In just a few days, the honorees and winners of YALSA’s literature awards will be announced–an event eagerly anticipated by librarians and readers, and surely eagerly anticipated by the authors and illustrators who may be honored. This year is just the fourth time the William C. Morris Award will be announced. Unlike most of the other awards, this one is not only announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, it also has its celebratory event at that same meeting. Attendees at this year’s event will be able to hear just one of the Morris finalists, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, speak. At least two of the other finalists will be sending video presentations. While that is bound to be a wonderful experience, it certainly is a shame that more of the Morris finalists will not be present to speak. I’ve been thinking a lot about this young award and the trouble it has had getting its celebration off the ground.
Members and conference attendees have provided feedback that they definitely want an event which recognizes the honorees. They are eager to hear and see and meet these authors! Yet publishers, who are often present at various events and bring authors to conferences, have flat out said they will not bring their new authors to this.
I’ve tried to understand why publishers would not make a point of sending their honored authors to the event. I suppose you could say that a publisher, who has no say in the creation or administration of an award, would not want to be beholden to the award, its administrators, and its events. It is certainly true that they are not obligated, nor does an association have any say in how they spend their dollars or which authors they should promote. However, I do think that it must be a feather in their cap to have identified the few, out of oh-so-many aspiring authors, who are so talented as to have been awarded a debut author award.
I was thinking, if I wrote my first book, managed to get it published, and then was named a finalist for one of the very best first books written for teens that year I’d be so thrilled and excited and proud that I’d buy my own plane ticket to get there. But then I thought, well, maybe this award isn’t that important to the author, or maybe finalists don’t even realize they have been invited to the event! So I asked previous winners Elizabeth C. Bunce and Blythe Woolston (sadly, the third winner, L.K. Madigan passed away last year) if they could speak to me a bit about the award and what winning it has meant to them.
Blythe Woolston won the Morris Award in 2010 for The Freak Observer (read more in our 31 Days of Authors post about Blythe.) When I asked her what winning the award meant to her she told me:
After I received notice that The Freak Observer was on the Morris shortlist, I went into the local big-box bookstore to buy copies of two other honor books. They weren’t available. I talked to the person in charge of ordering who told me very bluntly she’d never heard of the Morris and she didn’t order “prize” books because “those books don’t sell.” I was kind of mangled by her response.
The night of the award, one of the librarians on the Morris committee whispered, “Watch what happens to your book on WorldCat.” I’m so glad she did, because it gave me proof of that an extraordinary thing was happening to The Freak Observer: it was being added to library collections. The significance of thatâ€”I can’t express it. I can tell you I wanted TFO to be a “library book” and the Morris Award made that happen. Librarians made that happen.
Personally, the Morris nomination caught me at a point of great uncertainty. As I told L. K. Madigan, who won the Morris in 2010, I had experienced a joy of writing, which seemed very fragile and precious. I didn’t tell her that I was afraid to be a writer, but that was true. Then along came Morris, whispering in my ear, and I took heart.
Blythe was able to be at the Morris Award reception and to receive her award in person. Reflecting on that she commented:
I’m not entirely sure what I said or did, even though I have the notes for the speech and I’ve seen pictures. I tell you, those things are only a shadow of that moment. The Morris Award itself is a beautiful crystal thing, but it can’t match the ineffable happiness I felt saying “thank you for books” to people who truly understood. And the librarians hugged me.
My publisher [Carolrhoda Books] arranged for my registration and encouraged me to goâ€”they gave me as much support as they could. Later, they arranged for me to attend ALA in New Orleans, where I met with some of “my librarians” again.
The William C. Morris Award is still very young, just four years old. It definitely takes some time for an award to become established and recognized, and to see what impact it may have. Elizabeth C. Bunce was the inaugural recipient of the award. I was fortunate enough to announce this award and meet her at the event, and pleased to speak with her now and find out what, if anything, the award has meant to her since then. Elizabeth says:
Receiving the Morris Award, and especially accepting it in person, was, is, and probably forever shall be the highlight of my career. My first (and so far only) ALA experience was absolutely magical, particularly getting to meet the 2009 judges and thank them all in person. As an author, you will never find yourself in more convivial company than a room of happy librarians, and it was a joy to spend time with them. My husband, agent, and editor were all on hand to celebrate with me, and my agent took the only photo of me being handed the award itself. The flash went off, bathing the crystal sculpture in a golden glare, and it looks as though Bonnie Kunzel is bestowing on me a ball of molten light! I’ve always thought there was great metaphorical truth captured in that photo.
Three years later, I often look back and think about the award and its effect on my career. I’ve published three books now, and my Morris book, A Curse Dark as Gold, is still by far my most popular. I think in many ways, the award helped give Curse wings, launching it into amazing adventures of its own. I still get more fan mail about Curse, more calls to speak about it, and more fascinating hits on Google (just this weekend, a library in Massachusetts made a book trailer for it!). It’s truly humbling how many people that book has touched, and I’m so thrilled that the Morris Award has helped it reach readers.
And in a way, I also feel a strong sense of ownership in the award as a whole, being its first recipient. I’m so honored to be the first, and have tried to do what I could to help call attention to it, and to the brave and wonderful first-time authors whose books are honored every year. It’s become an annual tradition now to host interviews with the nominees on my blog, and in the last two years, I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of sharing that happy task with the previous year’s recipients, first last year with the late L.K. Madigan, and now this year with Blythe Woolston. We’re also hoping to do more this year to promote the award, and we have several Finalists on board as well, as we develop our plans.
I have to say I am thrilled with the support this award is getting from Elizabeth and Blythe, and also from Figment. You can check out interviews with finalists at Elizabeth’s blog, Figment’s site, and of course here on The Hub.
It is wonderful to see authors and librarians embracing this, though it is not a surprise to me: this was an award people clamored for! I sincerely hope, though, that publishers will join in the enthusiasm and support by bringing these new and acclaimed authors to the Morris Award celebration. Believe me, they will have an audience. And isn’t an audience of librarians, who are the best marketers out there of books, who you want to connect authors with?
I did reach out to a few publisher representatives for comments on this piece, but received no replies.
If you do attend the Morris and Nonfiction event on Monday, January 23rd, please do enjoy hearing Guadalupe Garcia McCall speak and meeting her. And why not go ahead and write a note to the authors who were unable to attend and let them know how much you enjoyed their books and how much you would like to hear them speak? Publishers and authors need to hear that we want them to support this award.
–Sarah Debraski, presently reading A Million Suns by Beth Revis, but looking forward to reading through the Morris finalists!
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