Luck plays a big role in Cynthia Kadohata’s life. She admits that she’s very superstitious, and has a few small rituals that she says bring her good fortune. Luck can be found in the title of her latest novel, The Thing About Luck, which has just won the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. And in accepting her award, Kadohata told the audience, “I didn’t write a speech because I thought it would be bad luck. I guess it worked out.”
The award was announced by E. Lockhart, chair of this year’s panel of Young People’s Literature Award judges. Before announcing the winner, she reminded the audience, “Everyone in this room is here because once upon a time you fell in love with a book. And it was most likely a children’s book.” After Kadohata reached the podium, she thanked her longtime editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, the entire team at Simon & Schuster, as well as her agent, Gail Hochman.
In a phone interview with PW the morning after her win, Kadohata talked about what it meant to her to win the NBA for this particular book, the story of a Japanese-American daughter of migrant workers, who must make her own luck in order to save her family. “I love writing about people on the road,” Kadohata said. “I have so much respect for people who do blue-collar work because I come from that background myself.” The idea for the book was sparked by an errant comment she remembered from a visit to Kansas to promote an earlier book. “I had a two-second conversation with someone who said, ‘Those people over there are custom harvesters.’ ” She’d never heard that phrase before, but it stuck with her. “A month and a half later,” she said, “I went back out to Kansas and stayed with a custom harvester family.” And she returned to Kansas when the family went out on the road, so she could experience it. “It was almost magical,” she said. “You feel almost a part of the wheat when you’re sitting in a combine. I also harassed people with a lot of questions – they were very patient.”
Kadohata sang the praises of Dlouhy, whom she has known since they were roommates in graduate school. “Working with her is so great – I thought we might get into a lot of fights, being good friends, but we get along really well. She’s a fantastic editor, and a tough one. Of course, you don’t want that at every moment,” she said, but clearly they struck the right balance.
In total she has written six novels for children, and is currently working on a book due out next year, about adopting a child from Kazakhstan. She has some personal knowledge of this subject; her son, now 10, was adopted from that country.
Reflecting on the moment of standing at the podium, Kadohata said she found it “really, really surreal” to survey the literary crowd, many dressed in tuxedos and gowns, “because I’m usually at home in my pajamas! It was overwhelming, but really fun.”
Click here to see a photo-essay of all five Young People's Literature finalists at the National Book Awards.