It’s hard to sit on good news, and even harder when it’s very good news — like a book from a relatively unknown author with a smaller publisher becomes a finalist for a major literary award. But 11 days ago, I got an email from the events coordinator of the Los Angeles Times informing me that Torch was selected as a Finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature!
As you can see, I’m in excellent company. One of the other finalists, Kip Wilson, author of finalist The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, wrote this blurb endorsing Torch, an excerpt from which adorns the back cover:
“Torch immerses readers in the lives of a group of teenagers in Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Rather than live without freedom, one of them decides to protest the regime’s oppression by setting himself on fire — and as a consequence, the dreams of his best friends go up in flames, too. I was immediately hooked and couldn’t put this down. Incredibly relevant for today’s teens, especially with the current surge of authoritarianism around the globe.”
Kip and I are old friends, and I’m thrilled that we’ll be sitting next to each other at the awards ceremony. The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin — her one historical novel in verse not based on the life of a known historical figure — served as a mentor text as I revised my verse novel Eyes Open, which is set in Portugal under the Salazar regime and will be published next spring. Although I’ve never met Samira Ahmed, author of Hollow Fires, in person, but her 2019 novel Internment was the subject of an analytical essay I wrote that’s now being read as part of the scholarly canon for that book.
Regular readers of this blog may be aware of Torch‘s long and difficult journey to publication — less the book itself and more my own struggles after my earlier publishing career ran aground. Between 2015 and 2022, I had zero books of my own come out (though I did translate six picture books and one middle grade novel that were published in those years). “Maybe she stopped writing her own books,” my fans of Gringolandia or Rogue might have said, but that wasn’t the case. I wrote book after book after book, and proposals for other books in between. None of them found a publisher. Then my longtime agent retired, and it looked like my career as an author was over for good. I had lost even my most tenuous hold on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder.
This happened right after I finished Torch, which was the most difficult and ambitious book I’d written. I’d left my comfort zone way behind, thrown my map and compass away, and GPS didn’t work out here. All I had was the encouragement of my retiring agent, who called Torch the best thing I’d ever written, and a couple of authors who kindly read parts of the manuscript, including old friend Cynthia Levinson and Hamline MFAC faculty member Elana K. Arnold, who convinced me that “smart readers” needed my book.
I began the agent search all over again, and fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to find a smart agent, fellow VCFA grad Jacqui Lipton, who not only appreciated Torch but had specific ideas to fix a persistent pacing problem in the last third of the book. Her ideas worked, and I gained confidence as a writer when I was able to drop 10,000 words (and one day) from that part of the book while maintaining — and even enhancing — the emotional beats. It also didn’t take long for us, with the input of Vicki Selvaggio at Storm Literary Agency, to find the perfect editor to appreciate this book — Amy Fitzgerald at Lerner trade division Carolrhoda, an imprint known for producing books for smart, curious, and adventurous readers. In addition to Amy, I’m grateful to cover designer Kim Morales and the marketing team, including Lindsay Matvick and Megan Ciskowski for their work in getting the book into the hands of readers.
Above all, I’d like to thank the LA Times, the prize jury, and all the readers who have appreciated Torch and its resonance in the present. I hope that this recognition helps more people find this book — and bring me out to speak about it, either virtually or in person. I feel that this is a moment when so many people are making choices of whether to maintain democratic self-rule or follow strongmen and one-party systems that brook no opposition. Torch shows what life was like in one of those places, what can happen if you get comfortable where all choices are made for you…but then find out you don’t want to be where you’ve ended up.
Update: Torch ended up winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature.