Celebrating its 25th year, the Oregon Book Awards—a program of the state’s non-profit organization Literary Arts—recognized excellence in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and, for the first time, graphic literature, in a ceremony held in Portland’s Gerding Theater. Hosted by Northwest native, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Timothy Egan, the evening included music by fiction nominee Vanessa Veselka (Zazen) and slam poetry performed by Anis Mojgani. Egan told the packed auditorium in his opening remarks that the Northwest is “the keeper of literary culture” because it’s “the place where you have readers and you have people who show up and listen to the storytellers.” It’s also a “nursery for talent,” especially because, as Egan points out, “I couldn’t write in a good climate.” It’s especially true that in dark, rainy Portland, despite its recent burst of sunshine, “people like to go into a cave and tell stories.”
The first awards went to children’s and YA fiction, with Graham Salisbury’s Calvin Coconut: Hero of Hawaii winning the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature and Emily Whitman winning the Leslie Bradshaw Award for Young Adult Literature for her novel, Wildwing. Salisbury recalled a particularly touching moment during the tour that the nominees take prior to the awards, which includes readings and workshops. An eager young reader approached Salisbury after a reading and got to take home his own copy of Calvin; his teacher later told Salisbury that the book had found its perfect match because the boy was homeless. Salisbury made sure the boy got a complete set.
Ulrich Hardt, Professor Emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University, received the Walt Morey Young Readers Legacy Award for his contribution to the Oregon Writing Festival, which he helped create and has chaired for the past 25 years. The annual festival invites students from across the state to share their writing with well-known authors and participate in workshops.
In general nonfiction, Kenneth J. Ruoff, another Portland State professor, won the Frances Fuller Victor Award for Imperial Japan At Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire 2600th Anniversary. He joked during his acceptance speech that his mother proofread his manuscripts but took her editing duties a step further this time and chastised him for not always portraying the Japanese (who’d been so nice to him when he’d traveled there to study and learn the language) in a positive light.
Literary Arts also bestows grants to emerging and established writers and publishers. This year, eight writers and three publishers were honored: Rodger Moody (poetry); Larry Bingham, Mark Allen Cunningham and Zondie Zinke (fiction); Apricot Irving (literary nonfiction); Brian Kettler and Andrea Stolowitz (drama); Sabina I. Rascol (young readers literature); and the publishers basalt, Burnside Review, and Silverfish Review.
In its inaugural year, an Oregon Book Award was given to a work of graphic literature. The Pacific Northwest College of Art Graphic Literature Award went to Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. While Sacco wasn’t present to collect his prize, it was clear that enthusiasm was high for the newest addition to the awards roster.
In fiction, Booker Prize-nominee Patrick DeWitt won the Ken Kesey Award for his cowboy crime western The Sisters Brothers, set in the Oregon Territory in the early 1850s. DeWitt was also, unfortunately, unavailable to collect his award. George Estreich’s The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family and Stories We Inherit won the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Nonfiction. Estreich, a poet, recounts his time as a stay-at-home dad raising his daughter with Down Syndrome and told the audience how Laura, about to enter middle school, recently auditioned for a school play. With a permission slip she forged. He couldn’t have been prouder.
Voted on by over 2,000 readers of The Oregonian, the Reader’s Choice Award went to Lidia Yuknavitch for her memoir, The Chronology of Water, also a finalist for the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Nonfiction. Summing up the importance of the award for her, Yuknavitch told the audience that “for a writer, the only relationship there is with a reader.” She reminded the crowd that “some of us walk around in life feeling like we didn’t turn out quite right and we’re just a little off. And I’m just a little off. I wrote a book for those people because we’re people, too, and we have stories. So thanks for giving me this one.”
In the final award of the night—presenter and past winner Matthew Dickman even wondered why poetry drew the short straw—Carl Adamshick won Stafford/Hall Award for his poetry collection Curses and Wishes. In a moving tribute to Literary Arts founder Brian Booth, who passed away in March at age 75, poet Kim Stafford remembered Booth as an architect of the Oregon literary world. “Brian built tunnels, secret passages, public thoroughfares like the Oregon Book Awards, between the grand institutions of our state and the path that, as my father [the poet William Stafford] said, is one person wide. This connection between power and expression is the true democracy of art and we have Brian to thank for that. We gather here tonight in the house of words that Brian built. This is the house that holds our Oregon books, the true wealth of who we are. A treasury not to be daunted by economic woe; in fact, a literary force that rises to meet trouble and looks it in the eye. And when we walk forth from this house of words tonight, we take up the work Brian left us.”