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Highlights from the Morris and Nonfiction Awards reception

Every year librarians, teachers, and avid readers sit on the edge of their seats for the big announcement made on the Monday of the American Libraries Association’s Midwinter Conference. And every year, the announcements are met with some surprise, some confirmation, some discussion, and a ton of excitement. This year was no different, and this same enthusiasm obviously carried over into YALSA’s Morris Award and Excellence in Non-Fiction Award Reception.

This year’s William C. Morris Award—which is given to a debut book published for teens by a first-time author—was given to John Corey Whaley for his book Where Things Come Back. Whaley garnered the coveted Printz Award for this title, as well.

Four other books were honored as finalists including Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard, Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.

Via a video recording, Rae Carson responded to her newly awarded honor. She noted that this was probably “the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.” She gave shout outs to many of the other finalists saying that they were “awesome people!” Her plans overall were to celebrate with “an egregiously expensive bottle of champagne.” She ended her video with a special appearance by her cat, “Rage,” otherwise known as angry kitty, which was both funny and lighthearted.

Probably one of the most emotional acceptance speeches of the afternoon was given by finalist Guadalupe Garcia McCall. As with many award winners, she received the news of her award in a memorable way. She explained that she was in the middle of teaching her 7th grade class when she heard her cell phone chirp in her pocket. At the end of class, she checked her messages to find that she had received this honor. She explained that this book began with her students: she wrote poems everyday to model writing for them. This “joyful process” allowed her to relive her “collection of memories.” She recounted how she was so happy that she could “fictionalize this lifetime of memories” and “navigate the darkness by making meaning out of loss.” McCall often thinks about how now young people are “opening the pages of her books and leaving little fingerprints.” Reflecting on her youth, McCall recalls being “hungry for understanding” and “empowered” knowing that she had to write her memories, she had to be read, she had to share her story. In her life, she explained, she has taught many young adults who were a lot like her character in the book and has found through her journey and theirs that the “human spirit is resilient” and that “dreams do not die when our loved ones are gone.” To close, she thanked YALSA for “bestowing wings upon books so that they can fly far and wide to reach everyone.”

Next to respond to the news of the award was Between Shades of Gray author, Ruta Septeys who noted that this award was “an indescribable honor.” She noted that the process of writing this book was indeed a “journey” and that “history holds secrets that can be painful and destructive,” but that we can and should learn from these parts of history. Through her work, she was able to help the “nameless and faceless to become human.” She closed with saying that the “world is a better place” because of readers and organizations that honor the work that writers do.

Winner John Corey Whaley revealed that receiving this award was a birthday present, as Thursday just so happened to be his birthday. He noted that the award was both a “surprising and humbling honor.” Whaley expressed how he could not “adequately describe what it was like to be a writer and to get to be what he always wanted to be.” Furthermore, he commended his fellow award recipients saying that “Your books are why I write and why I read.” He reflected on his own young adult past and journey in writing this book and explained that “being a teenager does not mean you cannot connect to literature on as many, if not more, levels than adults.”

The second part of the reception was dedicated to honoring those authors who received YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, which recognizes the best non-fiction books published for young adults ages 12-18 each year. This year’s award winner was The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin. The four other finalists were Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy, and Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin.

Karen Blumenthal was present to accept her honor for her book. A proud Dallas native, Blumenthal advocated for more money for libraries. She noted that this year, the Dallas Library System budget was cut by over 40%. She continued by saying, to both audience and applause and agreement, that “Love is not enough for us [libraries]. We need money!” Blumenthal was “deeply moved” to receive this award, explaining that it is often hard to find non-fiction for young adults. In choosing prohibition as a book topic, she found that it was very controversial as it was one of the only amendments made that was repealed. She explained that sharing history makes a difference: it allows people to hear “the real stories and the real consequences.” “Having and writing non-fiction,” she explicated, “provides context for a complicated world. And the real world is not black and white but many shades of messy.”

In her acceptance speech, Sue Macy was thankful to be able to write about “this fabulous century.” Her book subject of the cycling craze of the 19th century mirrored some of her own roots as a teenager. In starting this project, she found herself on an almost serendipitous journey as she incidentally and accidentally encountered so many who were willing to share their images and antique cycles to be featured in the book. During her talk, she shared several images from her book showing how cycles became a part of our culture and how they took on special significance to many. She ended her speech saying that she “appreciates YALSA for spreading the word.”

Lastly, Steve Sheinkin, who couldn’t be present for the reception, sent a video acceptance. He sent a “big thank you” and felt that the award was a “huge honor.” His journey began 12 years ago when he was a textbook writer. He always wanted to write about Benedict Arnold, but that specific character “made people nervous.” However, through time, he was able to present his view of Arnold as kind of a “loose-cannon action figur” and was proud to be able to write a “straight ahead, action adventure, rise and fall, page turner book.”

Unfortunately, Marc Aronson, Marina Budhos, and Susan Goldman Rubin were unable to attend the awards reception.

After the speeches, attendees were able to meet with the attending authors to talk about their books and receive autographed copies.

Brava to another year of well-chosen books that are sure to, if they haven’t already, garner the attentions and spark the interests of young adult readers, teachers, librarians, and advocates alike!

— Krista McKenzie

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