April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Librarians Shown Love at YALSA’s Morris/Nonfiction Awards | ALA Midwinter 2015


The winning titles

After the happy buzz and cheering of the early morning Youth Media Awards on February 2 at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Chicago, fans of nonfiction and debut novels for teens headed downstairs at McCormick Place to honor the nominees and just announced winners of Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA) Nonfiction Award and Morris Award.

The Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults recognizes the best nonfiction book published for young adults. The William C. Morris Debut Award selects a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.

As the audience settled in with their coffee and pastries, the official program began with speeches from the Nonfiction finalists and winner. Due to the blizzard conditions and travel difficulties, all of the Nonfiction honorees and the winner were not able to attend the event but were able to send in videos to express their thanks and talk about their titles.

Laughing at My Nightmare’LaughingatMyNightmares (Roaring Brook) Shane Burcaw was a Nonfiction for Young Adults honoree and sent in a short and sincere video, noting that when he started his blog chronicling living with spinal muscular atrophy, he couldn’t have predicted being recognized for such an award. He emphasized how much humor and positivity have become a huge part of living with his disease, and thanked all of his family and friends, his publishing family, and librarians across the country for the recognition.

Author Candace Fleming, whose book The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia (Random), was also a Nonfiction honoree, reported in by video from a long-planned trip abroad. In explaining the origin of The Family Romanov, Fleming described her struggle with how to make the long past, fantastically privileged world of the Romanovs come alive for modern teens. Despite initially thinking the story would focus on Anastasia, she discovered in her research that “Anastasia was, well, boring,” she said. The true fire of the family resided with the parents, Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra. Would teens be attracted to a story about adults, no matter how their sheltered point of view and decisions, both good and bad, affected the entire world? Her worries, as the nomination demonstrates, were entirely unfounded.

IdaTarbellAnother YALSA Nonfiction finalist was Emily Arnold McCully, author of Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business—and Won! (HMH), who faced similar skepticism surrounding her subject. McCully never ran a lemonade stand as her childhood business, but instead set up a newsstand to sell old copies of Life magazine. Her love of journalism led her to highlight Tarbell’s journey from being the lone female muckraker to becoming a veteran reporter lauded for her integrity and sought out for her opinion. As she concluded her speech with her thanks, she reported that she’d been warned, “No young readers would be interested in reading about a spinster who wrote a book called The History of Standard Oil.” She added, “Thank you for proving them wrong.”

Author Steve Sheinkin, sending his thank you video from a studio full of notes and narrative timelines for a new work, expressed his delight in being recognized by YALSA for his work on Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook), an instance of history he acknowledges he would never have known anything about were it not for his brother-in-law’s firm belief in conspiracy theories. A conversational trivia challenge with his in-law about when the first atomic bomb was tested led Sheinkin to the true story of the Navy mutiny and little-known civil rights battle. Once he started digging, he knew he’d found a story that deserved to be told.

popularThe nonfiction winner, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (Dutton), a memoir written by the charming Maya Van Wagenen, told a tale familiar to many a librarian of a young woman who found support and safe haven in her middle school library and expressed thanks to all of the librarians and the committee as well as her publisher. She began by confessing that when she’d heard that Popular was a finalist, she’d been afraid to tell anyone for a week because she was certain there had been some sort of mistake. Before writing Popular, Van Wagenen shares that like so many middle school girls, she learned to “stay as invisible as possible as a way of self-preservation.” When her dad discovered Betty Cornell’s 1950s Teen-Age Popularity Guide at a thrift sale, she never thought she’d take him up on the dare to use it as a guide for behavior. However, she rapidly discovered that Cornell’s advice was more about learning to present yourself in ways that made you feel confident—rather than outmoded fashion or dating tips. Van Wagenen expressed how the library, as a safe place and as a source of inspiring nonfiction, both helped her find her voice and ensure that she could and would, in writing her memoir, become the hero of her own story.

As the program turned to the Morris Award finalists and winner, the audience was treated to almost all Morris authors being present except for E. K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen (Carolrhoda Books), a Morris finalist.

Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray (Elephant Rock Productions) scored both a Morris finalist spot and a Michael L. Printz honor at the Youth Media Awards. In expressing her thanks, Foley noted the personal meaning for her in the recognition this honor gave her as an author published by a small press and bringing her story to a wider audience. As a first time published author, the fact that her book caught the committee’s attention felt like a feat all by itself, and she remains grateful to all the librarians who read and recognized something valuable in her novel.

The Scar BoysLen Vlahos, author of Morris finalist The Scar Boys (Egmont), began his thanks with discussing the ways in which music connects with math and physics. Perhaps, he said, magic dust is sprinkled on algebra, and music comes out. One element that further connects books and music is what librarians do, said Vlahos, who expressed how librarians’ work is all about resonance: finding the right content for the right reader at the right time. In particular, he expressed his love of school librarians, calling them unequivocally his “heroes” and expressed to his fellow nominees the honor he felt in being in their company. He thanked everyone involved in his work, commenting that while writing is a solitary occupation, publishing is not.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Candlewick) author Lesley Walton related that when she first heard about the Morris finalists announcements via Twitter, her first reaction was to add all of the titles to her to-read pile—and only after doing so did she realize her own work was included in the finalist selections. She discussed her gratitude for the recognition of a darker and harsher work, and if she’d thought of it as a work aimed at teenagers, she might have given in to the desire to protect her readers rather than expose them to cruelty. She acknowledged how vital libraries are in connecting readers with what they need and hopes her novel “makes someone feel less alone and more alive.” She finished by expressing her thanks to librarians simply, “Whether you know it or not, you are saving the lives of readers everywhere.”

GabiAs the Morris Award winner Isabel Quintero took the stage, the cheers from the crowd were exuberant and delighted. Jokingly, she began her speech with a nervous string of expletives, provoking a big laugh from the audience, and then started in earnest with a reading of Langston Hughes’s “I, Too, Sing America.” In relating how honored she was to win the award, she shared a question she’d recently been asked in an interview about how whether her family was surprised she “had become such an intellectual when her family were all laborers.” After the audience collectively groaned, Quintero proceeded to unpack the insults layered into such a question and acknowledged the significance of this recognition for Gabi: A Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos). She decried that expectation of somehow only being one thing, of being allowed a “single narrative and nothing else,” and how the casual question emphasizes just how ingrained assumptions are. The dismissive term of “laborer” denies the influence of her family of readers and curious investigators and refuses to acknowledge the truth that intellectuals can be anyone, anywhere. She shared seeing the struggles in her community with belonging, and the maintained artificial limitations of “where we’ve been allowed to exist and in what languages.” Her family worked so that she might have a different life, and she is proud to “present a different narrative of what it means to be an American, not just a Latina.” She finished by saying that for her, the best part of this journey has been hearing how so many readers see themselves, for the first time, in the story of Gabi and her friends. The audience leapt to their feet, giving Quintero a standing ovation at the finish of her speech.

As the formal ceremony wrapped up, each attendee scurried to collect three selections from the two awards pools of finalists and winners, and the lines for each author extended down the hallway. Although there was some disappointment at who was able to attend the ceremony and be present for signings, the program finished with a sense of joy for the winners and finalists with excited librarians snapping up favorites to bring back for their library shelves and eager readers.

Robin Brenner is teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.