The New York Public Library has announced the five finalists for its 34th annual Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. The nominees this year all published works of long-form non-fiction about distinct topics including the current housing crisis in San Francisco, the harrowing obstacles women face in wartime and the devastating conflict over the development of native lands at the heart of indigenous culture.

This year’s finalists are:  

  • Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America  by Conor Dougherty (Penguin Press);
  • Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women  by Christina Lamb (Simon & Schuster);
  • Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It  by Tom Philpott (Bloomsbury Publishing);
  • Paying the Land by J oe Sacco (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company);
  • Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law (The New Press).       

The Bernstein Award recognizes nonfiction books written by working journalists that bring attention and transparency to current events or societal issues of global or national significance. All books nominated were published last year and were selected by a nine person Library Review Committee, which read over 100 books submitted by publishers.          

The six member Bernstein Selection Committee, which is composed of professional journalists, will announce the winner in May. The winner will receive a $15,000 cash prize. Previous winners of the award include Rachel Louise Snyder who won last year for her book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, journalists Jill Leovy, Katherine Boo, Charlie Savage, and Judy Woodruff.  

The Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism was established in 1987 through a gift from Joseph Frank Bernstein in honor of journalist Helen Bernstein Fealy. The award honors journalists and their important role raising public awareness to current issues, events, or policies.

Additional information about the finalists:

  • Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty (Penguin Press). Spacious and affordable homes used to be the hallmark of American prosperity. Today, however, punishing rents and the increasingly prohibitive cost of ownership have turned housing into the foremost symbol of inequality and an economy gone wrong. Nowhere is this more visible than in the San Francisco Bay Area, where fleets of private buses ferry software engineers past the tarp-and-plywood shanties of the homeless. The adage that California is a glimpse of the nation’s future has become a cautionary tale.

    With propulsive storytelling and ground-level reporting, New York Times journalist Conor Dougherty chronicles America’s housing crisis from its West Coast epicenter, peeling back the decades of history and economic forces that brought us here and taking readers inside the activist movements that have risen in tandem with housing costs.

    Conor Dougherty is an economics reporter at The New York Times. He previously spent a decade in New York covering housing and the economy for The Wall Street Journal. He grew up in the Bay Area and lives with his family in Oakland.
  • Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women by Christina Lamb (Simon & Schuster). In Our Bodies, Their Battlefields, longtime intrepid war correspondent Christina Lamb makes us witness to the lives of women in wartime. An award-winning war correspondent for twenty-five years (she’s never had a female editor) Lamb reports two wars—the “bang-bang” war and the story of how the people behind the lines live and survive. Lamb chronicles extraordinary tragedy and challenges in the lives of women in wartime. And none is more devastating than the increase of the use of rape as a weapon of war. Visiting warzones including the Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Bosnia, and Iraq, and spending time with the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, she records the harrowing stories of survivors, from Yazidi girls kept as sex slaves by ISIS fighters and the beekeeper risking his life to rescue them; to the thousands of schoolgirls abducted across northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, to the Congolese gynecologist who stitches up more rape victims than anyone on earth. Told as a journey, and structured by country, Our Bodies, Their Battlefields gives these women voice.

    Christina Lamb is one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents and coauthor of the internationally bestselling and transformative I Am Malala.  She has reported from most of the world’s hotspots. She has won fourteen major awards, including being named Foreign Correspondent of the Year five times and Europe’s top war reporting prize, the Prix Bayeux and was recently named by Harper’s Bazaar as one of Britain’s 150 Most Visionary Women. She is the author of The Sewing Circles of Herat and The Africa House, among others, as well as the coauthor of Nujeen and the bestselling memoir I Am Malala. She was made an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen in 2013 and is an honorary fellow of University College, Oxford. She is the proud mum of a teenage boy.
  • Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It by Tom Philpott (Bloomsbury Publishing). More than a decade after Michael Pollan’s game-changing The Omnivore’s Dilemma transformed the conversation about what we eat, a combination of global diet trends and corporate interests have put American agriculture into a state of “quiet emergency,” from dangerous drought in California–which grows more than 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat–to catastrophic topsoil loss in the “breadbasket” heartland of the United States. Whether or not we take heed, these urgent crises of industrial agriculture will define our future.

    In Perilous Bounty, veteran journalist and former farmer Tom Philpott explores and exposes the small handful of seed and pesticide corporations, investment funds, and magnates who benefit from the trends that imperil us, with on-the-ground dispatches featuring the scientists documenting the damage and the farmers and activists who are valiantly and inventively pushing back.

    Tom Philpott has been the food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones since 2011. Previously, he covered food as a writer and editor for the environmental-news website Grist. Philpott’s work on food politics has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Guardian, among other places. From 2004 to 2012, he farmed at Maverick Farms in Valle Crucis, NC. He lives in North Carolina and Austin, Texas.
  • Paying the Land by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company). In Paying the Land, comics journalist Joe Sacco travels the frozen Mackenzie River Valley to reveal a people in conflict over the costs and benefits of development. To the Dene, the land owns them, not the other way around—it is central to their livelihood and very way of being. But the subarctic Canadian Northwest Territories are home to valuable resources, including oil, gas, and diamonds. With mining came jobs and investment, but also road-building, pipelines, and toxic waste, which scarred the landscape, and alcohol, drugs, and debt, which deformed a way of life.

    Against a vast and gorgeous landscape that dwarfs all human scale, Paying the Land lends an ear to trappers and chiefs, activists and priests, telling a sweeping story about money, dependency, and loss. The mining boom is only the latest assault on indigenous culture.

    Joe Sacco is the author of Footnotes in Gaza, for which he received an Eisner Award and the Ridenhour Book Prize, as well as PalestineJournalismSafe Area Goražde (also an Eisner winner), and other books. His works have been translated into fourteen languages and his comics reporting has appeared in DetailsThe New York Times MagazineTime, and Harpers. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
  • Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law (The New Press). Electronic monitoring. Locked-down drug treatment centers. House arrest. Mandated psychiatric treatment. Data driven surveillance. Extended probation. These are some of the key alternatives held up as cost effective substitutes for jails and prisons. But in a searing, “cogent critique” (Library Journal), Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law reveal that many of these so-called reforms actually weave in new strands of punishment and control, bringing new populations who would not otherwise have been subject to imprisonment under physical control by the state.

    With a foreword by Michelle Alexander, Prison by Any Other Name exposes how a kinder narrative of reform is effectively obscuring an agenda of social control challenging us to question the ways we replicate the status quo when pursuing change, and offering a bolder vision for truly alternative justice practices.

    Maya Schenwar is the Editor-in-Chief of Truthout. She is co-author (with Victoria Law) of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reform (The New Press, July 2020), the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), and the co-editor of the anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books, 2016). She has written about prisons for The New York TimesThe GuardianThe Nation, SalonMs. Magazine, and many other publications. She is the recipient of a Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Chi Award, an Independent Publisher Book Award, the Women’s Prison Association’s Sarah Powell Huntington Leadership Award, and a Lannan Residency Fellowship. Maya is a member of the Chicago-based abolitionist collective Love & Protect and a co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. Previous to her work at Truthout, Maya was Contributing Editor at Punk Planet magazine and served as media coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

    Victoria Law is an author and freelance journalist focusing on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is co-author (with Maya Schenwar) of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reform. Her other books include Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated WomenDon’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities, and the forthcoming “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration. Her writings about prisons and other forms of confinement have appeared in The New York TimesThe NationWiredBloomberg BusinessweekThe Village VoiceIn These Times, Rewire News, and Truthout. She is a co-founder of Books Through Bars—NYC and the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings by Women in Prison. She is also a proud parent of a young woman who has graduated from the NYC public school system.

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