January might be a dull, gray month in most ways, but last weekend four Nashville writers—or, rather, three Nashville writers and one American hero with a historic Nashville connection—recently acquired something sparkly to brighten things up.
During a ceremony at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, the Nashville Public Television team that produces A Word on Words, including author co-hosts J.T. Ellison and Mary Laura Philpott, won a regional Emmy for best original programming in the interstitial category. And over in Atlanta at the American Library Association’s award gala, novelist Jeff Zentner won the William C. Morris Award for a book by a first-time author writing for teens, and Congressman John Lewis was called to the dais four times for the final installment of his graphic memoir trilogy, March. According to The New York Times, these awards are “widely regarded as the most prestigious children’s book prizes in the United States.”
Lewis’s awards are shared with his co-author, Andrew Aydin, and the book’s illustrator, Nate Powell. Their winnings include the Corretta Scott King Book Award, which recognizes an African-American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults; the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults; the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children; and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Each prize was decided by a separate committee, the Times reported, and members of each committee did not communicate with members of the others during the judging process. It was simply a clean sweep.
This is the first time in the history of the American Library Association that a single title has won four major awards, but awards are far from unprecedented for this book: In November, March won the National Book Award for young people’s literature, and Lewis—who launched his career as a civil-rights activist in Nashville during his college years—won the Nashville Public Library Literary Award. The celebrated title is also this year’s Nashville Reads selection.
The Serpent King by Nashville novelist Jeff Zentner was also honored for exemplary writing for young people. The Morris Award, according to the ALA, celebrates “impressive new voices in young adult literature”—a perfect match for a book that had five publishing houses bidding on it at auction, racked up a raft of starred reviews, and inspired The New York Times to call it “ambitious” and “sui generis.”
“The Morris Award is incredibly meaningful to me for several reasons,” Zentner wrote in an email to Chapter 16. “Two of my best friends, whose books are some of my favorites, have won the Morris. Also, I read many of the 2016 debuts and there are so many incredible books and authors there. Finally, while in Atlanta to receive the award, I heard many stories about Bill Morris, and what an incredible person he was. All these things make the Morris Award one of the greatest honors of my life.”
Meanwhile, back in Nashville, the team that produces Nashville Public Television’s author-interview program, A Word on Words, was picking up a regional Emmy from the National Academy for Television Arts & Sciences—and for its very first season, too. The show is produced by Linda Wei, shot by Will Pedigo, and edited by Matthew Emigh; the executive producer is Beth Curley. It was conceived as a companion to the long-running program hosted by the late journalist John Seigenthaler and a tribute to his enduring influence on the local literary community.
“To continue John Seigenthaler’s legacy promoting great literature is an incredible honor, and to have the work we do on this show acknowledged by our peers truly leaves me speechless,” wrote co-host J.T. Ellison in an email to Chapter 16. “I’m thrilled to be a part of this show, to share the masthead with Mary Laura, and to have a hand in something fresh and exciting that gets people reading again.”
Both hosts credit the show’s production team for the show’s success: “Linda, Beth, Matt, Will, and the whole extended team at NPT care so much about producing good television—and I mean ‘good’ as in entertaining but also as in ‘doing good for the world,'” said Mary Laura Philott. “I’d follow them into any project they dreamed up. It’s so gratifying that this kind of support exists for a little show dedicated to books and the people who make them. The world really needs literature and the arts right now.”
[Click here to read Chapter 16‘s review of March Book Three and here to read our interview with John Lewis. Click here to read Chapter 16‘s review of Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. Click here to read more about A Word on Words, here to read an interview with Mary Laura Philpott, and here to read an essay by J.T. Ellison.]
Margaret Renkl is the editor of Chapter 16. Her work has appeared in both literary and mainstream magazines, including Black Warrior Review, Good Housekeeping, Guernica, The New York Times, Shenandoah, and The Southern Review, among others. She lives in Nashville.