Following the fabulous YALSA Coffee Klatch that Lalitha Nataraj wrote about, several of my tablemates and I needed to get the 2014 Alex Awards presentation. The trek, like the layout of the Vegas strip, seemed walkable and relatively close by on paper, but ended up being at the very end of the convention center. Thankfully, all the caffeine that we had just consumed while meeting fabulous YA authors allowed us to powerwalk and arrive on time for the session.
Danielle Dreger-Babbitt, chair of the 2014 Alex Awards committee, got things started by reminding the audience of how the Alex Awards were first given out in 1998, became an official ALA award in 2002, and honor the work of Margaret A. Edwards, who was called â€œAlexâ€ by her friends. Book jackets of the ten winning titles were shown along with short descriptions.
Typically, three to four winning authors attend the award presentation at ALA Annual. This year, only one author was able to make it â€“ John Searles, who won for his book Help for the Haunted. As John began his presentation, he joked that when he heard there were nine other winning authors he killed them all and buried them in the backyard (a nice tip of the hat to 2014 winner The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell).
What followed was a truly delightful, heartfelt presentation that included home movies (cinematic proof that from an early age John wanted to be an author as the super 8 pans his childhood living room and we see him writing away in a mini steno pad); a picture from high school (with John writing, of course); a scan of a truly scathing rejection note for an early manuscript submission, and photos of John’s hometown library (where he has been immortalized on a quilt featuring local authors).
Books read during adolescence directly informed John’s writing. He pointed out that Help for the Haunted was a combination of Sidney Sheldon plot twists, Stephen King eeriness, and quirky John Irving characters.One of my favorite stories that John told related to his first published book. As a young boy, John would take pages from his mother’ s book of wallpaper samples which he would use to cover pieces of cardboard and then sandwich in construction paper to make books that he would sell to his family members for 25 cents. He sold his first volume, Stories and Stories and Stories, which included â€œOver the Rainbowâ€ and â€œBehind the Rainbow,â€ to his grandma.
As the presentation came to a close, John told some insider stories from his job as a correspondent with The Today Show – the funniest relating to a book giveaway of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations with a manic audience member first demanding a copy and then insisting that John sign it. Not knowing what else to do, he wrote â€œBest of luck, Chuckâ€ and handed the book back.
Audience members were treated to copies of Help for the Haunted (generously donated by HarperCollins and handed out by the awesome Virginia Stanley). The epitome of graciousness, John stayed for over an hour after the event had ended â€“ taking the time to talk at length to every person who had waited to meet him, listen to their stories, and sign his book.
While I am sure conference attendees and my fellow members of the 2014 Alex Awards committee would have enjoyed getting to fete the other winning authors as well, I felt with John’s presentation we got an extra special treat by getting to learn so much about the development of his writing career from childhood to adulthood and the work that went into the creation of a truly haunting tale.
-Paige Battle, currently reading a very large stack of books for the 2015 Alex Awards committee