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ALA Annual 2016: Alex Award Recap with Ryan Gattis

One of the best highlights of this year’s trip to ALA Annual was undoubtedly the Alex Award ceremony on Sunday, June 26th. A small group of dedicated individuals, including current and former committee members, made their way to the South Conference Center to listen to 2016 Chair Angela Craig deliver a brief presentation on the top ten award-winners and the vetted titles and hear the acceptance speech of special guest Ryan Gattis, author of All Involved (2016 Alex Award Winner).

In the wake of the acquittals over Rodney King’s beating at the hands of a few members in the Los Angeles Police Department, much of the Los Angeles metropolitan area experienced riots, lootings, arson, and violence including murders. Just six days of lawlessness resulted in:

  • eleven thousand fires
  • just under eleven thousand arrests
  • over two thousand people injured
  • more than $1 billion in property damages
  • approximately sixty deaths.

During these six days, Gattis set his novel and chose various characters taken from real interviews with those who experienced the riots, bringing to life the different realities during this turbulent period. Gang members, a firefighter, a nurse, a dreamer, an artist, a homeless man, and others give unique testimonies to all sides of the 1992 violence and show the complexities of survival, vengeance, desperation, and loss.

For more information about the history of the period, see www.lariotsallinvolved.com.

Award winner Ryan Gattis at ALA Annual, Orlando 2016

During Ryan’s acceptance speech, he described his own history with violence and how it created an author:

“I was seventeen when my nose was torn out of my face. Seventeen, when I had two facial reconstructive surgeries to fix it. I was eighteen when my senses of smell and taste returned. Before, I was on track to apply to the US Air Force Academy, and after, all I wanted to be was a storyteller. 

Suffering violence, enduring it and not allowing it to determine everything about me has made me who I am today. And that is a very difficult thing to say, but an important thing.”

Winning an Alex has brought about some powerful results for Gattis, who shortly after the award, was asked to speak at Marco Antonio Firebaugh High School in Lynwood in South Central Los Angeles, an area described: “as inextricable from Compton as Long Beach Boulevard, sharing all of its violence and troubles but none of its notoriety”. They had not known he had won an Alex, but afterwards, were more enthused at the news. Upon his visit, in an area where “South Central Los Angeles is an island unto itself [and] the cities within it are locked off from the LA tax base and school system and must fend for themselves,” Ryan and his publishers (Ecco, HarperCollins, Picador and Macmillan in the UK, and Writers House in New York) were able to donate 150 books to students and over 100 to the library, including 2016 Alex Award titles. He found that the high school students knew very little of the Rodney King riots because “the generation before them had made an unspoken pact not to raise their children as they had been raised”. This discovery was “incredibly moving” and “filled [me] with hope for Lynwood and its future”. He shared with attendees a few photos and described his experience: 

“Their students are young and excited and so eager to learn but they don’t read. They don’t read enough. So all I did when I went in there was talk about what reading means to me and how it changed my life. Especially the year of my life where I was basically a hermit trying to recover from my surgeries and…and my injury…”

Soon after this visit, he describes how he was invited to Lynwood Middle School and visited immediately after a second 8th grader was killed due to gang violence, an 8th grader whose “body had been discovered in a parked car at the end of an alley”.

He notes: “Standing in front of a room full of young teenagers who know the cost of violence, who are dealing with its monstrous grief, at that very moment being asked to comfort them, to inspire them, is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And yet…nowhere was it more important to say that reading helps us learn the consequences of behavior without having to suffer them ourselves. I remain in awe of the decision that the Alex committee have, not least because its incredible foresight forced me to see my work more clearly but it also pushed me to refocus my efforts to make certain that I reach an entirely new generation in Lynwood, and I do whatever I can to inspire them to be writers to tell their own stories to the world.”

While there, in their largest room which was a science lab because they didn’t have a theater, he noticed the two empty seats of the dead students and shared this excerpt from the end of his book, inspired by losing a former gang member during his research for the novel:

It occurs to me then that maybe that’s how these riots are for everybody around here. You know you’re gonna lose, but you kick and fight to lose as little as possible. It could be property, or health, or a loved one…but it’s something and when it’s gone, it’s gone for good. No one feels peace tonight, and we haven’t for days. The curfew may be lifted, but it doesn’t mean things are normal or that they’re fixed, or that they will be anytime soon.

In L.A., it only means that things are different from the last time you could go out at night, and from now on, when we talk about these days, we’ll talk about what they did to us, we’ll talk about what we lost, and a wedge will get driven into the history of the city. On either side of it, there will be everything before and everything after, because when you’ve seen enough bad things, it either breaks you for the world, or it makes you into something else–maybe something you can’t know or understand right away, but it might just be a new you, like when a seed gets planted, yet to be grown.

My favorite part of his speech came from Ryan’s quotes from teen students at Lynwood Middle School who shared their gratitude for his visit:

“I feel it’s important you came because I feel most kids don’t have these types of talks with adults. Thank you for telling us life that isn’t always easy.”

“What you said about your past friend really meant something since I’m feeling something similar right now and I wasn’t expecting to have felt the way I did when I walked in. This one took me by surprise how I related to your experience.”

“You’re right, Gattis, I want to say thank you for coming. Your words have inspired me to be a better person and not to give up in life. Things you said about the gangs and the stories you shared about people in jail have taught me not to be like that because I was headed down almost the same direction. Two of my homies just died. It’s been kinda tough because I miss them so much, but in the long run it’s taught me not to go down the same path. So thank you.”

New readers of All Involved should visit www.ryangattis.com for his unique soundtrack accompaniment for the novel as well as details on the art and special seal created in honor of his book.

Ryan Gattis extended his thanks to all 2016 Alex committee members; YALSA; ALA; fellow winners Sara Nović, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Camille DeAngelis, Joe Abercrombie, David Wong, Brandon Stanton, Liz Suburbia, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and Keija Parssinen; students and teachers from Marco Antonio Firebaugh High School, but special thanks went to those at Lynwood Middle School for their testimonies above.

Members of the 2016 Alex Award Committee (l to r): Joy Worland, Karen Brooks, Kenneth Petrilli, Angela Craig, author Ryan Gattis, Mara Cota, Kara Hunter, Kristen Thorp.

Share other inspiring 2016 Alex Award winners and vetted titles with teens, or make a suggestion from adult titles published in 2016 suitable for a younger audience.

– Kara Hunter, former 2016 Alex Award administrative assistant, currently reading A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

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Kara is a teen librarian at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Charlotte, NC. She sometimes can be found reading and blogging in the company of her dog Katniss.