By: Hannah Rapp, Teen Librarian
As you may or may not know, earlier this month, the American Library Association announced the winners of their Youth Media Awards – famous awards like the Newberry and Caldecott, or the Printz award for young adult literature. But they also announced the winner of a slightly less famous award, but my own personal favorite: the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. I love that this award honors new authors in YA, and I’ve rarely read a finalist or winner of this award that hasn’t been fantastic.
This year’s finalists were no exception – five excellent books, each of which I loved for different reasons. I truly cannot wait to see what each of these authors does next. I’ve already written about the winner, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, but I did read all four of the others before the announcement of the winner, so I wanted to share some mini thoughts on each of the other finalists.
Because You’ll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas
Description (from goodreads.com): Ollie and Moritz are best friends, but they can never meet. Ollie is allergic to electricity. Contact with it causes debilitating seizures. Moritz’s weak heart is kept pumping by an electronic pacemaker. If they ever did meet, Ollie would seize. But Moritz would die without his pacemaker. Both hermits from society, the boys develop a fierce bond through letters that become a lifeline during dark times—as Ollie loses his only friend, Liz, to the normalcy of high school and Moritz deals with a bully set on destroying him.
A story of impossible friendship and hope under strange circumstances, this debut is powerful, dark and humorous in equal measure. These extraordinary voices bring readers into the hearts and minds of two special boys who, like many teens, are just waiting for their moment to shine.
Thoughts: Because You’ll Never Meet Me was one of those books I might never have picked up if it hadn’t been a Morris finalist – and I would have been missing out! While I’m usually not drawn to epistolary novels, the unique voices of Ollie and Moritz, along with the length of their letters, made this book feel like a more traditional narrative. It still kept a lot of the fun of epistolary novels though, like how each boy getting to choose how much to reveal, and the back-and-forth of their interaction with each other. While Because You’ll Never Meet Me falls solidly into the sci-fi category, despite the fact that the world its set in is our own, it was its realism that particularly drew me. The way each boy dealt with their disabilities and their guilt differently, the relationships they had with their parents and friends, and the way they helped each other find the strength to discover the truth and explore the world around them. And to top it all off, this book was funny, as well as sincere, emotional, and impactful.
Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Description (from goodreads.com): Ten years ago, God gave Braden a sign, a promise that his family wouldn’t fall apart the way he feared.
But Braden got it wrong: his older brother, Trey, has been estranged from the family for almost as long, and his father, the only parent Braden has ever known, has been accused of murder. The arrest of Braden’s father, a well-known Christian radio host, has sparked national media attention. His fate lies in his son’s hands; Braden is the key witness in the upcoming trial.
Braden has always measured himself through baseball. He is the star pitcher in his small town of Ornette, and his ninety-four-mile-per-hour pitch al- ready has minor league scouts buzzing in his junior year. Now the rules of the sport that has always been Braden’s saving grace are blurred in ways he never realized, and the prospect of playing against Alex Reyes, the nephew of the police officer his father is accused of killing, is haunting his every pitch.
Braden faces an impossible choice, one that will define him for the rest of his life, in this brutally honest debut novel about family, faith, and the ultimate test of conviction.
Thoughts: This is another title that I would probably never have chosen to read without the Morris, and I am so grateful that I had a reason to pick this up. Conviction was a stunning story, and so masterfully created that I could hardly believe that it was Gilbert’s first novel. It was exciting, captivating, powerful, and character-driven. I was hooked on the plot, waiting to see what else Braden would reveal, even as I started to put the pieces together. I was riveted by Braden’s struggles with his religion, his guilt, his game, and his relationships. I found Braden, Troy, and their father such realistic, complicated characters. Gilbert expertly revealed bits from the family’s past, as well as the events of the night of the accident, that never contradicted each other, built tension, and slowly made me realize what lay beneath the surface. I already know I want to read this novel again, just to see what details and complexities I missed the first time around. But don’t think that means it was a difficult read – I raced through Conviction. I’m not usually drawn to stories about sports, religion, or father/son relationships, but Conviction was probably one of my favorite reads of 2015, despite being all those things (and so much more as well.)
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
Description (from goodreads.com): The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust.
And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too.
Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it’s clear that Minnow knows something—but she’s not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a hard-hitting and hopeful story about the dangers of blind faith—and the power of having faith in oneself.
Thoughts: This book was getting a lot of buzz from other librarians I know even before the Morris nomination, and when I started reading, it was immediately clear why. From the very first words – “I am a blood-soaked girl” – Minnow Bly kept me riveted. I expected to find the flashbacks to Minnow’s past in the Kevinian cult fascinating, but as it turns out, I was almost equally interested in the pages dealing with Minnow’s life in prison and her adjustment to the world away from the Kevinians. Watching Minnow’s growth as a character – through her youth and in her prison life – was one of the highlights for me. There were also a lot of interesting elements dealing with being a woman, religion, finding meaning in life, and so much more, but the book never felt preachy or dull. Rather, I was completely gripped and couldn’t wait to turn the next page. And despite how different Minnow’s life was from mine, her story felt relatable and relevant.
The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore
Description (from goodreads.com): For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.
Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.
Beautifully written, and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.
Thoughts: I was lucky enough to see Anna-Marie McLemore at the conference I attended in November, and saw her speak on two different panels. So I was thrilled to hear she had been nominated for the Morris Award and had high expectations for The Weight of Feathers. While the book wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was wonderful. The book was magical, and not just because of characters with feathers growing out of their heads or scales on their backs. The Weight of Feathers beautifully illustrated how our lives are shaped by our stories and our families, and how that can be both a good and a bad thing. Both Lace and Cluck find some of their strongest support and wonderful friends within their traveling families, but they also both suffer from the weight of those families’ expectations. On top of that, both must learn to separate the truths of their own – and each other’s – families from what they have been told their whole lives. But this book isn’t just literary themes and philosophies. It is also a beautiful love story, a simultaneously modern and timeless take on a classic story of forbidden romance, and an incredibly immersive world of magic – whether faked by talented performers, real and surrounding the main characters, or the magic of love and family.