An Interview with 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist Elizabeth Rusch

YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction is awarded each year, chosen from a field of 5 finalists (2021: Candace Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh). This year’s finalists covered a wide range: the space race, an international rescue, the memoir of a genocide survivor, and a biography of a complex figure in the narrative of the United States. But none is more immediate and practical than You Call THIS Democracy? by Elizabeth Rusch.

Cover Art

This primer on “how to fix our government and deliver power to the people” is clear and thought-provoking, delivering lessons and suggestions in accessible and meaningful ways. And in this interview, she expands on some of those lessons, reminding us that we all have a part to play in forming a more perfect union. With great thanks to Liz for this book and for her time in answering our questions!

author Elizabeth Rusch

THE HUB: Nonfiction titles such as You Call THIS Democracy? often make use of infographics and other visual features. These feel particularly effective, and I wonder how that process of design worked for you. How involved were you in the book’s design and graphic elements? How do you feel about the interplay between the text and the graphics?

ER: When I envisioned You Call THIS Democracy? I knew I wanted some powerful visuals. Sometimes readers need to see something to understand it. For instance, when I made the point that politicians draw bizarre voting district maps to manipulate the outcome of elections, I thought it was important for readers to see examples of these strange maps. 

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An Interview with 2021 Morris Award finalist Isabel Ibañez, author of Woven in Moonlight

The William C. Morris Award is awarded each year to a debut YA publication. After considering the wealth of excellence each year, the committee selects 5 finalists, announced in December. From these, the winner is chosen (2021: Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Could Fly) though all of the finalists demonstrate unique greatness in every page.

Finalist Isabel Ibañez has lots of talents, and in her debut Woven in Moonlight, she puts them all to excellent use. From art to storytelling, Ibañez delivers a complete package full of action, emotion, and history. As she builds this rich and beautiful world, she helps readers build empathy and understanding.

author Isabel Ibañez

We are grateful to Isabel for her book, her voice, and her art! We are also grateful for the time she granted for this thoughtful and fascinating interview!

The Hub: Woven in Moonlight is a celebration of the senses: smells, colors, sounds, food! What was your motivation behind including all those sensorial experiences?

II: I don’t want to assume, but I don’t know of any other YA author who is Bolivian, so when I was drafting this book, I felt this awareness that for a lot of people this would be an introduction to Bolivia. I wanted to do Bolivia justice because I grew up going there, and my whole family is from there. My brother and I were the only ones born in the United States. It’s where my grandparents are, and I have something like 27 first cousins. I love Bolivia. I know the way it smells, how it tastes, the food, I love the art, and I can see myself walking down these streets because it’s like another home for me. 

The decision to include all those details is because I wanted people to experience it the way I experience it. Woven in Moonlight is a profoundly personal story, so deeply tied to my lived experience, my culture, what you would see on our dinner table, the politics and the history – all of it was really influential in writing this book.

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An Interview with 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Winner Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming is no stranger to accolades. Her work has been lauded by numerous outlets over the years, and this year, she was honored for her work on two books: Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera (winner of the 2021 Sibert Medal) and The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh (winner of YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction).

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh by Candace Fleming

We are so grateful to Candace Fleming for this thought-provoking book and for her time as she prepared these remarks for us, some of which were included in her speech at the 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Celebration. Weren’t able to attend live? YALSA recorded it! You can find the video here.

THE HUB: Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Charles Lindbergh is not an admirable figure, and some would argue that to make him the subject of a biography is to elevate his abhorrent views. Why drew you to him as a research subject? What would you say to those who might challenge the “need” for such a book?

FLEMING: I believe I wrote an honest biography of Charles Lindbergh, a thorough and well-researched telling of his life that puts it in context. I wanted readers to consider who he was, and whether he deserves to be elevated or lowered in the eyes of history. Biographies aren’t written just to elevate the lives of people we admire.  They’re also meant to tell us what happened – honestly and fully.  They’re meant to show how people from history fit into our times.  And Lindbergh certainly fits into our times.  It was current events that compelled me to write this book.  Echoes of his past had become part of my daily present –political rallies seething with rage, attacks on the press, xenophobia, racism, America First.  Sounds familiar, huh?

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An Interview with 2021 Morris Award Winner Kyrie McCauley

Awarded the 2021 Morris Award, Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Could Fly takes an honest and unflinching look at domestic violence and the trauma imposed upon children in those situations. Both the book and our interview below address the issue, which we acknowledge may be difficult for some readers. If you, or someone you know, is in need of support or more information related to family violence, please visit McCauley’s website, where she has thoughtfully gathered resources on the subject. Thank you to Kyrie for this beautiful book and for her time in responding to our questions.

If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley

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An Interview with Printz Award Winner Daniel Nayeri

As part of our celebration of the 2021 Youth Media Awards, we will be featuring original interviews with 2021 honorees in the weeks ahead, and what better place to start than with Everything Sad is Untrue? This complicated and tender novel entered the world and immediately began making waves, ultimately being honored with the 2021 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellent in Young Adult Literature. Rumor has it that when the award committee called to share the news, Nayeri poured a bottle of champagne over his head! What a way to celebrate!

2021 Printz Award Zoom Call with Daniel Nayeri and Committee Members

This interview comes from member-manager Sara Beth, who shared a conversation with 2021 Printz Award winner Daniel Nayeri a few weeks before the YMAs. It was originally published on her site, and she and Nayeri have agreed to republish it here.

Daniel Nayeri is no newcomer to the publishing world. His has been a trusted voice, both as an editor and a writer, for years. But the success of his latest novel (Everything Sad is Untrue) has launched him into the public eye, and we are all the better for his generosity, his kindness, and the beauty of his book. For this book, and for the time and energy he has granted to participate in this interview, I am grateful.

INTERVIEWER: Before we get into Everything Sad is Untrue, I’m curious about your work at Odd Dot. Can you describe your mission, and your path into publishing?

NAYERI: My path in publishing would require one of those modern hour-long TV drama series that marketing teams would describe as “sizzling!” and “pulls no punches!” I just need Dev Patel to gain some weight, break his nose a few times, and call me. But the short version is that I’ve been lucky enough to edit books in almost every category of publishing. Literary fiction, history, crime drama, pop nonfiction, memoir, coffee table books, fashion, cookbooks, YA novels, Sci-Fi Fantasy, middle grade, picture books, graphic novels, sticker books, novelty projects, and toys. They’re all completely different spaces, of course. But the core of making something, of being creative within the confines of a new format, genre, or market, is that each project is always a new delightful puzzle.

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2020 Nonfiction Award Winner: An Interview with Rex Ogle on Free Lunch

Rex Ogle won the 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award for his moving debut, Free Lunch, published by Norton Young Readers.  In it, he tells the story of his first semester in sixth grade, living in chronic poverty with his younger brother, mother, and her boyfriend. He vividly describes the emotional and social toll of being in the free lunch program that semester, along with other struggles he faced during that time. Rex graciously agreed to our interview for The Hub, and I was honored to get the chance to interview him about this important book.

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#ALAMW19 Recap: Interviewing Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of Hey, Kiddo, 2019 Nonfiction Award Finalist

Cover of Hey, Kiddo
Image courtesy of Jarrett J Krosoczka

Graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo is a finalist for YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction Award, as well as a nominee for multiple other book awards. Author and illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Hub.

Congratulations on Hey, Kiddo being nominated for multiple awards! As a reader, I particularly loved your chapter heading pages with all their fascinating details. As the creator, do you have a favorite page or panel in this book?

Thank you so much! My favorite aspect of an illustrated book is the page turn. It’s something that you really can only experience once the book is printed and in your hands. I just love that moment when you turn the pages and watch the story visually unfold. So…my most favorite page-turn in HEY, KIDDO is that scene when preschool Jarrett is struggling with the assignment to draw his family, and then in that moment when you turn the page, a  double-page spread reveals the portrait drawn in crayon.

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#ALAMW19 Recap: Interviewing John Hendrix, author of The Faithful Spy, 2019 Nonfiction Award Finalist

 John Hendrix is a finalist for the 2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. His book, The Faithful Spy is a biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German pastor who makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to free the German people from oppression during World War II.

Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to Dietrich Bonhoeffer originally and why you chose to write this book for this audience?

I had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology in college, and knew of his journey, … so I have always wanted to share this story, but working primarily as a picture book artist and writer, I couldn’t get DB’s story to fit in that format… so I went with a longer middle grade prose/graphic novel hybrid. Seemed the right fit for the story. There are so many stories from WW2, what I liked about Bonhoeffer was the collision of ethics and action, faith and the world. Being a Christian myself, I think he asks some pretty relevant questions about where faith and action intersect in a broken world


Dietrich Bonhoeffer really began thinking of himself as a theologian as a teen. In an era when much of society tends to be critical about religion in general, and books for teens tend to focus on teens struggling against their family’s religious traditions, what do you think Bonhoeffer’s example offers for today’s teens?

Even if you have no interest in theology, Dietrich has a lot to offer young people. Primarily, he is asking the basic questions of ethics: how and when do our beliefs in our hearts intersect with our actions? You can’t understand Dietrich’s grappling with that question without understanding his Christianity. You can call it religious, but Christianity were his ‘first principles’ and motivated how he navigated his ethical choices. Bonhoeffer wrote about a concept called “Civil Courage” a strength of purpose and character that is grounding in something beyond the self that motivates one to action in the public arena. 


How do Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views about civil courage and sacrifice on behalf of “the other” to teen lives today?

One central theme in Bonhoeffer’s writings were others. His writing about the church, in “Life Together” and to some degree in his Ph.D “Sancto Communio” were a realization that the church is not the church if you are alone, or only interested in yourself. It seems basic when written down, but when lived out it is transformational. Christians believe that Christ is present in the church, and if the church is others-centric, that “otherness” is a central tenet of Christian theology. I think this is important to underscore because ‘religious activity’ is often stigmatized as what you do to ‘save your soul’ or a set of behaviors that prove your ethical “worth” because you follow rules. Regardless of your spiritual leanings, placing others ahead of yourself is a kind of teaching that is so foundational it has laid grooves into the universe… we all live better when we practice them.


In the  “Research and Authenticity” notes at the back of the book you talk about omissions. Is there a particular scene or event in Bonhoeffer’s life that you left out that you would love to have included? If so, what was it and how might you have designed it?

So many to have included, one I mention in the end matter was the fact that Bonhoeffer was in correspondence with Ghandi, and nearly went to India to study with him, but felt his work in the Confessing Church was much more important. One of those little overlaps of history that is very noteworthy and sad to leave out. I also did not put much in about Russia and their part in WW2, which was critical to an allied victory, and yet I just didn’t have the narrative space for it.


You made some interesting and effective choices in designing this book. Why did you choose to hand letter the text? Why did you opt for a three-color palette?

The design choices in the book were critical to the storytelling…. the color scheme was intentional to help tell the story in a visual form. I chose the red and teal to help show each of the stories in a clear visual signature, Hitler in red and Bonhoeffer in the teal. The colors are unsettling together, they create a kind of visual vibration, and as the two stories overlap, of Hitler and Dietrich, the colors overlap too, reinforcing the colliding content. The text is my handwriting, but the book is not handlettered (at least the body copy) I hired a designer/illustrator named John Martz to convert my handwriting to a typeface with 4 alternate glyphs per character that swap out at random to create a hand-drawn look. But the typeface offers some more consistency and makes translations to other languages easier too.


You have worked as both an illustrator  and an author-illustrator. What are some of the upsides and downsides of illustrating the work of others and being responsible for a complete project?

They each have their own benefits and drawbacks, and I enjoy each equally if you can believe that! When you work with someone else’s manuscript, you are just so easily surprised by what you create. When Tom Angleberger wrote “McToad Mows Tiny Island” I was thrilled to get to draw McToad on a mower throughout the whole book, I just never get a chance to draw animals with hats on! But, I also love the control when it comes to building a visual story that I also get to write. (Of course, sometimes, having too much control over a project is also problematic, when it comes to endlessly being able to change everything.)


You began you career as an illustrator and picture book author. What were the greatest struggles you faced in writing a much longer book? Was there anything you learned along the way that you could offer as advice to aspiring authors/illustrators?

I made some BIG rookie mistakes on my first draft. It is embarrassing to say now, but I just didn’t cite all my quotes in the first draft. I had read the books so closely, I thought I’d just remember where they all came from! Well, when I went to create my references and quotation list, I was in big trouble. I found them all eventually, but just do yourself a favor and cite them as you write. Also, I thought that the writing would be much faster than the art making ( I was used to the art taking so long, I thought that the writing would be much faster in contrast). I was very wrong in that department. Each process is time-consuming and requires tons of revisions. Looking back, that seems like a very obvious conclusion.. but yes, the process was long and full of changes. 


Can you tell us anything about your next book or other upcoming projects?

I’m hoping to revisit the longer middle grade format soon, but the project on my desk right now is a classic picture book. I am writing and illustrating a follow up to my 2016 book Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus. This book is a collections of some of Jesus’ parables and teachings, for young readers. Tentatively titled “Go and Do Likewise!,” it is scheduled to be out early 2020 from Abrams Books for Young Readers. I also have an illustrated collaboration with actor/writer Thomas Lennon, called “Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles” which will be out in March of 2019. That book is a middle grade chapter book about a magical police force in Ireland, and let me tell you, this book is SO funny.







#ALAMW19 Recap: Interviewing Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone, 2019 Morris Award Finalist

Tomi Adeyemi is a finalist for the 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award for her absorbing novel Children of Blood and Bone, published by Henry Holt Books, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

In Children of Blood and Bone, magic once ran in the bloodlines of the people of Orïsha. Diviners, children born with white hair, were destined to become maji in their teenage years, when they would develop abilities to control natural forces such as fire, water, and even life and death. These maji were an influential part of monarchy until King Saran eradicated magic through the slaughter of all adult maji. Those remaining–the diviner children and those of their bloodline–were subjugated under restrictive laws and made to suffer. Now seventeen, diviner Zélie remembers the night her mother was taken, and though she dreams of revenge and revolution, without magic her people are powerless. Then she meets runaway princess Amari, who fled King Saran with an ancient relic that she claims can restore magic. As they embark on a dangerous quest to unlock the relic’s potential, Amari’s conflicted brother Inan pursues them with his father’s soldiers.

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#ALAMW19 Recap: Interviewing Don Brown, author of The Unwanted, 2019 Nonfiction Award Winner

If you were living in a refugee camp and met a non-refugee stranger in need, would you be willing to give them the coat off your back? What if you were thousands of miles away from home, and that was the only coat that you owned? During his time at the Syrian refugee camps in Greece, this is the selflessness and generosity that Don Brown and his family experienced from the refugees there. In his book, The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees, the 2019 YALSA Nonfiction Award Winner, Brown (the book’s writer and illustrator) imparts this message, that Syrian refugees are ordinary individuals placed in extraordinary circumstances, forced to make terrifying decisions but maintaining their humanity, generosity, and kindness.

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