As the nine-member 2011 Alex Awards committee, we had requested, read, and reviewed nearly 500 titles. December and early January had been a blur of words and punctuation, as we attempted to read during spare moments: bus rides, grocery store lines, and lunch breaks. Our homes became obstacle courses and fire hazards of stacked books; our e-mail inboxes were flooded with a mix of poignant reviews, tangential observations, and sleep-deprived ramblings. We pushed books into the hands of teens, our plea-filled words running into each other, hey-could-you-pretty-please-look-at-this-book-and-let-me-know-what-you- think?
It all came down to this one moment.
We walked back into the conference room, our eyes scanning the covers of the selected books. The committee chair, Beth Gallaway, and the administrative assistant, Scott Rader, had tabulated the votes that committee members had scrawled earlier on hotel stationary. We cried "Yes!" for our beloved books that stood tall among the ten, and observed moments of silence for our lonely favorites that did not make the cut.
"This year's list runs the gamut of mystery, suspense, magical realism, adventure, and memoir," said Gallaway, chair of the 2011 Alex Awards committee. "Our selections are accessible to a wide range of ages, and feature a mute, a zombie slayer, a family of vampires, a Chinese American immigrant, a homeschooler, and an insomniac--truly, there is something for everyone."
The Alex Awards recognize ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages twelve through eighteen. In addition to the awards, the committee also releases a vetted nominations list.
I had the opportunity to speak with three of the winners: Liz Murray, author of Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard; Steve Hamilton, author of The Lock Artist; and Joshua Gaylord, who wrote The Reapers Are the Angels under the pseudonym Alden Bell.
First Readers, Then Writers
Over the course of my interviews, something became clear: these three authors had childhoods and teen years marked by voracious reading and library use.
Murray grew up surrounded by library books. Her father, an avid library fan, would often check out books and (despite best intentions) neglect to return them. In addition to the perpetually borrowed collection, Murray and her father also made frequent trips to the library.
Murray said, "My relationship with books was because of my father." Books showed Murray that "Life can be different." Even when homeless as a teen, Murray continued her routine from childhood of visiting the library. She spent what she called "countless hours" in branches of the New York Public Library, in Manhattan and the Bronx, hanging out, reading, and meticulously keeping a journal. It is where she began writing.
As a teen, Gaylord's reading was fueled by a fascination with horror fiction (Stephen King and Peter Straub) before moving onto the more serious recommendations of his teachers (James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner). Likewise, Hamilton read everything he could get his hands on. From Lord of the Rings to crime stories and
mysteries, he read all the time. Hamilton said, "The library in Dearborn, Michigan, was Shangri-la for me." He continued, "I would check out as many books as they would let me check out." Responding to the budget and staffing cuts so many libraries face during these rough economic times, he said, "It's hard to imagine a world without libraries."
In 2006, Hamilton was honored by the Michigan Library Association with the Michigan Author Award. Recognized for his books about Alex McKnight, a private investigator living in Paradise, Michigan, Hamilton has even had the distinction of having his novels be required reading for students. He said, "I've arrived, now that I'm homework."
Libraries nurture readers, laying the foundation for the next generation of writers, from memoirists to dystopians to crime writers. …