This year’s winner and finalist titles for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, announced on Monday, Jan. 29, are a varied bunch, and yet there is a common theme, that of the Other. At the awards ceremony, John Hendrix, author of The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, spoke of anti-Fascist Bonhoeffer’s ideology of love and compassion for others. Joy McCullough, the author of Blood Water Paint, spoke of her fascination with Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist who expressed her righteous anger toward her oppressors in her work.
In What the Night Sings, set in Nazi Germany, Vesper Stamper brings to life the horrors a society can descend into when compassion for the Other fails. In the statement she sent regarding her memoir, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice writes that, “insecurity, hardship, and failure are common experiences in all people’s lives, even successful ones.” Young people will look to her example of moving from the margins to the center of power for inspiration. Similarly, Jarrett J. Krosoczka said that during school visits for Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction, he was struck by how often young people who learned of his family struggles approached him to say, “I’m just like you.” In sharing his own story, he is helping to lighten the burden of young people everywhere.
When Elizabeth Partridge selected subjects for Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, she had three criteria: She wanted diversity in geography, gender, and race. Her previously neglected interviewees bared their hearts as they realized it is “finally time for them to share their stories and be heard.” Check, Please!: #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu is born from her long passion for stories about “thriving in environments that have traditionally excluded you”—in this case, creating one about a sweet gay boy who loves to bake finding his way in one of the most macho of sports, ice hockey. Nonfiction winner Don Brown in The Unwanted shares stories of those who are othered to an extreme degree: refugees who have lost their homes and desperately seek new ones. He reminded us that “they are you,” as he put it at the ceremony, and offered the fervent wish that Americans “will return to [being] the generous people” he believes they are.
Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone, emerged from the painful realization that “I stopped putting myself in [my stories] because I couldn’t imagine myself” in those settings. Reflecting on the consequences of “erasing myself from my own imagination,” she wrote her West African–inspired fantasy. Morris winner Adib Khorram created the ultimate Other in his protagonist, Darius Kellner, of Darius the Great Is Not Okay: He’s a biracial teen who grapples with depression, the cruelty of the high school pecking order, being a cultural outsider, and feeling out of place in his own family. Darius’ journey to hope and belonging touches hearts and inspires compassion.
While we all feel at times like the Other, some people live largely on the margins. Each of these books can, in its own way, help readers feel more understood and less alone as well as encouraging them to reach out to others who need connection.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.