My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations

cover of Ally Condie's Summerlost showing two young people riding their bicycles at sunsetCongratulations to the winners of the 2016 Whitney Awards, which were presented last weekend. This year my participation was limited to being a part of the voting academy for two categories: Middle Grade and Historical Romance. I chose the Middle Grade category because I had already read Summerlost and loved it and wanted to see how the competition stacked up against it. I decided  because I judged (meaning I was part of the panel that selects the finalists) the Historical category a few years ago and had enjoyed some of those novels that had. Plus I’ve read some historical romance and some historical fantasy with strong romance elements over the past few years and was interested in what the landscape looked like for Mormon authors.

Here is my ballot with the finalists ranked 1-5. Summerlost was my number one for Middle Grade and also won novel of the year for youth fiction so the rest of the academy, and I were in complete agreement on that one:

Middle Grade

Summerlost, by Ally Condie (actual winner; Novel of the Year: Youth)
The Wrong Side of Magic, by Janette Rallison
Ghostsitter, by Shelly Brown
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, by Liesl Shurtliff
Mysteries of Cove: Gears of Revolution, by J. Scott Savage

For Historical Romance, I thought Sarah Eden’s novel was the best of the bunch, although my second place choice My Fair Gentlemen was the winner. This is probably the most in tune I’ve been with the rest of the voting academy in any of the years I’ve participated:

Historical Romance

The Sheriff of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden
My Fair Gentleman, by Nancy Campbell Allen (actual winner)
Willowkeep, by Julie Daines
Lady Helen Finds Her Song, by Jennifer Moore
The Fall of Lord Drayson, by Rachael Anderson

Some Observations
  1. This year the Whitney Awards had academy voters both rank titles and give them a numerical ratings (1 through 7 with a score of 4 meaning “Average—meeting expectations for an award-winning novel.”). The rankings determined the category winners. The number ratings were used to calculate the overall winner for best debut, best adult novel and best youth novel. I think this is a fantastic way to go about, and I’ve been impressed at how the Whitney Awards (for all that I often disagree with the voting [but not this year!]) continues to improve its processes.
  2. Summerlost was far and away the best novel I read of both groups (and even better than the other finalists in categories that I didn’t vote in such as Speculative: Adult). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve written fondly about Ally Condie’s work before so I suppose I’m biased toward liking her work. But there’s a reason for that bias: she’s very good to excellent on all levels (plot, characterization, prose, worldbuilding).
  3. Each of the other middle grade novels had something very interesting about them and something that wasn’t quite there. I recognize that I’m not part of the target audience, but I don’t think that what I found deficient in them was a matter of taste. And, look, I don’t work in publishing and don’t understand the constraints and decisions made in producing viably commercial work. But I’ll say this: I believe that with better editing those authors could have produced books that went from just okay to very good or even excellent. Sure, one might say that could apply to any book, but I think in the case of these four books what needed to be fixed was possible and would have made them better even for their intended (much younger) audience.
  4. I was disappointed by the Historical Romance category. Again, this isn’t a primary genre that I read in. But I have read quite a bit of work that’s relevant to this category in my life (especially in the regency [and immediately adjacent] periods), including both historical romance and historical fantasy as well as novels written during those time periods (including all of Jane Austen’s novels) plus quite a bit of nonfiction, and I was quite looking forward to these novels. Some of the advice I gave to historical fiction writers back in 2015 also applies here. But I’d also add that when it comes to a romance plot, what keeps the heroine and the love interest apart and then how those obstacles are overcome needs to be solidly grounded and that there’s a real opportunity to create a tension between the two characters and between them and their social (and economic and cultural) environment that illuminates both their character and their historical circumstances, and when you do that, it’s can be quite the wonderful reading experience. Look, romance plots are really hard. Historical romance is even more difficult because you have to be good at both romance plots and characters and at the worldbuilding and plotting that historical fiction requires. I’m not saying I could do any better. But I have read much better examples, and it frustrates me that this year’s crop weren’t better.
  5. That being said, all of those novels had something going for them (especially the top three and especially Sarah Eden’s [which is a western rather than a regency]) so I have hopes that these authors will continue to push themselves. I really would like to see this category become a strength for the Whitney Awards because I think there’s value to Mormon readers in exploring romance in a way that doesn’t have some of the baggage that contemporary romance brings with it.
  6. This is my standard yet strongly-believed plea to include more Mormon characters and/or settings and/or thematics in the work you write whether it’s for the Mormon market or the national market. Even Summerlost is a bit of a missed opportunity in that way. It’s clearly set in a version of Cedar City’s Shakespeare Festival. I know that commercial fears come into play here. I also think that often those fears are overblown–even on a national level–and that the specificity that can be brought in when Mormon material is deployed can be a real strength. It is for other minority cultures. Why not ours?