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Lily King wins first-ever Kirkus Fiction Prize

Kirkus Prize winners: Gillian Redfearn (white dress) from Bloomsbury accepted for Roz Chast; Lily King (center) and Kate Samworth in Austin, Texas. (Photo credit Kimberly Burns.)

Lily King’s “Euphoria” has won the first-ever Kirkus Prize for Fiction. The award is one of three new $50,000 prizes announced Thursday evening by the publishing industry journal Kirkus at a ceremony in Austin, Texas.

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast won the nonfiction prize for her illustrated memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The prize for Young People’s literature was awarded to Kate Samworth’s “Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual.”

All three books have been widely praised this year. Chast’s memoir is also on the shortlist for next month’s National Book Award for nonfiction. In their citation, the Kirkus judges praised “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” for its “heartbreaking beauty” and ingenious combination of “cartoons, family photos, sketches, documents and text to explore a profoundly human issue: the death of one’s parents.”

King’s “Euphoria” — her fourth novel and her first historical novel — is based on an incident in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. The Kirkus judges cited its “perfect construction, its economy and originality, and its fearlessness.” In June, it was announced that director Michael Apted and producer Paige Simpson plan to turn the novel into a movie.

Samworth’s “Aviary Wonders,” for readers 8-11, is designed to look like a futuristic catalogue of bird parts from which customers can order up and design their own feathered creatures. The judges called it “by far one of the most creative books we have ever encountered.”

Kirkus is joining a very crowded field of literary awards, but its trusted name and the enormous value of these new prize offerings — first announced in May — should help attract attention, at least within the industry. (All that cash comes from Herbert Simon, the real estate magnate who bought the then-fading journal in 2010.)

All books published from Nov. 1, 2013 to Oct. 31, 2014 that received a starred review in Kirkus — more than 1,000 titles — were eligible for consideration. Eighteen finalists for this year’s prizes were announced last month.

Claiborne Smith, the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews, said the contest’s first year was a great success. “The level of enthusiasm was contagious among the judges and the publishers,” he said. “Fifty thousand dollars per winner tends to elicit that level of enthusiasm, I know, but the conversations I heard among the judges, our critics, Kirkus staff, people in publishing and writers felt wonderful.” He was especially impressed by how “level-headed, courteous and diligent our senior editors and judges remained as we rained down books upon their heads.”

Kirkus fiction editor Laurie Muchnick served as facilitator for the fiction judges. “They spent a lot of time talking about what this prize should be and what they wanted to look for,” she said by phone just before the ceremony began. “After all, there was no history — nothing like the Newbery. They wanted to find a book that they could recommend to everybody they knew, one they all loved and that they wanted to press on people.”