When Laura Ruby got the phone call from the Printz committee this past Sunday, informing her that she had won the 2016 award, she was attending a lecture at Hamline University in St. Paul, where she’s on the faculty of the school’s low-residency MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Sitting beside her was fellow instructor and soon-to-be winner of the Newbery Medal, Matt de la Peña. Gene Luen Yang, the newly minted National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is also on staff at Hamline. One could almost understand if Minnesota decided to close its borders in an attempt to keep this kind of talent in-state.
Ruby ducked out of the lecture to answer the phone, not expecting that the Printz committee would be on the other end. Unlike the Newbery and Caldecott winners, who receive their phone calls on the morning of the award announcements, Printz winners can be notified ahead of time, though Ruby didn’t know this. She said she doesn’t remember much of what was discussed (“I think I just said thank you like 40 times in a row”), but at minimum she knew that she had to sit through the rest of the lecture without telling anyone about the call.
On Monday morning, the secret was out: Ruby had won the Printz Medal for her novel Bone Gap (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), a genre-bending book that involves a girl kidnapped in a rural Midwestern town and the boy who saw her abduction but is unable to help. Ruby said she celebrated with “some of her favorite people,” including de la Peña and author Anne Ursu, who also teaches at Hamline. “I wrote this book during a time of professional and personal turmoil,” said Ruby. “[Anne] was a big champion for this book. It was great to be here with her.” As the news disseminated online, Ruby also spoke with her husband, back home in Chicago; Jordan Brown, her editor at HarperCollins; and her agent, Tina Wexler at ICM, “another champion of this book.”
Published in March, Bone Gap racked up significant praise this past year: it received three starred reviews, including one from PW, and several Best Books citations, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Ruby is surprised by and grateful for the attention and accolades. “A million good books came out this year – so many wonderful books. You could’ve picked a bunch of different ones, depending on the committee,” she said. “This kind of attention is new for me, and surprising, and amazing.”
While Ruby was aware that the awards were being announced (“It’s hard not to know. You’re on Twitter, you’re on Facebook”), she didn’t want to dwell on it. “There’s nothing you can do about any of this stuff anyway,” she said. “I didn’t want to get too invested in something that was outside of my control.”
“Weird,” “oddball,” and “narratively complex” are the kinds of words Ruby uses to describe her book, which invokes magical realism, myth, and mystery, and doesn’t fit neatly into any sort of genre box. Among the original sparks for the novel were the cornfields of Illinois, the horse farm her father grew up on, and a years-old article Ruby’s father-in-law gave her about a woman who lost her son at the mall and then couldn’t describe him. “It stuck with me, but I didn’t know what it meant.”
Once Ruby decided to use mythical retellings to give her book structure, it helped bring order to the self-described “chaos” of her first draft. “It’s really hard if you write alone in your office or coffee shop,” she said. “You have no idea if what you’re putting on the page will communicate anything to anybody. You just hope it does. To have this sort of evidence that is does is amazing.” She also suspects that the Printz win will boost her confidence as a writer: “I hope that I’ll feel a little bit freer creatively, freer to experiment, to trust my own instincts.”
Bone Gap was Ruby’s first book with Jordan Brown, and “I’m not sure it could have gone any better.” In addition to praising his “thorough” editing (“My editorial letter for this book was I think 15 pages long, single-spaced, not counting the 400 comments on the manuscript pages”), she was even a fan of the book’s cover treatment and typesetting, and was surprised that the staff at Balzer + Bray wanted her opinion on these sorts of things. “Not everybody gets asked those questions.”
While Ruby has written for adults, teens, and younger readers (previous books include Bad Apple, The Chaos King, and I'm Not Julia Roberts), she expects she will write more YA in the future and is currently working on a middle grade trilogy. In addition to her work with children’s and YA writers at Hamline, she and Ursu have taught a fantasy workshop at the Highlights Foundation for years. “I never thought I would be a teacher of anybody for any reason,” Ruby said. “My mom was in education for several years, and maybe it was a knee-jerk reaction. But teaching and reading other people’s work, and trying to help them make their work better or voices stronger – I’m so gratified by that work, and what makes them passionate makes me more passionate. This sounds so Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true. I learn just as much by teaching them as they do from me.”
Given the solitary nature of writing, it’s easy for Ruby to see the value in finding a community of writers eager to sharpen their craft. “Everybody here [at Hamline] takes seriously the emotional arc of the bunny rabbit in a picture book, and I love that they do.” With a great deal to celebrate, Ruby said that she and her fellow faculty members were planning to break out the Champagne on Monday night. “We are going to toast the Newbery committee, and the Printz committee, and the universe. And then get back to work.”