Minnesota Book Awards

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Writers are often romanticized, from the inspired poet scribbling an ode to the harried novelist composing an opus. The reality of writing, however, is something else entirely. Most of the time, writers compose manuscripts in solitude, with no guarantee that anyone will ever read the end result. Often, writers believe that publication represents the end of this anonymity. Once a book is published, it’s out in the world, destined to be read by adoring masses. Considering the sheer number of books published annually, writers may need to rise above to get their books into a reader’s hands. Enter the Minnesota Book Awards, an annual contest sponsored by The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. This year’s nomination process opened in September and remains open until December 14, 2007.

According to Ann Nelson, coordinator for the Minnesota Book Awards, “The Minnesota Book Awards is a statewide outreach program which receives nominations annually of more than 300 books by Minnesota authors and culminates in a spring gala with 650-700 people gathering to celebrate the best Minnesota books.” Judges honor books in eight categories: Novel & Short Story, Genre Fiction, Memoir & Creative Nonfiction, General Nonfiction, Poetry, Minnesota, Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature. Truly, the Minnesota Book Awards is a year long celebration of Minnesota reading, with over 30 outreach programs and events that serve to broaden a reader’s knowledge of the wealth of books created by our state’s writers and artists.

In order to be eligible for a Minnesota Book Award, there are several guidelines that the book must fulfill. Most importantly, it must be created by a Minnesota citizen. Interestingly, the awards allow for non-Minnesota residents to apply for a book award, as long as they reside adjacent to a Minnesota city and participate in a primarily Minnesotan literary community. Additionally, the writer must submit a one page explanation of how he or she meets the non-resident guidelines. The book also must have been published in the calendar year of the award and cannot be an anthology or previously published work. For the complete eligibility guidelines and applications, visit the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library website at http://www.thefriends.org/mnbookawards.html.

The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library is a new sponsor of the awards, having taken over the administrative duties last year. As the organization assumed responsibility, it immediately worked to expand the scope of the awards, adding three new awards in the past two years: the Reader’s Choice Awards, which allows interested readers to vote for their favorite Minnesota-made book at Twincities.com; the Kay Sexton Award, which celebrates an individual or organization’s contribution to fostering reading in Minnesota; and a new award offered in conjunction with Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, which honors an individual’s excellence in book arts. Since so many different awards are offered annually, the Book Awards are an opportunity to commemorate many different authors and writers, from struggling new authors to established literary figures.

Winning a Minnesota Book Award marks a turning point for most writers. For Sheila O’Connor, author of Where No Gods Came, winner of the 2004 Novel& Short Story award, the award meant inclusion into a select cadre of writers. She writes, “The Minnesota Book Award was a tremendous honor, especially given the wealth of literary talent in Minnesota as well as the quality of the other excellent novels that were also finalists in my category.” Other writers echoed her sentiment, as their work was validated by the quality of their fellow nominees and the prestige of the award.

A Minnesota Book Award also improves an author’s odds for publishing current and future projects. For last year’s Novel & Short Story Winner, Maureen Millea Smith, winning a book award, “validated the decision of my agent, Jonathan Lyons, in representing When Charlotte Comes Home and the decision of the publishing house, Alyson Books, in publishing it. The Minnesota Book Award will help my agent sell my next novel…. It gives Charlotte a better set of legs and my next novel a leg up.” Four time winner and Uptown resident Alison McGhee agrees, “I do think winning one for my first novel made it easier to place my second novel. The awards generate lots of interest in Minnesota, especially among book clubs, and it’s a great award to be able to claim in terms of reputation.” McGhee has won awards in multiple categories, from Young Adult Fiction for last year’s All Rivers Flow to the Sea to Novel & Short Story for 2001’s Shadow Baby. The award’s effect on the book’s sales is dramatic. According to Ann Nelson, “Some of the winning books from last year have gone into second or third printings, largely attributed to the attention brought to the book by the Book Awards.”

The Minnesota Book Awards is an important part of our state’s flourishing literary community. A Minnesota Book Award represents many things, a celebration of the act of creation, inclusion into an esteemed group of writers, and an improved chance of finding an audience. Perhaps, as Millea Smith recognizes, it also represents a reprieve from the anonymity of writing. “Writing is an alone business for me, but it is not a lonely business. It is also a business with more than a healthy amount of rejection. It is not mean, just a bit cold. There are many, many Februarys in a writer’s life. The Minnesota Book Awards is summer without humidity or mosquitoes.” For writers and readers, that alone is a Minnesota miracle.