2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with Nic Stone

This is a guest post from Jeff Zentner, author of the 2017 Morris Award winner, The Serpent King.

Nic Stone and I are imprint siblings at Crown and best buds for about as long as either of us have been in the publishing world. She’s the only person on Earth who’s read everything I’ve ever written. We discuss everything from the virtues of kettle corn to the foibles of child-rearing to race relations in America to…story stuff that really requires more context than I have room for here. Point being: I couldn’t be more thrilled for Nic that she’s a Morris finalist and no one is more deserving. I got to talk with her. Continue reading 2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with Nic Stone

2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with S. F. Henson

S. F. Henson is a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris Award for her novel Devils Within. After Nate Fuller kills his father in self-defense, he must find a way to redefine what’s right and wrong and learn to trust again. But when two followers of The Fort, his father’s white supremacist group, arrive in Nate’s new town, he knows blood is going to spill—he’s just not sure whose.

Congratulations on being a Morris Award finalist! Where were you when you heard the news and what was your reaction?
Thank you! I can still hardly believe it. I was at work at my day job when I found out I was a finalist. Funny story, I actually learned the news when everyone else did, through Twitter! I absent-mindedly clicked on a notification and saw a tweet about the Morris Finalists. I stared at it for a minute, unsure why that tweet had come up in my notifications. Then I saw my name. Then I stared harder, not quite believing what I was seeing. Then I cried. My editor called after that and told me she’d been sworn to secrecy and the news had gone public before she had the chance to call. I just kind of wandered around the office all day, stunned. I kept re-reading the press release to make sure it was real!

Devils Within focuses on the impact of white supremacy on contemporary society. What made you choose to tackle this topic in your first novel?
Devils Within was, sadly, inspired by real events. I read an article that I couldn’t shake and this character, Nate, popped in my head. I actually tried really hard to not write this story. I wanted to write an easy love story instead, but it didn’t work. Nate’s voice wouldn’t leave my head. Around that time, an incident happened at Ole Miss, where my brother was a student. Someone had hung a noose around the statue of James Meredith, the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Instead of being appalled, a large contingent of students “protested” in support of the noose. I watched all of this, and I heard Nate, and I knew that his story was more relevant than I wanted to admit. I realized that this story had the potential to effect people, to make them think, and maybe even change their perspective.

You were born and raised in the deep south. How did that impact the writing of Devils Within?
I was raised in a gap. When I was a kid, both sets of grandparents lived in the same predominantly African-American neighborhood, where one grandmother still lives. My mother’s first teaching job was at a predominantly African-American school, where my parents coached basketball and where I sang in a gospel choir. I grew up surrounded by diversity, but make no mistake, there’s still quite the racial divide in the south. I’m still white. My church was all white, my school was mostly white. On one side, I had other white people making racist comments in my presence. On the other, I saw the effects of those comments on people I cared about. The high school my brother attended didn’t see its first African-American student graduate until 2011, my brother’s year. That same area had a public pool where my family would swim in the summers. One summer in middle school a bus load of African-American children from the Boys & Girls Club came to swim. My family watched as all the other white families left after they were unable to keep those children out. The city drained the pool after that for cleaning. These experiences, and so many more like them, have never left me. They’ve simmered in the back of my mind, growing hotter and hotter as I’ve aged, as more experiences were added to the pot, until they finally boiled over, flowing out onto the page to help fill out Devils Within. They’ve helped me write more honestly, which was important for this book. They’re in the little details, conversations and turns of phrase, that I’ve had readers tell me they’ve related to the most because it made the book feel real.

What do you hope teen readers–particularly white readers–will take from your book?
My hope for teens is that Devils Within will make them think more critically and be more willing to challenge prejudice when they encounter it. Not just the overt prejudices, but the small, subtle ones too. The ones they might be more willing to overlook. I hope they learn from Nate that silence equals assent, and that their voice, no matter how small, matters. The main thing I want white readers to take from the book is the idea that they don’t have to believe something just because their parents believe it. They’re free to form their own opinions and belief systems. Too often we get in the pattern of rooting for a certain team or voting for a certain party or forming a view on a certain issue because that’s what we grew up hearing. It’s okay to question those things and break away from your parents’ views.

You have a background as a lawyer. What inspired you to write for teens, and how have your past experiences in law informed your writing?
When most people find out I’m an author and an attorney, they immediately assume that I write legal fiction, but honestly, writing is a means of escaping from my day job. That’s one reason I like writing for teens. I deal with cynical adults all day. Let’s be honest: most adults are jaded. They think they already have everything figured out. Teens are just beginning to expand their world views. They’re figuring out where they fit and how they can make a difference. They still have hope. I like being part of that, and, let’s face it, it’s just more fun to write.

My background does color my writing, just in ways most people don’t expect. 90% of practicing law is writing, and it’s all telling a story. At work, I have a limited amount of space to tell my client’s story. Writing a legal brief is almost like plotting a story. Honing my craft at my day job has bled into my writing life. I can’t keep law completely out of my writing, though. I used to practice criminal and family law, which absolutely helped when it came to telling Nate’s story.

What inspires you as a writer?
Everything. I know that’s a broad response, but it’s accurate. I draw inspiration from all over the place: life, music, art, nature. I keep an Evernote app on my phone, and a notebook in my purse. It drives my husband crazy because I’m constantly jotting down notes about something I saw, or an article I read, or conversation I overheard, or snapping a picture, even in the middle of conversation.  I’m basically a giant sponge, absorbing everything I encounter and squeezing it onto the page later. Sometimes that inspiration takes over the story, like the article that birthed the idea for Devils Within. Other times it’s subtler, like the guy I saw bust his nose at a football game that wound up giving me the details for a fight Nate has in the book. A line from a song can give me a character’s motivation, or a single tree can end up forming the basis for an entire world. Basically, if you’re in my proximity, watch out because those quippy coffee cups sayings like “don’t offend the writer, or she might put you in a book and kill you” are a little truer with me.

What did you like to read as a teen? Looking back, are there any subjects you wish you’d had more to read about?
I liked darker stories. Stephen King and Thomas Harris. I read a lot of Agatha Christie and John Grisham too. I wish I’d read more YA. I loved Madeleine L’Engle and Paul Zindel, but I didn’t really have access to new books. My small town only had a used bookstore. They let you trade books, which was awesome because my family didn’t have a ton of money, but it also meant the selection was limited to what others had brought in. I would’ve loved to have had more YA books like we’re seeing in the market now. More books that spoke to me where I was. Doubling back to a previous question, I think that plays into why I write YA. I write the stories I wish I’d had as a teen.

Can you tell us anything about your next book or other upcoming projects?
It’s taken me a long time to move on from Devils Within. That book took so much out of me, and it’s taken a while for my creative well to fill back up. I’ve started and stopped half a dozen different projects since finishing Devils, but I’m finally working on a story that I think is going somewhere. It’s set in the most haunted forest in the world, in Romania, and is an allegory for my depression. I think of it like a YA Pan’s Labyrinth.

What books and other media are you loving right now?
I’m absolutely in love with Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. I also made sure to read all of the other finalists’ books, which are gorgeous. In other media, I adore the show This is Us, even though I’m behind because I cry during basically every episode, and I recently discovered the singer Elliot Moss. I can’t listen to music while I write, but I make a playlist for each book. If you want to know what I’m listening to for my new story, you can find it at www.sfhenson.com/playlists.html.

–Stephen Ashley, currently reading Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with S. K. Ali

S. K. Ali  is a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris YA Debut Award for her novel Saints and Misfits. The award winner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.


Smart, funny, and incredibly hard-working Janna Yusuf, an Arab American hijabi teen, is dealing with the usual teen issues of crushes, family, and friends. She finds her life thrown into personal upheaval after she is sexually assaulted by the seemingly devout cousin of her close friend, someone revered at her local Mosque. She grapples with the challenge of coming forward about the assault and not sure who or whether she can tell. She starts relying on unlikely friends, and finds the strength to stand up for herself. Continue reading 2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with S. K. Ali

2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with Akemi Dawn Bowman on Starfish

cover of Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanStarfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is the powerful and sometimes heartbreaking story of Kiko, a half-Japanese teen who hopes that her artistic talent will help her escape her toxic home life with her white mother who is alternately neglectful and abusive. After Kiko’s dream art school rejects her, she is forced to consider other options. When she reunites with her childhood friend Jamie and embarks on a completely unexpected journey with him, Kiko starts to realize that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances. Starfish is a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award. Today I’m thrilled to have Akemi Dawn Bowman here to answer some questions about her debut novel.

Congratulations on Starfish’s selection as a 2018 Morris Award finalist! Where were you when you heard the news? Who was the first person you told about the big news?

Akemi Dawn Bowman (ADB): Thank you so much! I was sitting on the couch with my three-year-old when I read the email. It had actually been sent hours before, but we had been out all day and I wasn’t checking my phone. When I finally did, I had all these messages from my editor and agent. I totally started crying and jumping around the living room, and then my three-year-old asked what was wrong. When I told her my book had been nominated for an award, she looked very unimpressed and said, “That’s not a good thing to cry about.” But my husband got home about fifteen minutes later, and his response was a lot more enthusiastic. And then I had to keep it a secret until they announced it publicly a few days later!

Your debut novel follows Kiko’s journey both literally across the country and figuratively as she tries to figure out how to break away from her toxic home life. What was the inspiration for this novel? What was the first thing you learned as an author about Kiko?

ADB: Starfish is very much the book I needed as a teen. I wanted to write a story that would’ve made me feel like I wasn’t alone—a story that would’ve made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I really wanted that for other readers, because hope is such an important part of healing.

I think the first thing I learned about Kiko was how resilient she was without even realizing it. She has no idea how strong her heart is, because it’s covered in bruises and scars and it constantly aches. And part of her journey is realizing that she has the strength to do things on her own—to make changes on her own—and I could see that in her early on, but she needed thirty chapters or so to figure it out for herself.

Art plays a huge role in Starfish as Kiko describes her paintings and sketches to readers (and dreams of attending art school). Kiko also interacts with other artists including Jamie who is a photographer when they meet again at the start of the novel. I loved these extremely visual and evocative moments in a prose novel. Did you turn to any pieces of art for inspiration while writing this novel? Who are some of your favorite artists? Does Kiko share your artistic tastes?

ADB: None of the artwork Kiko creates was inspired by any specific piece of art. It’s sort of the style that exists in my imagination (and also stays there, because I am laughably bad at drawing and even worse at painting). So I think it’s fair to say our tastes are similar, even if our talent for art is at opposite ends of the scale. But with Hiroshi, his style was inspired by my love of pop surrealism and artists like Mark Ryden and Anne Angelshaug.

Starfish is filled with a lot of empowering moments as Kiko begins to gain confidence and learns about her own resilience and strength. Did you have a favorite scene to write in this novel? Is there one you are excited for readers to discover?

ADB: I really enjoyed writing all the early scenes with Kiko and Jamie. The romance in Starfish very much takes a backseat to Kiko’s journey of self-acceptance and finding a way to move forward, but it’s still such an important part of her growth. Because one of the things Kiko worries about as a biracial teen is that she’s “too Asian” for people to find her beautiful or desirable. She had a couple of bad experiences where people told her they weren’t “into Asian girls,” and it really affected the way she saw herself. And it’s something that hits so close to home for me, because that way of thinking is so difficult to unlearn. I wanted Kiko to have unmistakable proof that the feelings she had for Jamie were mutual, and to show that his affections for Kiko had zero to do with her being half-Japanese. Writing their scenes brought me a lot of joy, because I was letting Kiko essentially unlearn these fears she had about the way others see her. And as for a scene I’m most excited for readers to discover, it would probably be the scene where the meaning of “starfish” is revealed. It’s a pivotal moment for Kiko, and I think it’s the point where she really starts to look at the future differently.

There’s no right or wrong way to write a novel, but there’s lots of advice to be had. What’s the best piece of writing advice you received when you were starting out? Now that your debut is out in the world, do you have any advice that you would share with aspiring authors?

To always be writing the next book. And it’s the same advice I would give aspiring authors now. Because there is so much in this business that will be completely out of your control. But that next book? It’s the one thing you have complete control over. In a lot of ways, the “next book” is my anchor. It keeps me from getting completely lost in the excitement, anxiety, and terror that comes with getting an agent/getting a book deal/seeing your first trade reviews/etc, etc. So ignore the noise, stay focused, and work on the next book.

Thank you to Akemi for taking the time to answer my questions about Starfish. Be sure to watch for the Youth Media Awards ceremony at 8 a.m. MT on Feb. 12, 20l8 to see which Morris Award finalist will be selected as this year’s winner.

— Emma Carbone, currently reading Warcross by Marie Lu

2018 Morris Finalists Announced!

The 2018 finalists for our Morris Award for a debut work in YA literature were announced! Congrats to the finalists and thank you to the committee for all of their great work!

The 2018 finalists are:

  • Dear Martin” written by Nic Stone, published by Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House, a Penguin Random House Company;
  • “Devils Within” written by S.F. Henson, published by Sky Pony Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing;
  • “The Hate U Give” written by Angie Thomas, published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
  • “Saints and Misfitswritten by S.K. Ali, published by Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing;
  • “Starfish” written by Akemi Dawn Bowman, published by Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.

View them with annotations and be sure to share them with your teen patrons!