2020 GAYA Judge Statements


Judge: Vincent Coppola

Finalist: David Cady, Religion of Fear: The True Story of the Church of God of the Union Assembly 

A timely look at how charismatic leaders and their cults take root in the fertile soil in the United States. Religion of Fear is the multigenerational story of a tiny breakaway Pentecostal sect led by an illiterate Appalachian preacher, C.T. Pratt, and his descendants, spread over the twentieth century to include 15,000 members in 19 states. Like Jim Jones and Charlie Manson, the Pratts exploit fear, insecurity and utter neediness to control and extract millions of dollars from their impoverished congregants. Happily, there is no Jonestown or mass murder in this story. Instead, a minor miracle: a third-generation descendant of Pratt cleanses and restores the faith community.

Winner: John D. Duncan & Sandra L. Underwood, The Showy Town of Savannah: The Story of the Architect William Jay 

The odyssey of the brilliant and little-known 19th-century British architect William Jay is the lens through which the oppressive weight of money, religion, tradition, politics, ambition and ego undermine the success, and ultimately, the survival of an artistic soul. Savannah, Georgia, that jewel box of a city, is the canvas in which Jay’s brief creative sally (1817- 1822) into a nascent United States is depicted. Jay’s surviving Savannah structures designed in the Regency style (described as an “uncongenial blossom on American soil”) provide the foundation upon which this well-written, informative and thoroughly researched book is built. A tour de force.


Judge: Shanda McCloskey

Finalist: Denene Millner, Illustrated by Gladys Jose, Fresh Princess 

Fresh Princess is a story inspired by Will Smith, The Fresh Prince. As a fan of the referenced 90’s show, I LOVED this “fresh” female spin! Destiny, the main character, moves to a new city, but it hurts to leave behind her old kingdom. It takes real bravery to open to her heart to new people, places, and things–and that’s exactly what we get to see her do! I was especially moved by the last page where Destiny is soaking up a glorious and memorable moment with her new friends.

Winner: Tanya Valentine, Illustrated by Jorge Martin, Little Taco Truck 

Little Taco Truck is the cleverest story about accepting and making room for everyone! The main character, a tiny taco truck, is worried that folks won’t see him or like him as much since a bunch of new food trucks (of different flavors and sizes) now crowd his favorite street. Valentine found a perfectly kid-friendly way to touch on issues of insecurities around change, feeling angry, and making friends that are different from you. Brava!


Judge: Todd Richards

Finalist: Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin, The New Pie: Modern Techniques for the Classic American Dessert 

I believe there is an unintended consequence in The New Pie by Chris and Paul. Their modern pies will quickly become American classics. They may not be seen on every window sill, on the floorboard of a Chevy or at Little League fundraisers. Pies like Blueberry Blues will be the “new” break up pie or getting married pie, stacking two high while taking an Uber to a one-bedroom apartment party pie. As always, very classy.

Winner: Whitney Otawka, The Saltwater Table: Recipes from The Coastal South 

Whitney Otawka’s cookbook The Saltwater Table forever stamps Cumberland Island as a mainstay of Georgia, and now the national food scene. Unlike some chefs’ cookbooks, where beautiful pictures outweigh content and functional recipes, The Saltwater Table cookbook is not just a coffee table book. It’s a practical and delicious guide of coastal living and showcases vegetables and their textural importance to really tasty dishes. This is the hot sauce great cookbooks are made of.


Judge: Roger Johns

Finalist: Joshilyn Jackson, Never Have I Ever 

If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like, and I mean really feel like, to be under the thumb of a highly skilled professional blackmailer, then read Never Have I Ever and you’ll find out. In a story that made me squirm from the get-go, Joshilyn Jackson puts her protagonist in the crosshairs of a blackmailer who believes she is an agent of fate, an avenging angel anointed by destiny to extract payment and penance from those with hidden sins in their past. Is there anything more chilling than a psychologically astute predator who can predict your actions and reactions, who understands how the fan-dance of revelation and threat can induce heart-pounding panic and paralyzing dread, who believes her own actions are justified and compelled by the moral infrastructure of the universe? Is there anything more riveting than an intricate battle of wits between a good person with everything to lose and an evil person who plays the game as if she has nothing to lose? With her exquisitely crafted characters and her razor-sharp insights into human nature, Joshilyn Jackson kept me anxious and afraid, right down to the quivering tips of my sympathetic nerves, all the way to the very end.

Winner: Brian Panowich, Like Lions 

Like Lions is a powerful book that offers the reader an unflinching, sometimes heartbreaking, look into the workings of an insular culture as it takes its first unsteady steps away from its bred-in-the-bone traditions of lawlessness, corruption, and epic violence. Through the eyes of Clayton Burroughs, sheriff of a rural county in the Georgia mountains and heir apparent to a merciless crime family, we get a front-row seat to the winner-take-all conflict between those with a vested interest in maintaining the dark status quo and the courageous people willing to endure any danger on their way to a brighter future. Change is never easy, and there’s nothing like the prospect of sweeping change to bring out the best and worst in people, to expose secret lives and unexpected alliances, to force moral compromise onto the shoulders of the most principled of leaders, and to give those with a brave heart and a strong will the chance to model physical and emotional courage for the people they love. In Like Lions, Brian Panowich gives us a wrenching, but ultimately hopeful, and very intimate picture of the internal and external battles that are always stirred up by the winds of change.


Judge: André Joseph Gallant

Finalist: LaRue Cook, Man in the (Rearview) Mirror: That Time I Left Corporate America, Became An Uber Driver, and Lived to Write About It 

An earnest tenderness fills each page of Man in the (Rearview) Mirror. A reader learns fast that this is the result of a writer’s careful ability to listen. Accepting ears are also the hallmark of a good driver, which is how LaRue Cook collected the stories he collates in this book. They came to him from the road—the paved runway that propels so many American stories—in the form of Uber and Lyft rides. Each vignette opens the door into a different life, a different story, and Cook uses the opportunity to question choices made on his own journey. He’s less tender with himself, but that’s the mark of a smart writer and a caring human.

Winner: Megan Volpert, Boss Broad 

Boss Broad is a deeply personal work of pop culture criticism in which the art one loves inspires, and scuffles with, our identities. Volpert writes in the engrossing, risk-taking fashion of rock criticism’s heyday of the 1960s and 70s; she’s unafraid to bend or pause her narrative if it will allow for another heap of context. Bruce Springsteen, leader of the celebrity spectres Volpert channels in her book, served as a medium for old, weird Americans whose world collapsed during deindustrialization. Volpert performs a similar role, but draws from diverse experiences, including her own, all the while hoping that art might change the world.


Judge: Xhenet Aliu

Finalist: Jessica Handler, The Magnetic Girl 

Oftentimes, with historical fiction, I’ve found the impetus for the story more fascinating than the reimagining of it. Not so with The Magnetic Girl. While Lulu’s mystical powers may have been fraudulent, her magnetism certainly isn’t–under Handler’s unwavering, voice-driven, evocative prose, Lulu proves to be an irresistible heroine. A less gifted writer may have been content to let the oddity of the real-life story of Lulu–an adolescent girl in post-Civil War Georgia compelled by her father to produce shows demonstrating remarkable (and dishonest) feats of her electrical powers–produce the sparks on the page, so to speak, but Handler instead uses this as an access point into the more nuanced, compelling story beneath. The power Lulu wields on the stage, where she can beguile subjects and hurl grown men across the stage, is one in which she desperately wants to believe; the increasing dissonance of her performance with her reality, full of familial heartache and betrayals and the mere fact of girlhood in the nineteenth-century South, is where the real drama unfolds. Poignant, layered, and downright fun to read, The Magnetic Girl is a thoroughly Georgian book that should captivate readers everywhere. 

Winner: Anissa Gray, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls 

Anissa Gray’s novel not only takes on the challenge of writing about family but masterfully renders the paradoxes native to the subject: how can those whom we’ve known longer, more intimately, and more passionately than anyone else in our worlds remain so mysterious to us? The rotating points-of-view of each chapter, handed off like a baton among the Butler siblings, constantly reorients the reader’s perspectives and alliances, resulting in a novel of incredible moral complexity, wherein characters inflict and endure pain in ways that are cruel and yet tragically human. Viola, the middle Butler sister, struggles with a literal eating disorder, the mechanics of which are described vividly in a particularly painful chapter relatively early on in the book. But the novel’s title refers not just to Viola’s disordered eating but to the hollow, hungry spaces in each of the Butler women, whose traumas threaten to be inherited by the next generation. Despite their individual and shared wounds–intersected with and compounded by the social forces that act in particularly unforgiving ways on contemporary African-Americans–there’s an enduring tenderness among the Butlers that made me eager to accompany them from the first page to the last. As with my own sisters, despite the many moments of grief caused by and shared with them, I missed the Butler family terribly when it was time to bid farewell.


Judge: Kaye Lanning Minchew

Finalist: Akila Sankar McConnell, A Culinary History of Atlanta 

Akila Sankar McConnell focuses on the foods that Atlantans have eaten from the city’s early days as Terminus and Marthasville and brings the journey to present days. She looks at the popular ingredients, dishes, cookbooks, and restaurants. She acknowledges the impact on which African-Americans and large groups of immigrants have had on the food history while also reminding us of wonderful foods served at Rich’s department store and favorites still served every day at The Varsity. The book pays homage to great meals prepared by mothers, grandmothers, and household help while other sections highlight the importance of farmer’s markets and the increasing prominence of foreign restaurants in the city. McConnell also looks at foods which were once popular in Atlanta, such as possum and wild game, and includes some recipes and menus. This extensively researched book will make you think more about the foods you eat in Atlanta and how the food is rooted in the history of the area.

Winner: G. Wayne Clough, Things New & Strange: A Southerner’s Journey Through the Smithsonian Collections 

Wayne Clough analyzes the history of South Georgia as he takes us on a tour through some of the museums and galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, home to many of America’s greatest treasures. While he served as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the former president of Georgia Tech challenged staff members to help him find artifacts that shed light on the history of his native Coffee County and South Georgia. He examined a wide variety of objects that are housed in the Smithsonian museums. Artifacts include fossils, arrowheads, beads, and pottery shards from the days of native Americans, preserved specimens of birds, insects, mammals, plants, rocks, and meteorites that crashed to earth decades ago. He looked for physical evidence of earlier cultures and studied the Gullahs and Geechees of coastal Georgia. He concluded by looking for evidence of South Georgia arts and artists in the Smithsonian and spotlighted the former President of the United States and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jimmy Carter. Clough reminds us that things that we take for granted, such as Georgia’s red clay, may contain valuable mineral minerals and have significance, which helps explain the development of our area. Things New & Strange also reminds us that we have lost many species of birds, animals, and plants over the years: our forebears found things in South Georgia that no longer survive. This richly illustrated book puts the history of South Georgia and the Smithsonian collections on display and should inspire all of us to periodically visit museums, including the Smithsonian and search the digitized collections, which continue to grow online, for items which document our lives today. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Things New & Strange reminds us of the fun we can have when we look at our world with a sense of wonder.


Judge: Kaitlin Curtice

Finalist: Carl McColman, Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (And Why That’s Okay) 

McColman writes a book about grief, silence, and the provoking and important lessons we continually learn throughout our lives. With vulnerable and honest stories, he reminds us of what it means to be human, and how we experience sacredness in hidden places and often when we least expect it. This is a book about relationships, trust, and what it means to be human both to ourselves and to one another.

Winner: Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others 

Taylor’s newest book Holy Envy is a vulnerable and curious examination of the way we relate to one another through a religious lens. Not straying from her own Christian background, Taylor takes the reader on a journey of understanding how we can better value one another as human beings. This book inspires and provokes, leading us on our own journey of asking big questions about what we believe and why we believe it.


Judge: Roberta George

Finalist: Susan Rebecca White, We Are All Good People Here 

Friendship over a long period of time is probably one of the hardest things to write about, and yet Ms. White does an excellent job of giving us a true picture of a friendship between two women during the early 60s. How do our political choices define us, and how do we break from the past when those choices lead to destruction? The reader follows these two women during those eventful times and sees what their choices mean to them and to the people they love.  

Winner: Zoe Fishman, Invisible as Air 

If you’ve never understood what opiates can do to some people, here’s a good explanation. Sylvie Snow is a typical mother and wife with a job, trying to do all the tasks that are expected of her. And for her, underneath all the daily problems, is the unresolved sadness of losing a still-born daughter three years earlier. She takes one small white pill from her husband Paul’s prescription—he’s laid up with a broken ankle and doesn’t like how they make him feel—and the effect is immediate and wonderful. Suddenly, she is able to handle everything with a smile: the stress of a bar mitzvah for her son Teddy, Paul’s whine from the couch, and even the loss of her job. She promises herself that these pills are temporary fixes.

Along with the excellent writing that makes the reader want to find out what happens, in a way, this novel is an object lesson to all us, that even with the best of intentions of only using the pills for a limited time, one can become addicted. It also comes with the realization that the other members of a family and even strangers want to help in times of need.

A very real story that has the reader wanting Sylvie to find a solution to her problem, and yet it is also a cautionary tale for our time with all its emphasis on quick fixes from doctors and medicines.


Judge: James Abbot

Finalist: Jared Yates Sexton, The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making 

From the pages of The Man They Wanted Me to Be, Jared Yates Sexton emerges as not only a courageous survivor of childhood trauma, but also an exemplar of how to live life in these troubled times. Neglected or bullied by person after person—parents, stepfathers, coaches, classmates, even a professor—Sexton endured, forgave, and labored to understand. His memoir lucidly explicates the ruinous form of masculinity that is responsible for stunting and twisting too many of our lives, and in its extraordinary narrative of reconciliation between father and son, culminating in the delivery of a eulogy that did not shy from describing “how a boy could come into this world with the best of intentions and somehow get so very lost,” Sexton’s book strongly encourages us to accept that, in fact, we are able to choose, individually and as a society, to live a different way.

Winner: Heather Christle, The Crying Book 

Edmond Jabès wrote, “You will follow the book, whose every page is an abyss where the wing shines with the name.” He might have been describing Heather Christle’s indelible memoir, The Crying Book, for on each page Christle opens an abyss before us, only to carry us across it on shining wings. The Crying Book is a record of tears, five years of tears collected in not quite 400 journal entries: tears upon the death of a friend, at the birth of a child, for the sorrows of others, from tenacious despair. Reading this book, experiencing it, we cannot but ache, yet it is Christle’s singular achievement that we want to ache. It’s as if Christle has taken us by the hand and led us inside a literary work of tender beauty and bruising truth, where “the landscape suddenly reveals itself in layers,” as Christle writes, and we become alive to a “dimension always present,” but “not always seen.” It’s the rare book that can bestow upon its readers the saving consolation of hope. The Crying Book is one of those rare books.


Judge: Cynthia Robinson Young

Finalist: Diana Anhalt, Walking Backward 

Diana Anhalt’s collection Walking Backward contains poems that are like doors opening to the stories of life. She seamlessly walks the reader backward through those doors, recalling family histories in poems such as “Family Name,” when such experiences like migration might easily mean loss of family identity. It is in her lyrical lines such as “I lie face down/in bed, my naked back your keyboard,” that Anhalt’s work displays her ear for the music of love, the music of loss, and when she writes “When my love died, life moved to a street/my feet can’t find,” we are eager to accept her invitation to take that walk backward with her.

Winner: Clela Reed, Silk 

Clela Reed has created a chapbook that not only educates the readers but haunts us in reflection. She has skillfully woven history, facts, family, and even a speculative future into a tight collection clothed in the fabric of silk. The poems possess an almost three-dimensional quality, pulling the reader into its softness and its strength, and by the end, one feels wrapped in the collection’s cocoon. From the parachutes of war to the scarf that ended Isadora Duncan’s life, the reader of Silk will never think about this subject the same way again.


Judge: Nicholas Goodly

Finalist: Edward Wilson, In a Rich Country 

Edward Wilson achieves one of the most basic duties of poetry. His poems take small moments and spin them into art. Time slows, a memory replays into infinity. This collection uses words to fill us with the magic and grace of everyday life. This book places the richness of this country right into your hands.

Winner: Malcolm Tariq, Heed the Hollow

Malcolm Tariq takes an unflinching look at the politics of his own body. Its history, miraculous present condition, and possible futures. At once sexy, whole, confessional and investigative, Heed the Hollow insists on being handled with care, on taking its time. These poems insist on becoming a part of you. These poems do not wait for approval, these poems knock down the door to be let in.


Judge: Sally Kilpatrick

Finalist: Wendy Wax, My Ex-Best Friend’s Wedding

While My Ex-Best Friend’s Wedding is really a story of mothers and daughters and best friends who reconcile, it’s undergirded by a romance forty years in the making. Three different POVs add richness to a novel that explores the complexity of relationships both romantic and platonic.

Winner: Tracy Solheim, Shot in the Dark 

From the very first page, you’re drawn into this romantic suspense that takes you from the African savanna to the White House. Solheim deftly interweaves a romance of opposites attract with a suspense plot about poaching. This book has action, romance, and humor, along with the pathos of two characters wrestling with who they really want to be only to realize they are each their best selves when they are together.


Judge: Lisa Lewis Tyre

Finalist: Laura Silverman, You Asked for Perfect

You Asked For Perfect by Laura Silverman is full of rich characters, smart dialogue, and the soul-crushing, anxiety-producing pressure to succeed that so many real-life teens face. Perfectionists will recognize themselves in the pages of Silverman’s novel and will hopefully walk away with a fresh perspective. Heartfelt and relatable!

Winner: Nic Stone, Jackpot

Excellence! Nic Stone’s Jackpot has everything–a great story, characters that leap off the page, VOICE, a thought-provoking message, humor and heart. I loved every second I spent with Rico Danger!