2021 GAYA Judge Statements

Judge: Tanya Valentine 

Finalist: Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Pete Oswald
Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day is a lovely portrayal of the ups and downs of even the best of friendships. When a new game ends with tears and anger, these two friends must navigate their way back to each other with authentic apologies and understanding. This sweet story is enhanced by Pete Oswald’s beautiful illustrations.

Winner: My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World by Malcolm Mitchell, illustrated by Michael Robertson
My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World  is perfect for struggling readers! Henley wants desperately to enjoy reading. But long sentences, difficult words, and boring subjects are just some of the hurdles he encounters. When he learns he must share his favorite book in the whole wide world with the class, Henley seeks help at the library and book shop with no luck. But encouraging words from his mama help Henley discover his perfect book. Malcolm Mitchell’s inspiring story reminds us that struggling readers are not always “reluctant” readers.  And Michael Robertson’s adorable art brings the story of Henley to life.

Judge: Emily Carpenter

Finalist: Never Turn Back by Christopher Swann
With gorgeous, spare writing, Swann lets this story unfold, one dark step at a time. As the secrets unspool, we’re drawn into a twisty, hardboiled, noir-style story of the dark side of family. But the author never lets his hero get too tough or bullet-proof. There’s a beating heart of vulnerability under everything that happens as Ethan Faulkner digs up the bloody past.

Winner: Stranger in the Lake by Kimberly Belle
Stranger in the Lake is a thriller that accomplishes many things at one. It offers the reader both an exciting, unpredictable, and twisty plot, while simultaneously exploring the nuances of human behavior. It’s a satisfying suspense story, yes, but also a deep-dive into class in our society. Allowing ourselves to turn a blind eye to the faults of the people we love when that love means our survival, can be anyone’s downfall.

Judge: Spencer Wise

Finalist: Purple Lotus by Veena Rao
Purple Lotus is a deeply troubling portrait of a brave, young Indian woman immigrating to America only to find herself trapped in an abusive marriage. One thing I appreciate so much about this book is the kindness and friendship that emerges organically between women, often strangers at first, often from wildly disparate backgrounds, who nonetheless come together to form a community and provide that sense of home they’re otherwise denied. I thought that kind of resistance was very powerful and compelling to read.

Winner: The Nature of Remains by Ginger Eager
I was blown away with the layered narrative and range of voices in this southern gothic novel. In The Nature of Remains, each character is rendered with compassion and dignity despite their hardscrabble background and circumstances. It’s oozing with authenticity about small town Georgia and yet it’s still, like all great fiction, about universal themes—flawed humans longing to find our rightful place in the world while also providing for our families and loved ones.

Judge: Akila McConnell

Finalist: Pure Evil: The Machetti Murders of Macon, Georgia by Jaclyn Weldon White
Jaclyn Weldon White confronts the definition of “pure evil” in this fast-paced and bizarre true story of the Machetti murders. To an outside observer, Becky Machetti was a middle-class white woman in small town Macon, Georgia, with a hard-working husband and three daughters. But, inside Becky’s head, she was a mafia boss. Machetti’s murderous fantasies led to the deaths of two people, the abuse of her daughters, life imprisonment and execution for two men, and her own life in prison. Vividly portrayed, White pulls the reader into Machetti’s deranged mind through the use of extensive interviews, letters, and newspaper reports.

Winner: Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt
In Unworthy Republic, Claudio Saunt deftly combats the presumption that Native American removal was an inevitable consequence of colonization. Rather, Saunt proves that Indigenous deportation in the 1830s was a systematic and avaricious enterprise, suffused with white supremacy and callousness. Throughout, Saunt connects slavery with Indigenous removal: the South’s desire to expand into Indian territory was directly related to its desire to expand its slaveholding territories. Likewise, the country’s resulting wealth was the direct consequence of the native peoples’ resulting poverty. An even-handed and meticulous study of unbridled power and greed, Saunt leaves the reader assessing the “price of expulsion,” asking hard questions that a worthy republic must answer. 

Judge: Tara Coyt

Finalist: Love or Work: Is It Possible to Change the World, Stay in Love, and Raise a Healthy Family? By André and Jeff Shinabarger
Love or Work is a tool for achieving peace and fulfillment and love within self, family, and community. It will be particularly helpful for middle class couples who strive to be successful in their careers while being great spouses and parents. The conversational tone, chapter structure and dialogue presented by André & Jeff Shinabarger offer experiences and observations from this husband and wife team.

 Winner: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice
In Native the journey to reconcile and honor the author’s Potawatomi Nation and white Christian heritage lead to broader notions of faith and belonging. Kaitlin Curtice introduces Native American cultures and traditions, while also reminding us of Christianity’s painful role in colonization, racism, religious discrimination, and the near extinction of Native Americans. This timely book calls readers to acknowledge and appreciate the universal sacredness and value of all human beings and their faiths.

Judge: Snowden Wright

Finalist: The Promised Land by Elizabeth Musser
Elizabeth Musser’s The Promised Land revolves around three characters who, facing a metaphorical crossroads in their lives, venture toward a literal one along the Camino pilgrimage route in France: Abbie, dealing with the break-up of her marriage; her son Bobby, discovering his artistic ambition while on a gap year; and Caroline, coping with the disappearance of her best friend. In straightforward but agile narration, the novel explores how pathways, between strangers, between generations, can sometimes converge in unlikely places. The result is a quiet marvel of grace. Musser draws subtle connections between the characters’ lives in Atlanta and what they find in France—the Beltline as its own sort of French Camino—and uses those connections to weave a beautiful, heartfelt portrait of what it means to be a Georgian, a Southerner, an American, and, most importantly, a person in the world.

Winner: Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown
Published at the start of a pandemic that halted physical contact and three days before Tiger King premiered on Netflix, spotlighting issues of wildlife conservation, Taylor Brown’s prescient novel Pride of Eden follows a group of misfits who find community among each other as they rescue exotic animals from exploitative venues and owners. The gorgeously written prose, with muscular verbs, tendinous adjectives, and skeletal nouns, renders flesh to many of today’s most important concerns, including poverty and climate change. Brown forgets neither the context of his book’s historical moment nor the fact we’re still living in it. That context may be worn on the book’s sleeve, but it’s tucked into the fabric, hidden and utilitarian, like a 1950s-greaser’s pack of cigarettes. At one point in this emotionally wrenching, visually crystalline novel, an escaped lion prowls through a housing development left abandoned after the recession. Such a powerful image, as with Pride of Eden overall, weds the housing crisis to animal activism. The connection? Home. Animals and people alike need a home, their own personal Eden, a place in which to take pride.

Judge: Christopher Martin

Honorable Mention: Roll the Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse by Ann Hite
Roll the Stone Away is a courageous and vital work, layered with history and genealogy. We need storytellers like Ann Hite who are willing to confront engrained trauma so that it will no longer perpetuate. Always, we need the perspectives of strong women, getting us closer to the truth and breaking the cycle of violence. We need these Southern chronicles that suggest a more excellent way, reminding us this is the work of everyone, however small our voices may seem. 

Finalist: High Cotton by Kristie Robin Johnson
Kristie Robin Johnson’s High Cotton is a work of reflection and remembrance, itself—to borrow a phrase from one of the book’s many moving scenes—a “sun-kissed expression” of joy set against a backdrop of loss, addiction, and violence. Further, this joy stands against the structural racism that has corroded so much, though it could not overcome the light of Johnson’s matriarchs who “survived colored-only restrooms, segregated schools, the growing pains of justice delayed,” or the light of Johnson’s oldest known ancestor who, while enslaved in Lincolnton, Georgia, swam across a lake to try to get back—no, to try to save, to rescue—her child who had been stolen from her and sold to a nearby plantation. Johnson carries such maternal light forward. This is a work of perseverance, an affirmation of the words of Johnson’s grandmother Tine—“Keep living, baby”—and a record of the ways Johnson has done just that, whether by reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with her young son, relishing the music of Mary J. Blige and Tupac, contemplating the black water of the Augusta Canal and the violet sky above it, or proclaiming the love of the hood, likening it to the enduring, selfless agape love of which St. Paul speaks, made manifest in the acts of the Cookie Man, the Dress Lady, the Water Man, and so many others, each their own kind of apostle. This is a work that does not end, but drifts with the spirits of those who love so fiercely as to remember dreams. 

 Winner: Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
I’d be remiss not to say that, without awareness for the date, except it was near the end of the month and thus near my deadline, I began drafting this reflection on April 26­—the day that in 1966 saw Natasha Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, drive alone, through a “barrage of rebel flags lining the streets” for Mississippi’s 100th-anniversary celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, “on her way to the segregated ward” of Gulfport Memorial Hospital to bring her daughter, the poet, memoirist, and courage-teacher we know and honor today, into the world. Perhaps it is unconventional to wish someone a now-belated happy birthday in presenting a literary award. Still, though it will be summer before these words go public, I thought it fitting to acknowledge that April day as a way of saying we are glad Natasha Trethewey’s courageous mother made that memorial drive those years ago, and that, though we can only imagine the emotional toll, we are grateful Natasha Trethewey made this memorial drive of her own, returning to Georgia through this story.

Memorial Drive is the kind of book of which, out of respect for it and the sacred terrain it covers, I’m inclined to say nothing. Silence, reverence, and reflection are the fruits of encountering any monument worth the name, any monument that honors truth, renews the imagination, and nurtures genuine discourse and empathy. Here Natasha Trethewey has crafted such a monument to her mother, once more—with her mother’s spirit ever at her side—standing against the forces of erasure, the powers entrenched in an untenable history, the structures that have sustained white supremacy, misogyny, and the ways of violence for far too long. I’m not alone in saying Natasha Trethewey has for some time now been a guiding light for me. Memorial Drive, a work of sorrow and endless love, is one more verse, perhaps the foundational verse, in her body of work, an abiding poetry both elegiac and epic.

Judge: Malcolm Tariq

Finalist: Slide to Unlock by Julie E. Bloemeke
Julie E. Bloemeke’s Slide to Unlock is a singing chorus of desire. These poems render a tender overview of what is at play between the mind and the body. The past and the present. The said and the unsaid. For poems that are so insular and introspective about wanting and longing, they are loud with the vastness of all that love of self, others, and life can do. This book is a journey worth returning to.

Winner: Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez
In Fractures, Carlos Andrés Gómez delivers a poignant, thoughtful interrogation of what it means to live and love when society gives so many reasons not to. These poems chart that difficulty and invite deep reflection about fatherhood and interpersonal relationships, and the strains that racism and notions of manhood place on them. Long after they have been read, the poems continue to hold the reader. They teach us that there is forgiveness. There are different ways of caring. And there are different ways of moving forward with the many things we carry.

Judge: Ricki Cardenas

Finalist: (Im)perfectly Happy by Sharina Harris
Harris immerses you in friendship and fun as four kick-ass women reunite to help one another follow the respective ambitions they’ve cast aside since college. The Brown Sugarettes will have you calling your sister, tossing out your dusty ol’ copy of Sex and the City, and planning a girls’ trip with your besties. It’s a love letter to anyone who’s put their dreams on the backburner in adulthood—and it’s also a strong reminder that, sometimes, the love of your life just might be your friends.

Winner: You Were There Too by Colleen Oakley
With sweeping brushstrokes of emotion and humor stippled throughout, Oakley paints an ornate tapestry for her readers. Mia leaps off the page and into our hearts in this fast-paced journey between love and loss, fate and choice—along with dreams and reality. While being reminded that life, like fiction, is unpredictable, you won’t be able to put this book down.

Judge: Jerry Hancock

Finalist: I Cook in Color: Bright Flavors from My Kitchen and Around the World by Asha Gomez and Martha Hall Foose
Asha Gomez pairs the colorful flavors of Kerala with locally sourced ingredients to present gorgeous new interpretations of more traditional American fare. Chef Gomez defines Modern American cuisine by deconstructing familiar comfort dishes and reimagining them with a vibrant, worldly whimsical. Kaleidoscopic images leap off the page to bring these delightful recipes and their intriguing ingredients to life.

Winner: Cumberland Island: Footsteps in Time Stephen Doster, photography by Benjamin Galland
Stephen Doster incorporates both traditional and contemporary research methods to weave a rich historiography of Georgia’s coastal crown jewel. Doster uses a wealth of primary sources and archeological artifacts to trace the island’s ancestry from its unique geography and prehistory through its Gilded Age heyday, to its current status as one of our region’s pristine gems. Photographer Benjamin Galland’s intimate panoramas document Cumberland Island’s natural beauty in all its breathtaking splendor. Together, Doster and Galland manage to present Cumberland Island as not only a regional treasure, but as a living, breathing natural wonder of the south. 

Judge: Aaron Levy

Finalist: Dan Unmasked by Chris Negron
Dan Unmasked is a fun, funny, heart wrenching tale featuring real friends grappling with the ultimate test of their friendship. It’s for that not-so-rare boy and girl who love baseball and comic books and super heroes… only to realize sometimes real heroes don’t have super powers. Sometimes the most effective super power in the ‘ole utility belt is the power of story.

Winner: Dear Justyce by Nic Stone
Dear Justyce is an amazing companion novel to Stone’s multi-award winning YA book Dear Martin. Dear Justyce is not a continuation of Justyce McAllister’s story. It craftily casts Justyce as the friend of a new fantastically realized protagonist, Quan, who happens to write letters to Justyce from jail. This is a gritty and hauntingly real story about survival, poverty and violence that must be told. Today. Now. Stone does a great job balancing the criticism of the school and justice system, leaving enough grey area space for authentic discussion after readers finish the book. Bravo!