At the end of February, I was overjoyed to announce that Torch had been named a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. All five finalists — Samira Ahmed, Sabaa Tahir, Andrew Joseph White, Kip Wilson, and me — were invited to an award ceremony on Friday, April 21 at Bovard Auditorium on the campus of the University of Southern California and included on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book over the weekend.
I was simply happy to be there, at a ceremony known as the “Oscars for the Books,” and especially happy that my friend Kip would join me as a finalist for her powerful verse novel The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin. I was honored to be in the company of the other outstanding books — Hollow Fires, All My Rage, and Hell Followed With Us. Because winners would not know in advance, all the finalists had to write an acceptance speech, and those who could not attend had to record an acceptance speech for possible broadcast during the ceremony. Thinking I didn’t have a chance, I procrastinated on my speech, as well as on choosing an outfit. (In the end, the outfit choice became what would fit in my carry-on, and it turned out to be something in the now-fashionable camel shade.) Nonetheless, I had a speech ready to go, in the unlikely event.
When the judges stood to announce the YA Literature winner, I was thrilled to see my book in the company of the other four. I relished the nice things the judges had to say about all our books. I glanced at Kip to my left and Samira to my right. With Samira was her sister Sara, and with Kip, her friend, YA author Sherri L. Smith, whose historical novels exploring portraying aviators of color I loved and reviewed — though I missed not being able to meet Sabaa and A.J. My friend Walter was ready with the iPhone camera. The judges opened the folder with the name of the winner and read out, “Torch…” I couldn’t believe my ears. I reached for the speech I never thought I’d give.
I began by connecting myself — a particularly directionless high school misfit — with my character of Tomáš, as I’d wondered in those days if life would have been easier if I’d lived in a society that had mapped out my future based on my academic achievements. I then thanked everyone who helped me get to this place — my agent, editor, and publisher; the three members of the prize jury; the Los Angeles Times (where I mentioned that my daughter is trying to persuade me to move to Los Angeles, texting, “LA loves you!”); the other finalists with their amazing books; and finally, the organizations and individuals fighting for freedom of expression and against book bans, something my characters in 1969 Czechoslovakia didn’t have. I pointed out that we still have the opportunity to stop bans, because these organizations and institutions do not yet face systematic persecution and arrest. Their sacrifice is not yet fatal, as it was for my character Pavol and for the real-life activists Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc. But, I said, we need to stop this censorship now, here, before we end up there, with no freedom and no power to change the conditions of our lives.
Torch is larger than one book. Yes, it’s a political thriller but it’s also a warning when so many people are embracing the certainties of authoritarianism. Authoritarian rule is tempting. I was tempted in high school to live in a world of no choices as long as the life offered me was a comfortable and fulfilling one. But these kinds of societies provide comfort and fulfillment (as long as people don’t challenge their rulers) on the backs of disfavored groups and individuals targeted simply because of who they are. They are also places where privilege can turn to persecution from one moment to the next. I’m glad this award will help Torch get into libraries around the country, and make people think about the meaning and value of democracy, and why people trapped behind the Iron Curtain risked everything to get it.
The next day, Kip, bestselling YA author Dana Schwartz, and I spoke on a panel moderated by Book Prize juror Renée Roberson-Tecco at the LA Times Festival of the Book. The topic was “Young Adult Historical Fiction: Struggles in Foreign Lands,” and I later attended another panel moderated by Carolrhoda author Emily Barth Isler on “Middle Grade Fiction: Courageous Kids Protecting the Planet.” The same question about the role of parents came up at both panels, and I promise to address it in my next blog post.