2017 GAYA Judge Statements

Category: BIOGRAPHY 

Judge: James Taylor

Finalist: Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady

Opinionated, brilliant, brash, granddaughter of a mulatto slave, untiring civil rights advocate, writer, attorney, and eventually, an Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray’s story remained largely unknown until now. Focusing on Murray’s unlikely and enduring friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Patricia Bell-Scott has written a masterful biography of a great friendship that illuminates, indeed, shines a powerful searchlight on a tireless American quest for social justice. Women’s rights, minority rights, civil rights: it’s all here. Oh yes, it is beautifully written, too.

Winner: Ted Geltner, Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

Harry Crews was one of the great transgressive, wild man characters in American letters. Beyond, or, more accurately, inside this contradictory and racous persona was a writer of exceptional talent and accomplishment. Harry Crews once said, “I have found nothing in this life that can match the feeling of having written something I’m proud of.” Should the author of this book, Ted Geltner, take those words to heart, he must be feeling exceptionally good. Blood, Bone and Marrow brings to life the great Harry Crews in thoroughly researched, lucidly written prose. Bravo!



Judge: Pat Garrett

Finalist: Susie Gardner, 1, 2, 3 TEAM!  

1, 2, 3 TEAM! is a story about a child who learns that in sports it takes a group effort, a team, go be successful. Zoey, a young basketball player who is very talented believes she is the only reason her team is going to the championship. A new coach subtly teaches her a lesson about team work. A simple, direct story, 1, 2, 3 TEAM! has characters young readers can relate to in everyday life. It holds attention while teaching a life lesson. Well written, it moves quickly from the problem to the satisfactory resolution. This delightful book will not only be enjoyable to read, it will be a great story to read aloud to help children understand that teamwork is important in everyday life, as well as in sports.

Winner: Marcia Hawley Barnes, Tobijah   

Tobijah is a delightful story emphasizing that even though many of us are different, we are not alone. The story holds the attention of young readers as Tobijah, a duck, tries to find a friend. He is different than the other ducks, who would play with him for awhile and then go their own ways. Meeting a compassionate cat who is deaf changes the outlook for Tobijah and his hunt for a friend. Wanting to help, the cat has a plan that changes Tobijah’s life. This story is well written with the young reader in mind. It teaches through the story that helping and encouraging others can be a rewarding experience. Children can relate to the characters, and the story moves along emerging in a satisfactory outcome. Taking young readers on journey, an exploration of life, it entertains and holds their attention. Tobijah has memorable characters, an engaging plot, and is fun to read.



Judge: C. Hope Clark

Finalist: Carole Townsend, Blood in the Soil

Superb storytelling inserted into a true tale. Carole Townsend took reality and gifted it with remarkable prose, turning some pretty gruesome scenes into a fluid, gripping story. Joseph Franklin had me. Then Detective Cowart. The author shows talent, making me fall into each character, regardless how forthright or ruthless, to the point I could deeply relate to the killer or the cop. Then with the added hint of noir, Townsend flavored the storytelling even more, like a dash more garlic to an already rich stew, just to reward the appetite of the person who appreciates more.

Winner: Trudy Nan Boyce, Out of the Blues

Sarah Alt, “Salt,” worked for me from page one. God, I love that nickname for her. When she stepped into Homicide, I stepped into Homicide. Each and every character resonated in his and her own style, to the point when one was introduced, I was locked into them, adding them to the delicious mixture. The story cascaded like a mystery’s supposed to do, taking me to the point I forgot the words and instead became a player. Rich with Atlanta flavor, I fully expect Out of the Blues to find cable television one day, and I’ll be in my recliner waiting for the next weekly episode to begin. Well done.


Category: ESSAY

Judge: Amber Lanier Nagle

Finalist: Raymond L. Atkins, South of the Etowah: The View from the Wrong Side of the River

I think I am related in some way to Raymond L. Atkins. Not really. But when I read his anthology, South of the Etowah, I found his essays to be strangely familiar—as if some of the stories had been ripped from the pages of my own autobiography.

I think the mark of a natural born storyteller is that every reader instantly relates to his or her stories and finds them somewhat recognizable and deeply human. Raymond Atkins made that connection with me on the very first page.

His writing style is boldly conversational—as if he is sitting at a kitchen table telling us all about his struggles with passwords, his love-hate relationship with technology, the time he and his wife encountered the drunk guy at the Waffle House, the day he dumped 260,000 fake Twinkies onto a North Alabama highway, or how his mama used to reach for the Paregoric to fix whatever ailed him.

Peppered throughout his wildly entertaining essays are morsels of wisdom to help us all get through life. Gems like:

  • If you are ever scheduled to appear on the Jerry Springer Show and they ask you to step into a soundproof room for a little while, leave the premises immediately.
  • Calling it “art,” doesn’t make it art.
  • You may be right, but the eighteen-wheeler is bigger.
  • Strange are the ways of city folk.
  • And if you have to be in the hospital for a procedure, just go ahead and remove your clothing in the lobby at check-in and let everyone get a good look.

Atkins writes about ordinary, everyday experiences and memories—slice-of-life stuff that happens to all of us. But he writes with panache and infuses humor in the mundane. You’ll smile from beginning to end.

Winner: Kathy A. Bradley, Wondering Toward Center

Kathy A. Bradley’s Wondering Toward Center chronicles the author’s exquisite encounters with nature—a shimmering moon that floods her bedroom with light; the crepey remains of a snake’s skin; a feathery, fuschia mimosa blossom; golden grain heads waving in a field; a mystical fairy path; a brilliant sunscape. Each encounter triggers a memory or a sophisticated thought, vividly expressed through Bradley’s lyrical prose and masterful storytelling. At the conclusion of her essay collection is a revelation binding the pieces together—that time is not linear or circular, but that time is a spiral in which we find ourselves wandering. We circle back and relive experiences over and over again, but we relive them on different planes of understanding as we are drawn toward a center.

In a passage dated October 7, 2012, Bradley writes: “…the first word I ever spelled, the first thing I gave back to the world as a writer was my name, was myself. That is a dangerous precedent. And it makes it hard sometimes to tell the stories. Hard to find the right words, to arrange them in an order that tells the truth and, at the same time, shields the innocent, dispenses kindness, and extends forgiveness. What would be harder, though, is not to tell them at all.”

Her passage relays a universal truth among writers: that we write because we must. I, for one, am thankful Ms. Bradley feels compelled to write, and in doing so, produced the thought-provoking Wondering Toward Center. Through the pages and stories, I wandered—and wondered—alongside her, and at the end, I found myself transformed.



Judge: Ravi Howard

Finalist: Anne Corbitt, Rules for Lying

In Rules for Lying, Anne Corbitt creates compelling surface tensions between the secrets that are revealed and those that remain hidden.  Corbitt shapes lies and truths with sharpness, and she uses both as objects that her characters must choose to carry, hide, or reveal.  The teenagers in Rules for Lying learn the weight and consequences of their words and actions, and Corbitt’s adult characters show the fateful toll of long-ago decisions. The skillful use of the ensemble showed the complexities of difficult truths when seen through familial bonds, biases, and allegiances.  The novel is a dynamic journey through the many layers of aftermath and reckoning.

Winner: Gray Stewart, Haylow

The character ensemble in Gray Stewart’s Haylow shows a multitude of voices representing the many layers of Georgia and the American South, from the historical to the contemporary, urban to the rural, from the somber to the humorous.  With an eye for detail, Stewart shows a beloved antique with missing and broken parts.  He shows characters mapping dangerous terrain and treacherous waters.  These moments parallel the journey for professor Travis Hemperly, as he tries to piece together a family history, a career, and a life amid the stubbornness and changes of his surroundings. Stewart creates intersections and clashes along the old and new lines of race, gender, and the pastoral, and in doing so he affirms and challenges Southern literary tradition.


Category: HISTORY

Judge: Lora Mirza

Finalist: Dan A. Aldridge, Jr., To Lasso the Clouds: The Beginning of Aviation in Georgia.

Imagine warming up a flying-machine on Washington Street in Athens, Georgia, late at night over one hundred years ago. Two talented young men–Ben T. Epps, Sr. and Zumpt Huff—worked together to create first a biplane, and later monoplanes, in their spare time, using bicycle wheels, cheap fuel, and reusable parts. Significantly, author Dan. A. Aldridge, Jr. of Winterville, Georgia gets to the heart of the story–in determining the true contribution of these two men to early aviation in Georgia, along with introducing other aviators of the time. Photos show various Epps-Huff planes (Huff is easily distinguished by his black derby hat!) as these resourceful partners move toward this signal achievement by both of them—the first monoplane flight in the United States—on August 28, 1909.

Winner: Kaye Lanning Minchew, A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia.

This visually stunning, carefully researched pictorial history of a national figure who considered Georgia his second state gives authenticity to the rehabilitation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he recaptured his earlier optimism while rebuilding his physical strength and learning ways to draw attention away from his disability. He would continue to visit Georgia for the rest of his life. The archival quality of the book comes from interviews with Georgians from all walks of life and from photos, which help carry the story. Troup County native Kaye Lanning Minchew brings together many sources to give us a close-up picture of FDR in Georgia and of his ease with the people around him. As voluminous as the Roosevelt literature is, A President in Our Midst adds a needed new perspective.



Judge: Anne R. Richards

Finalist: J. Steve Miller, Faith That’s Not Blind: A Brief Introduction to Contemporary Arguments for the Existence of God

Steve Miller’s “Faith That’s Not Blind:  A Brief Introduction to Contemporary Arguments for the Existence of God” creatively addresses a gap in religious studies curricula by challenging the assumption that the “God question” has been established as either irrelevant or moot.  This accessible and interactive text, written to serve as a supplement to standard texts in introductory religious studies courses, offers the possibility of a variety of rational positions re the Divine and in doing so should facilitate meaningful discussion about a topic of importance to many students and teachers.

Winner: R. Kirby Godsey, The God Particle: God Talk in a “Big Bang” World

God-Talk in a ‘Big Bang’ World, R. Kirby Godsey achieves a remarkable synthesis.  Through illuminating the meanings of what many readers would consider the impenetrable language of contemporary physics, he shows that the essence of humanity and the Divine are accessible through this very language.  Some readers may be disappointed to learn that the “God particle” is neither.  But the awe-inspiring fact of singularity, of radical relationality, of separation’s impossibility is what concerns Godsey.  “The big bang,” he writes, “did not happen out there, outside of us.  Rather, we began inside the ‘big bang.’  Creation is still happening and every creation is an act of light and love.  Each of us embodies the primordial energy of God.”



Judge: Nicole Kearney

Finalist: Barry Pencek: The Millennial’s Guide to Wealth: Learn About Saving, Investing, Spending and Living While Drinking Beer

My finalist choice is The Millennial’s Guide to Wealth by Barry Pencek. The book’s subtitle: Learn about Saving, Investing, Spending and Living While Drinking Beer immediately drew me in. While I’m not in the book’s target audience, the advice given is solid and spot on while being humorous as well. It’s a book full of tips for the Millennials on learning how to manage their finances for today, tomorrow and the future. It’s a book I want my children to read to give them a voice other than mine that echoes my sentiment and values about money (except they’re not old enough to drink beer). I applaud Barry Pencek for making an oftentimes hard to understand subject, easy to digest!

Winner: Jane K. Ashley, Cancer: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

My choice for winner is Cancer: The Light at the End of the Tunnel by Jane K. Ashley. This book provides inspiration and empathy for those in the throes of cancer. It’s humorous and compassionate. It’s a wonderful companion while on the journey from discovering you have cancer to fighting and surviving. It’s a book I’m giving to my friend who is still struggling with breast cancer. I believe this book speaks to all the things I want to say, but can’t find the words to express. Cancer: The Light at the End of the Tunnel, expresses exactly what I want her to hear, each step of her journey. Kudos on a marvelous book.



Judge: Andrew Plattner

Honorable Mention: Ann Hite, Sleeping Above Chaos

Sleeping Above Chaos by Ann Hite is a compelling story told with colorful language and considerable care. The plentiful dialogue contributes to vivid characterization, and keeps the story moving forward as well. When the characters aren’t speaking, their thoughts are become stories.

An excerpt:

“Joyce Clay was a crotchety woman who grumbled under her breath about sinners all the time. She wore a navy work dress and tied a pink scarf over her steel-gray hair. On her feet were clunky men’s shoes. The old truck they rode in seemed to barely hold together. Ella Ruth watched the sanatorium looming in front of them. Six huge columns and a wide front porch would have suggested a fine hotel to any visitors. Maybe that was the feeling they were looking to give patients who were forced to come stay here . . . A soul was much better off if he had money and could stay in a private cabin near the lake.”

The quality of the entries for this category was quite good overall. While the winning novel is a standout, both Sleeping Above Chaos by Ann Hite and The King Who Made Paper Flowers by Terry Kay are worthy of praise.

In each of these works, the narratives are confident and unique. Each book is a study in good story-telling. Kay is particularly good at pacing his narrative. Hite’s novel keys on dialogue; she’s adept at creating characters who can respond in surprising, yet necessary ways.

Finalist: Terry Kay, The King Who Made Paper Flowers

The King Who Made Paper Flowers by Terry Kay is a terrific novel. Frequently, the story-telling itself is the story; the pages turn with ease. Memorable passages are easy to find; here’s a section from early in the novel:

“I have been many people on bus trips, lived many lives. My list of aliases is worthy of a wanted poster tacked to a bulletin board in a post office. I have been a singer Nashville-bound to make a recording, a priest assigned to a prison ministry, a baseball player headed for a tryout, a psychic, a poet, a painter. I do not invent these histories simply to be deceiving. I tell them for the adventure of being someone I am not, or could never be.”

Winner: Julia Franks, Over the Plain Houses

The winning entry is Over the Plain Houses, by Julia Franks. This is a wonderful book. The story is set in the late 1930s; the narrative brings the characters and the mysterious world they inhabit to life. A reader can forget that this story is something from the past; the pages are alive with vivid, vital description and events unfold in very real and surprising ways. The quality of the writing is the novel’s strongest attribute; there are passages too many to count that reward a reader. But here’s one example:

“And right then, he’d faltered. Already. Not a day had passed, and the devil had succeeded in hardening his heart. Brodis hadn’t rested a moment since. Satan always came in the same sly guise, with lawyerly arguments and rabbit-trap questions, all of which began with the same word: How? How could such-and-such happen, and how did a certain feature make sense, and how come this other had happened? But he’d learned to recognize them for what they were: distraction, illusion, cowardice.”

Over the Plain Houses is worthy of our wonder and admiration.



Judge: Iraj Omidvar

Honorable Mention: Molly Brodak, Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir

Bandit is the story of a life carefully examined, in large part and over many years of growing up, because the author’s father robbed banks.  Molly Brodak’s memoir looks into the many sides of the far-reaching effects, on a child, of a parent’s words and actions.  This is also a book that reveals how truly significant seemingly small events can be and how we create, hear, and tell stories about them as we make sense of our lives.

Finalist: Susan Lindsley, Possum Cops, Poachers and the Counterfeit Game Warden

For most readers, opening this book will be stepping into an unfamiliar world of wild game in vast forests; landowners, hunters, rangers, and poachers in a complex dance often involving guns; a niche tourism industry; and small rural communities. The many dramatic events of the not-too-distant past recounted in the book highlight some of the urgent environmental, political, and moral dilemmas behind current laws and regulations for conservation and natural resource management. This world comes to life for readers because of Susan Lindsley’s skillful storytelling in the many vignettes that make up this remarkable memoir.

Winner: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell, March

This autobiographical graphic novel about the life of John Lewis, the iconic Civil Rights leader, succeeds not only in giving a gripping account of some of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement but also in showing what it takes to bring a measure of justice into the world. By revealing how change is brought about, this memoir does not merely inspire; it empowers.


Category: POETRY

Judge: Kevin Cantwell

Finalist: James Davis May, Unquiet Things

This impressive first book by James Davis May is one that slows us down to point to a world we might not otherwise see. There are favorites to remember here, like “Protestant Elegy” where a family of his, hers, and theirs elbows for attention at the breakfast table, or “My Lover’s Ex-Husband” in which the reek of the other represents the visceral sting of memory’s cloying press. In this young poet’s certainties of expression, we too go quiet “thinking about something else.” If prose is the language of the familiar, this poetry might be the language of the “familial,” that secret code of understanding made public when the poet says it out loud—that what we first know about the world is the strangeness of the family summoned into light, that we may recognize their distorted features, thumbed from clay, kiln-fired, lit by stars and the cracked doorways into which knowledge can be glimpsed.

Winner: Sandra Meek, An Ecology of Elsewhere

Several books into her still developing oeuvre, Sandra Meek has taken the poetics of travel to another register of the masterful. Hers is not the solipsism of Confessionalism’s umpteenth wave nor the one-off whatever of irony. What we have are the long sentences of poiesis, a luminous syntax fashioned from the distractions and turns of the inexpressible into—if we can be so high-minded—art. In Coleridge’s poem of the exile returned to society, the grip of the mariner stops the wedding guest cold, who in turn is transfixed by his “glittering eye.” In the lines of Sandra Meek we too are made to hear, in these harrowing echoes of speech, reports from that other country we call poetry.


Category: ROMANCE

Judge: Erika Marks

Finalist: Marilyn Baron, Stumble Stones

Marilyn Baron’s Stumble Stones grabbed me from the start with its opening hook: We meet Hallelujah Weiss, a soap-opera writer, who is on her way to Italy to mend her broken heart—with her ex-husband’s credit card. But as soon as she—and the reader—meets the mysterious Alexander Stone, and his stash of diamonds, on the plane, Hallelujah’s dream of having a life as adventurous as her famous soap character, Polly, may soon be a reality. But what begins as a light-hearted encounter leads to far more, as Baron expertly shifts between modern day and World War II while she sends her hero and heroine on a fast-paced and suspenseful quest across Europe to solve the mystery of found diamonds, and lost loves. STUMBLE STONES, named so for the plaques laid in tribute to victims of the Holocaust, possesses the best qualities of historical romance. Baron knows her settings and her history, and her characters, those both contemporary and in the past, are well-drawn and convincing. Baron has a great talent for dialog, both in the banter of her modern lovers, as well as those engaged in much-more serious conversations in the novel’s past narrative. I never stopped rooting for Hallelujah and Alexander as they worked to peel back the layers of history to reunite—and mend—broken hearts, all the while pursuing their own happy ending. Well done, Marilyn Baron!

Winner: Susan Sands, Love, Alabama

Love, Alabama has everything I crave in a romance: A warm and inviting small town setting; a sexy hero and a smart heroine; and an ensemble of lovable and memorable family and friends to keep everyone company on their journey.

Sparks fly from start when former beauty queen Emma Laroux meets uptight Northerner Matthew Pope who is in town to direct her sister’s cooking show. But while Emma’s Water doesn’t immediately mix with Matthew’s Oil, there’s no question an attraction is simmering—the only question is can their complicated pasts be untangled in time for true love to prevail?

I adored Sands’ style. She has a fabulous sense of humor and it reveals itself effortlessly in her writing—especially in heroine Emma, whose self-deprecating wit only makes her more charming and relatable. Matthew has all the elements of a great romantic hero, haunted by past regrets but so good-hearted (and of course SO good-looking!) that we can’t wait for him to put aside his ghosts and make a future with Emma—even though he’s holding back a secret that could ruin their burgeoning love. To support and advise the lovers along their way to happiness, Sands has united a wonderful cast of characters, making the town of Ministry feel truly like home. Love, Alabama is full of heart and spirit and, best of all, delicious romance—and it is my pleasure to award it Best Romance Winner!



Judge: H. William Rice

Finalist: Judson Mitcham, Michael David Murphy, and Karen L. Paty, Inspired Georgia

In Inspired Georgia, Judson Mitcham, Michael David Murphy, and Karen L. Paty bring together poems and photographs that reflect Georgia’s history, its terrain, its ecology, and its culture. Featuring poetry and photography from some of Georgia’s best artists, Inspired Georgia is a dialogue of word and image that reminds us again and again of the complexity, the beauty, and the promise of the State of Georgia.

Winner: Sonny Seals and George S. Hart, Historic Rural Churches of Georgia         

Sonny Seals and George Hart’s Historic Rural Churches of Georgia is much more than a book of photographs of rural churches. It is an illustrated exploration of the history and architecture of the Christian church in small towns and rural outpost across Georgia. Beginning with a very thorough and well documented essay on the history of Christianity in Georgia and the rest of the South, the authors examine the architecture that various traditions in worship inspired in out of the way places, sometimes describing and illustrating construction methods and types of wood used—even the current condition of the structures in question. The authors also play careful attention to the way in which slavery and its long aftermath affected the way the interiors of these churches were constructed. Illustrated with stunning photographs and detailed descriptions, Seals and Hart’s Historic Rural Churches of Georgia is a major contribution to the religious, cultural, and architectural study of the history of Georgia.



Judge: Elaine Drennon Little

Finalist: None

Winner: Marsha Mathews, Growing Up With Pigtails

Marsha Mathews’s Growing Up With Pigtails is a short volume of contemporary poetry that gives musical resonance to the joy, harshness, and temporary insanity of adolescence.  These short coming-of-age gems are universal: The reader is transported to times of innocence, embarrassment, confusion, excitement, and gut-wrenching pain. (Being a lover of poetry is NOT a prerequisite.) These descriptions are REAL, living just under the surface of the inner self, for anyone who is facing angst of young adulthood—-and for anyone who already has.