NEW YORK — Daniel Handler apologized again for racial comments he made while hosting the National Book Awards and promised to back up his words with his wallet.
The best-selling author also known as “Lemony Snicket” tweeted Friday that his remarks Wednesday night, centering on a joke about black author Jacqueline Woodson being allergic to watermelon, were “monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.” Handler pledged $10,000 to a campaign for diversity in publishing and added that for 24 hours he would match donations up to $100,000. On Thursday, he tweeted that his humor “clearly failed.”
Woodson won in the young adult category for “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir in verse about growing up during the 1960s and `70s. After she accepted her prize, Handler gestured toward her and mentioned that they had spoken privately earlier and Woodson had revealed she was allergic to watermelon.
“Just let that sink in your minds,” he said to mild laughter from a crowd of hundreds. “I said, `You have to put that in a book.’ And she said, `You put that in a book.’ And I said, `I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama say, `This guy’s OK.'”
Woodson, 51, is one of the country’s most highly regarded young adult writers, with her previous honors including the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement. “Hush,” “Behind You” and “Miracle’s Boys” are among her other books.
In a statement issued Friday through her publisher, Penguin Young Readers Group, Woodson did not mention Handler by name or respond directly to his remarks but said she wanted to continue in a “positive light rather than a negative one.”
“This is a moment when our country can grow and learn and better understand each other,” she said. “It would be nice to put the energy back where it should be – on the books and what the books are saying and doing.”
The presenter of the awards, the National Book Foundation, said in a statement that Handler’s comments “were entirely inappropriate, were not authorized by the National Book Foundation” and “do not in any way represent the views of this organization.” It was Handler’s first time as host, with predecessors including Steve Martin, Andy Borowitz and Walter Mosley.
Diversity has been an ongoing issue in publishing, with few nonwhite publishers, editors, agents or booksellers. A recent study from a University of Wisconsin-based commission reported that just a tiny percentage of children’s books in 2013 featured nonwhite characters.