2019 GAYA Judge Statements

BIOGRAPHY

Judge: Ted Geltner

Finalist: Mary Schmidt Campbell, 
An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden
An American Odyssey is a deeply researched, well-crafted, and thoughtful look at an intriguing figure in the history of American art. The narrative arc of Romare Bearden’s life, from a, at times, creatively stifled aspiring artist, to an innovative master of a new form of art, to a respected champion of new voices, is well chronicled in this intriguing biography. The book weaves the life of its subject into the greater panorama of the culture and politics in which he lived, as all great biographies do.

Winner: Ruby Lal, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan

In order to tell the real story of the life of Nur Jahan, author Ruby Lal had to sift through more than 400 years of myth, legend and historical interpretation to find the hidden kernels of truth with which to craft her narrative. In Empress, she both corrects the historical record on a fascinating figure and creates a compelling account that is gripping from beginning to end. Lal has a mesmerizing subject at the center of her story and shows readers, through masterful storytelling, the characteristics that allowed her subject to rise to a level of power that was beyond rare for a woman in the times and culture in which she lived her life. The author chose a gargantuan research task here, forcing herself to grapple with a record filled with traps and holes, and managed to navigate it skillfully and produce an excellent, enriching tale.

CHILDREN’S BOOK

Judge: Jackson Pearce

Finalist: Shanda McCloskey, Doll-E 1.0

DOLL-E 1.0 is the story of a girl named Charlotte who is a tinkerer, engineer, builder, inventor, and dreamer. She prefers her toys with a side of coding, so when her mother gets her doll, Charlotte decides to improve the toy by turning it into a robot with delightful Frankenstein vibes. The story is fun and engaging and the art is cheerful and fussy in a way that reflects Charlotte’s fast-paced thinking. DOLL-E 1.0 blends technology, make-believe play, and creativity together to create a STEM-y story sure to excite and engage young audiences.

Winner: Deborah Wiles, A Long Line of Cakes  

A Long Line of Cakes is the story of Emma Alabama Lane Cake and her big, boisterous family of do-good bakers, who travel from town to town setting up bakeries in communities who could do with a pastry or ten. All the moving has made Emma’s heart wary, and when they arrive in Aurora County she’s determined not to make a single friend who she’d just have to abandon when they move on. A Long Line of Cakes reminded me of the movies Chocolat and Big Fish in the best of ways. I loved the big, tight-knight family, and Wiles deftly captures the endless feeling of summer in the Deep South— as well as the inevitable, might-as-well, barefoot joy of childhood friendship. This book reminded me of cooking with my grandmother, broken-in floral aprons, the cloudy dust of flour sifters, and recipes memorized rather than written down. A truly lovely story!

DETECTIVE/MYSTERY

Judge: Maggie Mitchell

Finalist: Roger Johns, River of Secrets

River of Secrets kicks off with a violent murder, plunging readers into a mystery deftly combining political intrigue and procedural detail against a backdrop of racial tension in Baton Rouge, LA. Detective Wallace Hartman pursues leads relentlessly, though a childhood friendship links her to a key suspect and she is increasingly aware that there is almost no one she can trust. Fast-paced and tense, this novel offers carefully crafted twists en route to its surprising conclusion, leaving us wanting more of Detective Hartman.

Winner: Karin Slaughter, Pieces of Her

Pieces of Her is one of Karin Slaughter’s most satisfying novels yet. At its heart, it’s about a mother and daughter—a talented but directionless millennial daughter, a mother with too many secrets. An intricate plot follows the adventures of both women, reaching back in time to trace the mother’s involvement in a cult-like radical organization while decades later the daughter gets caught up in a dangerous search for the truth about her parents—and herself. The suspense never lets up, but ultimately it’s the psychological complexity of these characters that makes this novel so riveting.

ESSAY COLLECTION

Judge: Anjali Enjeti 

Finalist: Megan Volpert, Straight into Darkness: One Tom Petty Redemption Song

Straight into Darkness is a music historian and pop culture aficionado’s dream — a deeply visceral, exhaustive, and eloquent appreciation for one of the greatest contemporary musicians of our time, Tom Petty. Volpert meticulously traces Petty’s quest for originality and autonomy throughout his decades-long career. Petty was a gifted musician who thought outside of the box and challenged conventional norms. And Volpert is a gifted critic, whose tribute makes for an illustrious addition to the genre of music criticism.

Winner: André Joseph Gallant, A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster

A High Low Tide is an evocative and lilting ode to the oyster of the southeast Georgia coastline and the art and science of oyster farming. This rigorously researched book takes readers to a resplendent tidal kingdom, where oysters are royalty, and unspools an intriguing tale about the life cycle of the mollusk, and the people and the landscape that cultivate, nurture, and honor these local treasures. Sublime prose unveils a dedicated community in tune with the nature and the evolution of this exotic and mysterious creature, with Gallant as our generous and insightful guide.  

FIRST NOVEL

Judge: Anna Schachner

Finalist: Spencer Wise, The Emperor of Shoes

In his funny, ambitious, and timely debut, Spenser Wise skillfully layers conflict, both familial and political, while never sacrificing great storytelling.  When narrator Alex Cohen moves to southern China to run the family shoe factory, a Jewish business empire long controlled by his contemptuous father, he doesn’t expect to learn some of the family business’s shady secrets, including the inhumane factory conditions. And he doesn’t expect to fall in love with Ivy, a factory worker with her eye on democracy who can’t quite shake her sad memories of Tiananmen Square. More than just an examination of loyalty—its costs and compromises—this novel confronts social justice, globalization, and shifting generational value systems. Wise takes on such thematic heft all the while fully entertaining the reader and creating a “world” made very real and accessible. The Emperor of Shoes rules.

Winner: Xhenet Aliu, Brass

With an edgy, energetic, comic voice that never wanes, Xhenet Aliu’s Brass offers living, breathing characters that you can’t help but love, even as they make bad choices in trying to navigate their hard-scrabble lives. As the central storyline, Elsie and Luljeta’s mother/daughter relationship is contentious and sometimes surly, but resilient and passionate, too. Their complicated bond evolves against the backdrop of economically fraught Waterbury, Connecticut in the 1990s, a setting Aliu renders with gritty details.  While the characters yearn for escape, they are entrenched in Waterbury’s Albanian immigrant community, one that has transferred its dreams from Albania to the US without much success. Aliu not only beautifully weaves together character, multiple points of view, and plot (a mystery of a lost father included), her understanding of the downtrodden avoids pity and simplicity. What a fantastic debut. Better still, what a fantastic book.

HISTORY

Judge: Carla Gerona

Finalist: Phil Hudgins and Jessica Phillips, Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia

What do water dowsers, ginseng hunters, and outdoor privies have in common?  These people and places are virtually extinct, but if you want to find them look no further than Travels with Foxfire.  Since 1972, Foxfire has been keeping Appalachian history and culture alive through its educational interventions, historical sites, and innovative publications that preserve the rural way of life.  In this new compendium, Phil Hudgins and Jessica Phillips travel across the Georgia, Carolina, and Tennessee mountains conducting interviews and collecting colorful stories in order to “capture and preserve as much as possible the culture and wisdom of the people of this region.”  Despite indoor plumbing, gas stoves, and electrification, some of the people of Appalachia continue to practice older traditions and remember them fondly. Every chapter will make you laugh; some might make you cry. Authors Hudgins and Phillips remember and interview members of their own families as well as a wide array of other memory keepers.  Historian and artist Ann Miller Woodford, whose family moved to the North Carolina Mountains following a 1912 lynching in Forsyth County, describes working with her father and attending the one-room segregated schoolhouse. Medicine woman Eve Miranda continues to collect herbs, even after losing her home. Former moonshine runners in Dawson County, Georgia claim that the origins of NASCAR racing began along the Etowah River.  And Sherryl Major remembers letting all her friends sneak into her father’s drive-in movie theatre. By 1984 her father closed the Drive-In, but Majors reopened it in 2014. As the authors say, in southern Appalachia many like to think of themselves as “individualistic mountain folks who cling to tradition like bark to a tree.” This book does a very nice job of collecting and presenting the history of these tenacious people.

Winner: Joseph Crespino, Atticus Finch: The Biography

Atticus Finch was a character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  So how can a historian write a biography of this fictional persona?  In Atticus Finch: The Biography, historian Joseph Crespino draws on newspaper editorials and newly released primary sources to make a convincing case that Lee modeled the imaginary Atticus Finch on her own father, Amasa Coleman Lee.  A lawyer, newspaper editor and Democratic politician from the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, A.C. Lee, however, was no justice warrior. While Lee’s father did not appreciate unruly lynchings, he also defended segregation.  In fact, Lee’s father more closely resembled the racist protagonist in her first book, Go Set a Watchman, published posthumously in 2015.  Crespino highlights how Lee could not “reconcile her love of small-town southern life – and of the values and principles of her father that grew out of it—with the commitment to racial hierarchy that defined both her hometown and her father.” If Atticus Finch represented Lee’s father, he represented her father as he could never be.  But this book is much more than a biography of a fictional character as seen through the lens of his celebrated daughter. Crespino shows that Lee’s struggles, in her book and in her life, represented a troubled region, country, and world during a period of Cold War and Civil Rights. While Lee claimed that her bestselling novel was a “love story pure and simple,” Crespino sets the story — and the story behind the story — in a local, political, and international landscape.  Moving from Monroeville to New York, and beyond, Crespino touches on the KKK, Martin Luther King, and a film audience at Cannes that questions actor Gregory Peck about Atticus Finch’s authenticity. Georgia writer, Joseph Crespino, has provided an incredibly rich portrait of these troubled and changing times.

 LITERARY FICTION

Judge: Stacia Pelletier

Finalist: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage       

Tayari Jones’s acclaimed new novel offers a clear-eyed, searing account of ordinary lives unmade by tragedy and injustice—and slowly remade by courage and honesty. An American Marriage is a love story, a portrait of a marriage, and an exploration of the American Dream against the backdrop of the twenty-first-century prison industrial complex. It’s also a narrative about parents and adult children and what it really means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. A powerhouse of a book that richly deserves the numerous accolades it’s received.

Winner: Roberta George, The Day’s Heat

This novel quietly stole the day—and this reviewer’s heart. Lee James is a young Lebanese American mother married to a white plumber and eking out a living in a small south Georgia town in the early 1960s. When local Catholic priest Father Palmer loses a tooth in an accident, Lee’s quick thinking saves the tooth and launches a series of events that will turn her life—and the entire town—upside down. A page-turner, a love story where we root for the heroine to leave the guy(s) and move forward alone, and a theologically insightful tale, The Day’s Heat deserves a broader hearing than it’s received. Pregnant Lee leaps off the page, fully realized, at least for this reader; and the story, while never preachy, challenges us to think hard about motherhood, race, and moral obligation in a time beset by powerful external social forces. An unassuming triumph.

MEMOIR

Judge: Jessica Handler

Finalist: James C. Abbot, Jr. The Burdens of Aeneas
This epistolary memoir investigates the age-old Southern question, “who are your people?” with an inventive and fascinating approach. A meditation on fatherhood, community, and the classics, from the ancient Greeks to Bruce Springsteen.  

Winner: Kelly Beard, An Imperfect Rapture
An insightful and engrossing memoir about wrestling with the demons of belief, family, and identity. Beard elegantly crafts her story of self-definition and emergence from a complicated past.

POETRY CHAPBOOK

Judge: Nicholas Goodly

Finalist: Cynthia Robinson Young, Migration
Cynthia Robinson Young’s Migration could be considered a historical document. These poems speak to and for a lineage of strong black women, their journeys and plights through time. Reading this collection not only brings us closer to the lives of this family but also serves as an education in the history of America. Through Young’s earnest exploration of these oppressed and underserved figures in her family, their narratives are given a chance to live, their voices heard, and their spirits seen. Cynthia Robinson Young allows the oppressed to speak. The violence of colonialism is exposed. The poems honor their subjects, through title and content.

The reader witnesses how trauma ripples through a family and how both pain and strength are inherited. This collection does incredible and ambitious work. It unites a family that has endured this country’s history, a dynamic telling of a people refusing to be erased. I was incredibly inspired by Young’s ability to use the craft of writing to hold space for black women through history and was moved by the strength and effectiveness of the poems.

Winner: Julia Caroline Knowlton, The Café of Unintelligible Desire
The Café of Unintelligible Desire is a quiet place. The poems inside move slowly, the pacing is lyrical, and their shape is spacious and full of breath. Knowlton uses the space she’s created and takes her time to deliver stirring, even overwhelming emotional work. Although the tone seems deceptively casual or musing, nothing about these poems are idle. These poems toil over grief, sit with regret, confront melancholy, all through a clear and precise voice. The Café of Unintelligible Desire may appear sparse in word count, but offers room for immense transformation. Lillies turn into doves, sorrow into stones, and children are disappearing. The form and content of the poems, then, are efficient. They perform with tremendous grace and agility. The impact of the poems strike and linger. I am thankful for these poems. The Café of Unintelligible Desires is a brief but beautiful journey into quiet feelings. Knowlton has put her readers in a room with everything that needs to be felt, serves exacting and honest words in a warm cup, and I am grateful to be there.

POETRY FULL-LENGTH BOOK

Judge: Rosalie Moffett

Finalist: Travis Denton, My Stunt Double
This book opens with the lines, “When I look up at the red dot in the sky… All I can think of is TV news…” And that formula of When I look —> All I can think operates as a trapdoor key to view a stunt-double world, a stand-in, carefully delineated, achingly familiar, but a world with the surreal freedom to adhere to another set of rules. Certain inescapable forces—the forward-motion of time, the unpredictable nature of reality, the absence of those who are gone—are undone. In this book, the world steps out of itself. Just as the “I” steps into “he” and the individual becomes “the man,” we step back to watch how the inhabitants of this cityscape are dear, are particular and flawed, are performing feats of regular and magnificent existence.  

Winner: Mario Chard, Land of Fire
Mario Chard’s outstanding debut, Land of Fire, examines the ideas of citizen and alien, of national borders and of other, stranger ways we encounter and escape the confines that keep us.The book revolves around the series “Caballero”, a mythologization of the fate of a group of undocumented immigrants whose van crashed—according to differing news reports, either from swerving to miss a horse, or due to the driver molesting a passenger. This poem hinges on the command say, as in “Say it was a horse. / That the horse watched / the three ton van / roll…” That the command exists with one foot in imagine and one foot in declare gets at the book’s heart: an uneasy and reverent reckoning with what breaking silence brings into being. In short, Land of Fire is a careful, faceted meditation on what is sayable, what is unspeakable, and what barriers can be crossed with acts of witness and acts of imagination. It is a book that every day becomes more necessary.

ROMANCE

Judge: Nicki Salcedo

Finalist: Ricki Schultz, Switch and Bait

Schultz takes a look at modern romance in a fast-paced story about second chances in the big city. Falling in love is never easy, but Schultz shows us that it can be fun and funny.

Winner: Sally Kilpatrick, Oh My Stars

Kilpatrick takes great care when creating her characters and even greater care with the story. We are transported in a world with flawed people who haven’t lost their hearts. Even the most hardened reader will fall in love with Oh My Stars. A fine piece of literature representing the best of romance and the best of the South.

SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Judge: Kerry Neville

Finalist: Andy Plattner, Dixie Luck

On the surface, the characters in Andy Plattner’s collection, Dixie Luck, are failed gamblers, many of the horse racing world and on the run from disappointments, debts, failed marriages, and frustrated ambitions. These are characters who have mostly ceded their dreams to time’s passage, to an understanding that they will not win big in life or love, and so they offer honest and clear-eyed appraisals of what they want from the life that is left to them. But their hopes, for more modest windfalls mediated by experience, are still part of their hearts’ desires.

Winner: Sabrina Orah Mark, Wild Milk

The stories in Sabrina Orah Mark’s collection, Wild Milk, are surreal, subversive, and exquisitely tender. It is as if we are watching a family’s vaudeville act with funny and surprising sleights of hand: what we see and what we feel are revealed to be something entirely different—weirder and more wonderful revelations. These cryptic and fantastic prose-poem stories enact a rare kind of magic: complex puzzles that challenge the brain and muscle-building exercises that buffer the heart. While Mark’s universe is the ordinary landscape of families, often contending with motherhood, she allows us to see that the family is a holy and mystical constellation as well.    

SPECIALTY BOOK

Judge: Laura Vela 

Finalist: Jimmy Carter, The Paintings of Jimmy Carter

The Paintings of Jimmy Carter depicts the president’s fifty favorite paintings. The book showcases Carter’s evolution as a painter, while immortalizing memories of his family, childhood, travels with The Carter Center, landscapes, and still lives. The paintings are accompanied by a written narrative from the former president. There is an overarching sense of humility that reminds the reader of a simpler time. Carter’s zest for life is contagious and inspiring.

Winner: Todd Richards, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes

Todd Richards’ Soul is a celebration of the beautiful simplicity of American southern food, its complex history, and the exciting possibilities for the future of old traditions. The photography is stark and fresh. Mouthwatering dishes are flanked by reminders of southern food’s communal roots, ice cold beers and the congregation of family and friends. Punctuated by anecdotes of “summertime sweetness” and the community table, Richards is not afraid to talk about race and bring it to the forefront. In a field that has largely been dominated by white men trained in French cooking, Soul portrays soul food, rooted in slavery, as haute cuisine. From oxtail potpies to sea urchin with smoked tomato broth, Richards pays homage to southern classics using his “no rules” philosophy to craft recipes that are inspired, informative, elegant, and humble in origin.

YOUNG ADULT
Judge, Jaye Robin Brown

Finalist: Will Walton, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain

I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain is an apt title for Walton’s lovely novel. The story, told through poetry, fragments, lyrics, stream of thought, and prose shows us main character, Avery’s life. The progress is not always linear, and much like our thought patterns, we jump from moment to moment along with the main character. It is a book that doesn’t shy from tough topics like alcoholism, death, and the love and hurt a parent can cause through addiction. But it also touches on gentler themes like coming out and finding yourself mirrored in a good way through the eyes of your best friend. Walton’s structure and intelligence in his choices shines through. If a novel could be a poem, Walton has found a way to write it.

Winner: Rachael Allen, A Taxonomy of Love  

Taxonomy of Love, like the title implies, is indeed a love story, but not just between the two main characters. It is a love story to family, and life, and the growth that happens along the way. Over a six-year time span and through a collection of charts, emails, letters, and narrative, Allen carries us along and pulls us deep into the heart of her main characters, Spencer, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, and Hope, who has lost her best friend/older sister. The unique structure and longer time frame allow the reader to grow with Spencer and Hope in a way that is never forced but works for the novel and allows us to journey with them in a deeper way. What I particularly liked about this was the opportunity to see the reality of relationships. The push and pull. The tearing apart. The finding a way together. The pain that comes when we lose loved ones, are hurt by those supposed to be our friends, and the forgiveness we can find when we risk vulnerability. Taxonomy of Love is hopeful, truthful, and smart, which to me, embodies the essence of young adult literature.