The Margaret A. Edwards Award, sponsored by School Library Journal, is presented annually to an author whose works are deemed “a significant and long lasting contribution to young adult literature.” Previous winners include Lois Lowry (2007), Chris Crutcher (2000) and Gary Paulsen (1997). On June 28th, at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, YALSA presented the 2014 Margaret A. Edwards Award to Markus Zusak specifically for his novels The Book Thief, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger.
I was really excited about this year’s presentation for two reasons: 1. I Am the Messenger is one of the best books I have ever read and 2. the ceremony was being held on my birthday. There was also an extra added bonus- I’m a native Las Vegan, so I didn’t have to travel to ALA this year. Instead, it came to me!
The Edwards Award ceremony was a brunch this year instead of the traditional lunch, which appealed to me because I’m a big fan of breakfast at any time. When I arrived at the Las Vegas Hotel there were already people in line waiting to get in and the ballroom was all set up and ready for us. In addition to coffee, quiche and other sundries attendees also received copies of two of Markus Zusak’s books. The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, and reading group guides for both books. Attendees eagerly anticipated the presentation of the award and the acceptance speech and chatted throughout brunch until the presentation started.
For those of you who may not know, Markus Zusak hails from Sydney, Australia, so he came from the other side of the world to accept this award (and he has a lovely accent.) He listed Chris Crutcher, Gary Paulsen and Lois Lowry as heroes, and expressed some awe at being given an award that they had all previously won. After putting aside his speech and telling us he was going to keep it for reference, he told us that his writing career started in the backyard where he grew up, and shared some of the hijinks he and his siblings would get into, including setting up a tennis court in the house, boxing with one glove, and finding new ways of getting his mother to swear, like ruining her garden playing football (or soccer, for those of us who live here in the U.S.), because when she swore in her non-Australian accent it was hilarious.
Of course, there was also that pivotal moment when he discovered S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders when he was fourteen, and realized he wanted to be a writer, too. When Markus started to talk about writing the whole room was mesmerized. As a writer myself I find it fascinating how other writers go about crafting their stories. One way in which Markus does this is by pulling things that hadn’t worked from other stories into others, which is how some of the character building for I Am the Messenger was done. A long overdue trip to the dentist gave him the inspiration for some of the Wolfe brothers’ antics in the Wolfe Brothers series. “I’ve always had this thing with stealing,” he said, and claimed even the most angelic person we know steals at some point- “Think about your mum-I’m telling you, she steals.” When talking about The Book Thief, the title for which he is most well-known, he said he wanted “to write a book that only I could have written,” and that in the end this is his goal with everything that he writes. He also said that even though many readers come to him lamenting that he made them cry when they read it, he points out to them that, “You think that’s bad? I had to write it!”
Here’s a glimpse at part of Markus Zusak’s excellent speech:
After the ceremony ended many of us stood in a long line patiently waiting to get one of our books signed. Even though it was announced that we wouldn’t be able to have books personalized due to time constraints, Markus was taking the time to personalize and chat with everyone. He was gracious and pleasant with everyone, and I was excited to get my copy of I Am the Messenger signed and get a chance to congratulate him.
The thing about I Am the Messenger that resonated so much with me was how real the characters felt. I like character driven stories, and I enjoyed watching Ed grow as each ace showed up at his door, pushing him closer and closer to finding out who it was that was sending him on his journey. The ability to make a character on the page seem like a real person is a gift that Markus Zusak definitely has!
-Carla Land, currently sifting through all the Advanced Reader Copies she picked up at ALA and trying to figure out what to read next!