “LeVar Burton Reads,” in which he performs pieces of short fiction.

More recently, Burton has joined the effort to confront book bans, a growing concern for writers and publishers. He was an executive producer of the documentary “The Right to Read,” which frames the impact of book bans as a civil rights issue. This month, he appeared at events as the American Library Association’s honorary chair for Banned Books Week.

“I’m a big believer in the power of the written word,” Burton said in a statement. “It’s an honor to return as host of the biggest night for books, especially in a moment when the freedom to read is at risk and literature both needs and deserves our recognition and support.”

The National Book Awards, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States, has long featured prominent cultural figures and celebrities as hosts, in an effort to boost the event’s profile and to highlight the broad cultural impact of books. Recent hosts include author and TV host Padma Lakshmi, actress Cynthia Nixon, author and comedian Phoebe Robinson, and actor Nick Offerman. (This year, Oprah Winfrey, who has been a force in the publishing industry with her influential book club, will appear at the ceremony as a special guest.)

The choice of host rarely stirs debate. But this fall, the foundation stumbled into controversy after Barrymore decided to resume filming her talk show without the show’s unionized writers. The decision provoked a swift backlash from striking writers and their supporters, who said Barrymore was undermining their efforts.

Some in the literary world, including National Book Award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, noted on social media that Barrymore was a less-than-ideal host for an event intended to celebrate writers. In September, the National Book Foundation said it had rescinded her invitation to host, noting that it wanted to make sure “the focus of the awards remains on celebrating writers and books.”

The ceremony typically draws about 700 people, and awards are presented in five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature.

The foundation is also giving two lifetime achievement awards. Poet Rita Dove will receive the foundation’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, presented by Jericho Brown; and Paul Yamazaki, principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco, where he has worked since 1970, will receive the foundation’s Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community.

Finalists this year include several writers who have been recognized by the National Book Foundation before, among them fiction finalists Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” and Justin Torres, author of “Blackouts.” The two were “5 Under 35” honorees in years past.

Three debut authors were named as finalists, including Kenneth M. Cadow, whose novel “Gather” is a finalist in young people’s literature; Aaliyah Bilal, a fiction finalist for her story collection “Temple Folk”; and Stênio Gardel, a finalist for the translated literature prize for “The Words That Remain,” which was translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato.

With Burton as host, the event will probably highlight how a surge of book bans across the United States has created an unprecedented new challenge for authors and readers.

“This year, more than ever before, books are at risk,” Ruth Dickey, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement. “We are tremendously proud to have a champion like Burton celebrate authors, translators and readers everywhere as the host of the 2023 National Book Awards.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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