Meet Lisa Lucas, the ultimate cheerleader for literature

When Lisa Lucas talks about books, it seems like she has read every volume in the world. As the executive director of the National Book Foundation, she calls herself a cheerleader for literature.

“Books tend to get short shrift in the cultural world,” Lucas told CBS News special correspondent James Brown. “And yet every single child that makes it to school gets a book, learns through books. We’re a part of everyone’s life and yet, it somehow seems like it’s this niche thing… except, just because it’s also good for you doesn’t mean that it can’t be great.”

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Lisa Lucas

Lucas is the first woman and African-American to lead the non-profit foundation that hands out the prestigious National Book Awards. Since 1950, the awards have honored some of the greatest writers in American history: William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Susan Sontag, among others. Last year, Rep. John Lewis won in the young literature category for his graphic novel on civil rights, “March: Book Three.”

But the foundation’s main goal is to promote a love of writing, and that’s why it hired its youngest leader. 

At 37, Lucas maintains a schedule that takes her all over the country. One of her main initiatives is a book club called BookUp.

“BookUp is a program that we run in Los Angeles, and in Detroit, and in New York, and also in Huntsville, Texas. And it’s like a 24-week program where a young person will work with a published author, a group of young people and we provide all the National Book Award finalists from that year in young people’s literature. So they get free copies of those books,” Lucas said.

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BookUp in Brooklyn

CBS News

The Brooklyn program clearly made an impact on the middle schoolers who participated.

“In this program I believe I read up to 15 to 30 books a year,” Dulene Pierre said. “I like visualizing what’s happening in the text and I like predicting what’s gonna happen.”

“Reading is kind of like an escape,” Nashly Germain said. “When you read, you could actually, like, visualize, like, a better world or maybe someone else’s life.”

Author Mitchell Jackson runs the class and says he gets a lot out of it too.

“I’m inspired every week I come in this class and I leave out of here and I’m like, ‘OK, so what are we gonna do next week? How am I gonna keep this going?’” Jackson said.

Keeping it going is just what Lucas is determined to do.

Asked how President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities might affect the NBF’s work, Lucas was blunt.

“We [would] lose funding. And for a non-profit and for a small non-profit, I think people don’t always realize how small we are,” Lucas said. “That matters, you know? We have to figure out how to make up that difference.”

The foundation has a small $1.2 million budget and is only staffed by eight people, but Lucas has a vision that is very big, even for the “stodgy” National Book Awards.

“Why isn’t our celebration as well-known as the Tonys, or the Emmys, or the Country Music Awards?” Lucas said. “I’m constantly scrambling to try and watch the Oscar films before the Oscars happen every year. … What if we did that with books? … I think you really can make sure that, just like film, just like television, and music, and theatre, that this is a part of our cultural fabric.”