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The Morris Award–Still the New Kid on the Block

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 that—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 go—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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Sarah Debraski

12 Comments

  1. Pam Spencer Holley Pam Spencer Holley

    It is very ironic to me that this award, named for the wonderful William “Bill” Morris, has not been well received or supported by publishers. What can be done to change that?

  2. Sarah Flowers Sarah Flowers

    Some people, including some of the publishers, are saying that YALSA could just hold the event at Annual.

    Unfortunately, however, there is no room in the schedule for a new evening event and there is concern that adding a 4th ticketed YALSA event would be out of YALSA members’ reach budget-wise.
    o Friday night: 5:30 to 7:30 is a no conflict time with the exhibit opening; 8:00 to 10:00 is the Booklist Books for Youth Forum
    o Saturday night: 8:00 to 10:00pm, ALA Scholarship Bash
    o Sunday night: 6:00 to 11:00pm, Newbery/Caldecott Banquet
    The Printz event is on Monday night, and even that is becoming problematic as more members leave conference early, as the conference schedule is compressed.

    We’re continuing to look for a solution that works for everyone, and we welcome the conversation.

    Sarah Flowers
    YALSA President

  3. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Morris Award, as well as many of the other awards that YALSA/ALA presents to YA authors, but I think that your assumption that the authors do not value the importance of this award because they didn’t buy their own tickets is a bit far-fetched and unfair.

    Having personally known several different finalists, many times they are discouraged from attending, even if they offer to pay their own way. I suppose being contractually obligated to represent a publishing firm is a bit more precarious than we, as librarians, can understand.

    I do think that if we/YALSA want to continue to show our support to these awards, that instead of sweeping debut honorees under the rug as a last day event at a conference that is never as well attended as ALA Annual, that a different scenario be proposed. I, for one, would be just fine with making the Printz ceremony an hour longer and instead of schmoozing with co-workers and networking, let these authors have their moment in the spotlight.

    I find your post to have been written with the best of intentions but not giving enough credit to the authors because of an attendance issue that is nine times out of ten, not their fault. Believe me when I say that their lack of attendance is not a lack of enthusiasm nor do they not want to address the librarians which have supported them through this process. I beg of you to make this post, and future postings about this award, focus on letting the publishers know how important this is and instead of demeaning the authors, congratulate the them on this wonderful accomplishment.

  4. I think it’s a little unfair to say that the publishers aren’t supporting their authors who are Morris finalists. The year my novel Ash was a finalist (2010), my publisher and the publishers of all the other finalists brought their authors to ALA Annual, where we had a really lovely celebratory dinner with the Morris committee. That was certainly one of the top highlights of my career as a writer so far. I felt so incredibly honored that librarians — who are just about the most informed and widely read readers out there — had chosen my novel as one of the finalists.

    But I also remember feeling a little confused by the timing because all the other YA awards are given at ALA Annual. Having the Morris cordoned off at Midwinter, where publishers have traditionally not done much author promotion, felt a little like saying, “You don’t deserve to be recognized with the big boys.” I understand that was not the intention, and it may have been an attempt to draw attention TO the Morris without the distraction of the other shiny awards. But it also may contribute to the perception that the Morris isn’t as meaningful as the others.

    (That does not in any way detract from the joy I felt at being a finalist! In fact I think being recognized for your first novel is a particularly meaningful affirmation for a writer.)

    I see from Sarah Flowers’ comment that there is a scheduling conflict that seems to prevent the Morris from being celebrated at Annual. I don’t know the inner workings of that, nor do I know exactly why publishers prefer to bring authors to Annual than Midwinter. In my fantasy world, the Morris and the YALSA Nonfiction Award would be added into the Printz ceremony, and YA could have a banquet like the Newbury/Caldecott. But then again, I’m a fantasy author, so I realize that may not be realistic. :)

  5. Stephanie, in no way did I intend to “demean the authors” with this post. I was hoping instead to point out to people that this celebration has had a hard time getting off the ground. The very fact that the authors are first time authors may mean that they are at the bottom of the list when publishers choose who to bring to conference (I don’t work for a publisher so I have no idea if that is true or not). A struggling author may not have the means to travel to an event. There are certainly many reasons why they may not be there. I’ll be perfectly honest-I’m pretty much ok with many reasons, except that a publisher just doesn’t think this award warrants an appearance.
    You say that you want this post “to focus on letting the publishers know how important this is…and congratulate [the authors] on this wonderful accomplishment.” That was my intention and I’m sorry it failed in that intention for you. I hope other readers will read this post and see that intent.

  6. Christian Zabriskie Christian Zabriskie

    While individual author events with the committee are great what we at YALSA would really hope for is to have an event where ALL of our membership would have access to these remarkable authors. We value and appreciate EVERYTHING that publishers do for us but we want to provide opportunities for the body of our membership. If a group of librarians at dinner make you feel loved just imagine what it would feel like to have a ballroom full of librarians raving about your work. The issue of Annual v. Mid-winter is very difficult but the simple fact is that there are so many awards that the timing is impractical and these winners could be lost in the crowd. This is an ongoing dialog and we hope to find a solution which would benefit these brilliant authors AND our extensive (and excited) membership.

  7. At Annual in 2009, Morris winner Elizabeth Bunce spoke (a fascinating speech; she spoke about the inspiration for her book and being a builder, not a breaker) at the YA Authors Coffee Klatsch. I haven’t been to Annual since then; have the other Morris winners spoken at the same event? It fit well with the coffee, which had a great mix of both new and established (some famous) authors.

  8. Angela Frederick Angela Frederick

    Morris and Nonfiction Award finalists are announced in December, leaving less time for publishers and authors to plan visits to Midwinter in January. In the case of Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia, it was impossible for them to attend Midwinter because they were on tour for BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.

    Furthermore, why encourage publishers to spend money and effort to send their authors to an event that has half the attendance of the Annual conference? It doesn’t make financial sense for them.

    I personally would like to see the Morris & Nonfiction Award finalists honored either right before the Printz speeches at Annual or the Coffee Klatsch. Or perhaps with a recognition ceremony that happens during the daytime at Annual, if all the nights are booked.

    Angela Frederick

  9. Sarah Hill Sarah Hill

    The Alex Award winning authors are invited to attend the Alex Award program–usually two or three of the ten authors attend, thanks to their publishers. Couldn’t the same type of thing be done for the Morris Award winner and honor winners? I know everyone wants to be honored with a social event, but already some of the YALSA winning authors aren’t. A regular session where the authors speak would be highly attended and doesn’t need to be held in the evening. Then the Morris authors would be at Annual to participate in the other fun events at the publishers’ booths and events.

  10. I would love to see the Morris and ENYA award ceremonies combined with the Printz award presentations at the Annual conference. I think all three of those awards fit very nicely together and having a longer ceremony with more authors speaking might encourage attendees to extend their stay to be at the awards ceremony on Monday night. ALSC hosts the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder banquet, where winners of all three of these awards speak. Would it be possible for YALSA to hold a Printz-Morris-ENYA event? Or if it’s not possible to combine these in an evening event, what about a breakfast or the Coffee Klatsch?

    I did attend the Morris/ENYA reception at Midwinter this year and the speeches were very moving. I think it’s truly a shame that more librarians didn’t hear those speeches, especially for an award encouraging debut authors. I think if YALSA is serious about honoring debut authors, it would speak volumes if we could find some way to honor them at the Annual Conference. When the reception for the winners is held at a much smaller conference, it appears that YALSA values this award (and the hard work of the committees) less. I don’t believe that’s true.

    It’s hard to get any new program off the ground, but I think partnering the award ceremonies with the Printz might go a long way toward getting this award the industry recognition it deserves.

    • Emily Calkins Emily Calkins

      I agree that combining the Morris and ENYA speeches with the Printz would be a great way to go. If I’m not wrong, right now all the Printz authors – that is, the winner and the authors of the honor titles – give speeches at the event. While I think it’s lovely to recognize the honor titles as well, maybe those could be dropped off to make room for the winners of the Morris and ENYA (or maybe the Morris and the Edwards Award winner, with a separate event for ENYA?) I love the idea of a YALSA banquet similar to the Newbery/Caldecott banquet. I had the privilege to attend the Newbery/Caldecott banquet last year and it was the highlight of the conference for me. I think it would be a great step for YALSA to do something similar. In my experience, YALSA members are some of the most passionate and enthusiastic people out there, and I have no doubt that that kind of event would be well-attended.

      I went to the Alex Award session at Annual last year, and the room was far from full. Again, I think an evening social event, with all its accompanying glitz and publicity, would be great for the authors, the publishers, the books, the librarians, and YALSA itself!

  11. Sarah Flowers Sarah Flowers

    I appreciate all the thoughtful comments. Never fear, the conversation between YALSA and the publishers is ongoing, and I’m convinced that we’ll be able eventually to come up with an appropriate event that will work for everyone.

    Just to address the issue of a combined Printz/Morris/NF event. We could certainly consider doing that, but we would have to make some other changes. Probably the biggest one would be that we wouldn’t be able to have speeches from all the Printz Honor winners (or Morris and NF finalists), as well as the Morris and Nonfiction winners. Personally, I have found that some of the most memorable speeches over the years have come from the Honor winners, but that’s just me.

    Also, I’m sure you are all aware that the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder dinner charges $94 per ticket. You may not be aware that even that amount (which has always kept me from attending) is not enough to cover the costs. ALSC can afford to take a loss (or break even) because they get a huge amount of revenue from the sale of their Newbery and Caldecott seals. YALSA gets revenue from Printz and Morris seals, but since the awards are much younger, it’s nowhere in the range that it would take to be able to do a banquet like Newbery.

    A daytime event at Annual for Morris and Nonfiction is also a possibility, but again, it would need not to conflict with anything else major that is already going on. When we honored the Morris winner at the Coffee Klatch the first year, there was some grumbling that doing it that way gave the Morris short shrift (and that was before we had the Nonfiction Award).

    So, I guess the short answer is that it’s always hard to please everyone. But, again, the conversation is not by any means over. Stay tuned!

    Sarah Flowers, YALSA President

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