North Street Book Prize 2016
Honoring the best self-published books in literary fiction, genre fiction, and creative nonfiction
First Prize $1,500 Creative Nonfiction
Linda L.T. Baer, Red Blood, Yellow Skin
First Prize $1,500 Literary Fiction
Winfred Cook, Uncle Otto
First Prize $1,500 Genre Fiction
L.S. Johnson, Vacui Magia
Second Prize $500 Creative Nonfiction
Mary Ellen Sanger, Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree
Honorable Mention $250
- Jordan Cosmo, Mind Your Head, Creative Nonfiction
- Mary J. Koral, The Year the Trees Didn’t Die, Creative Nonfiction
- Jeff Ingber, Bela’s Letters, Literary Fiction
- Lee Wicks, Some Measure of Happiness, Literary Fiction
- April Kelly, Winged, Genre Fiction
- William Alan Thomas, Return of the Convict, Genre Fiction
Thanks to everyone who entered our second annual North Street Book Prize for self-published books of fiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction. We received 473 entries. Once again we were impressed with the creativity, vulnerability, and perseverance of the many fine writers who prefer self-publishing or who have not yet been discovered by the major presses.
This year we brought on Lauren Singer and Anne Keithline as first-round screeners to present a shortlist of about 50 books to final judges Jendi Reiter and Ellen LaFleche. We chose Lauren and Anne for their contemporary aesthetic, political awareness, and professionalism. Our faith was certainly rewarded. Ellen did the first read-through of the shortlisted books that were submitted in hard copy, then she and Jendi divided the online entries. We shared our favorites from each batch with one another for a full read-through, ending up with the 16 finalists on our winners' page.
As we read, we asked ourselves: Would we continue reading this book for pleasure if it wasn't a contest entry? Is this book truly finished and polished, or does it need another round of structural or line edits to fulfill its potential? Did we learn something new from this book?
This year's entries made us rethink genre boundaries. Some books submitted as memoir were actually novelizations of family history. As popular subjects like World War II and the 1960s counterculture become farther away in time, we are seeing more books by children of the participants in those events. Though these cross-genre family histories can be good reads, we're eager to receive more first-hand accounts of recent events that have been under-represented in the literature.
Our line between "genre/commercial" and "mainstream/literary" appeared increasingly arbitrary. A book with traditionally "genre" elements, such as a romance plotline or paranormal phenomena, could have the poetic writing style and social significance of serious literature. On the flip side, a mainstream realist novel could be a lightweight beach read. Therefore, for the 2017 contest, we're changing the two fiction categories to General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction.
We debated how much weight to give to proofreading and copyediting errors. While theoretically typos are no reflection on a book's literary quality, these are self-published books, not manuscripts, so we must also evaluate them as commercial products. Our touchstone was: Would we feel cheated if we bought this book for full price and found this many misspelled words and incorrect sentences? Unfortunately, even among the shortlisted books, a really clean copy was the exception, not the rule.
Pacing was a common weakness in books we otherwise enjoyed. Most of the top entries were still too long by 10-20% and would have benefited from a last round of edits. Nonfiction writers went in for the comprehensive life story or family history instead of building a tight narrative arc around a pivotal few years in their lives. Family saga writers did not take our advice from last year to include a genealogy chart to keep track of the characters. We noticed a trend, in both memoir and literary fiction, to skip back and forth in time and setting, without enough transition markers for us readers to orient ourselves. One of Jendi's pet peeves is stories that never specify their location and time period. There's usually not a good reason to omit this information, which can make all the difference in the background assumptions we bring to the story and its plausibility. It's distracting to be looking for these clues instead of immersing ourselves in the narrative.
Similarly to last year, some books didn't make the cut because of problematic stereotypes. All authors should check out K. Tempest Bradford's piece at LitReactor, "Representation Matters: A Literary Call to Arms", for tips on writing about ethnic and gender identities different from your own. Queer erotica writer Xan West's article "Fat Characters in Romance and Erotica" includes links to numerous other pieces about body-positive characterization. Whether you write realistic or fantasy fiction, if there's a love interest in your novel, take a look at Carol Van Natta's post about dubious consent in science fiction and paranormal romantic pairings.
Linda L.T. Baer took First Prize in Nonfiction for Red Blood, Yellow Skin, her gripping memoir of survival as a child and young woman in war-torn Vietnam. As well as being an exciting read, the book has great historical and educational value as an overview of the origins of that ill-fated war. Baer sensitively depicts both the horrors of violence and poverty, and the small joys of a childhood spent close to nature, which kept her spirit alive.
The judging was so close that we awarded a special Second Prize for Mary Ellen Sanger's Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree, an American woman's memoir of her month in a Mexican prison where she was unjustly held as leverage in a land dispute. Sanger made use of this Kafka-esque experience to record the stories of her fellow prisoners, many of them victims of a corrupt legal system. Her poetic writing captures the lush beauty of Mexico and the dignity of its people.
Honorable Mentions in Nonfiction went to Jordan Cosmo's Mind Your Head, a funny and poignant memoir about coming of age as a butch lesbian in a repressive Christian missionary family; and Mary C. Koral's The Year the Trees Didn't Die, the story of her three internationally adopted children (from Vietnam, India, and South Korea) and their struggles to cope with early trauma and racism.
In Mainstream/Literary Fiction, Winfred Cook won First Prize for Uncle Otto, an atmospheric and moving historical novel about an African-American family in the World War I and Prohibition era. The title character is based on his real-life uncle, rumored to have been a bootlegger during the Roaring 20s. With well-realized characters and dramatic twists, this saga illuminates a crucial period of American social change, from a perspective that is under-represented in standard history books.
Honorable Mentions in Mainstream/Literary Fiction went to Jeff Ingber for Béla's Letters, a spiritually rich novel about the Holocaust in Hungary, based on his parents' life stories; and Lee Wicks for Some Measure of Happiness, an intimate tale of friendship and bereavement in a small Vermont town.
L.S. Johnson won First Prize in Genre Fiction for Vacui Magia, a collection of strange and lyrical horror stories about women, reminiscent of the dark fantasy writing of Angela Carter and Tanith Lee. Her achingly real characters—ranging from a cafeteria worker on the verge of a breakdown, to an 18th-century prostitute enraged that Rousseau stole her life story—are driven by oppression to invoke dangerous forces. Honorable Mentions went to April Kelly's Winged, a magical-realist novel about a mother who risks everything for her daughter's dreams of flying; and Return of the Convict by William Alan Thomas, a space-adventure update of Dickens's Great Expectations.
This year's books were enjoyable, educational, and inventive. We thank you once again for entrusting us with your work. In our third contest, open now, we'd love to see even more books by and about people of color, especially in contemporary settings; young adult novels outside the paranormal/fantasy genre; LGBTQI characters in all genres; romance novels that understand consent and feminism; and "own voices" literature about disability and neurodiversity. We look forward to discovering our next favorite authors!
We would like to recognize and encourage these finalists:
- Michael Pronko, Motions and Moments
- Bette Lee Crosby, Passing Through Perfect
- Stephen Davenport, No Ivory Tower
- Annie Dawid, And Darkness Was Under His Feet
Ellen LaFleche is a judge of our North Street Book Prize. She has worked as a journalist and women's health educator in Western Massachusetts. Her manuscript, Workers' Rites, won the Philbrick Poetry Award from the Providence Athenaeum and was published as a chapbook in 2011. Another chapbook, Ovarian, was published in 2011 by the Dallas Poets Community Press, and a third chapbook, Beatrice, about a semi-cloistered nun, was published in 2012 by Tiger's Eye Press. Her poems have been published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Hunger Mountain, New Millennium Writings, The Ledge, Alligator Juniper, Many Mountains Moving, Harpur Palate, Southeast Review, and Naugatuck River Review, among many others. Prose credits include her 2014 Daily Hampshire Gazette article "Taken too soon, at 65: My husband John Clobridge's final days with ALS" and the essay "Happily Ever After" about dealing with diabetes through fairy tale poetry, which appeared in Wordgathering, the online journal of disability poetics. She also reviews books for Wordgathering. She has won the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the New Millennium Poetry Prize (shared with Jim Glenn Thatcher), the DASH Poetry Journal Prize, the Poets on Parnassus Prize for poetry about the medical experience, second prize in The Ledge Poetry Awards, and the Editor's Choice Award for Poetry from Writecorner Press.
Jendi Reiter is vice president of Winning Writers, editor of The Best Free Literary Contests, and oversees the Winning Writers literary contests. She is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), the poetry collections Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) and A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), and the award-winning poetry chapbooks Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) and Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). In 2010 she received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists' Grant for Poetry. Awards include the 2016 New Letters Prize for Fiction, the 2016 Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction, the 2015 Wag's Revue Poetry Prize, the 2013 Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize, the 2012 Betsy Colquitt Award for Poetry from Descant magazine, the 2011 James Knudsen Editor's Prize in Fiction from Bayou Magazine, the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize, and second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, Mudfish, Passages North, Cutthroat, Best American Poetry 1990, and many other publications.
Annie Keithline assists with the judging of the North Street Book Prize. She specializes in odd jobs, having been an elevator operator, ghost tour guide, video store clerk, and pawnbroker. Starting in 2012 she spent twenty months walking 4,500 miles across the United States. Her writing has been published in Joseph Conrad Today, the official publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America. Current projects include The Anchor and the Hourglass, a historical horror romance graphic novel set in her home state of Rhode Island.
Lauren Singer is an assistant judge of the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest, and the North Street Book Prize. She is a native New Yorker living in Western Massachusetts. Her poetry has been published in Nerve House, Bareback, Feel the Word, Read This, Kosmosis, One Night Stanzas, and other literary magazines across the country. In 2015 she received her MSW at the University of Chicago, is a graduate of Bard College at Simon's Rock and an attendee of the New York State Summer Writer's Institute. She has self-published three chapbooks, and received an honorable mention in the 2011 Wergle Flomp contest. In addition to her creative interests, Lauren works as a mental health clinician and therapist in Holyoke, MA. Lauren prides herself on her wealth of useless knowledge, namely of nineties R&B lyrics, and she can pretty much quote "The X-Files".