The passing of Toni
Morrison in August 2019 at the age of 88 opened a floodgate of tributes from
around the world. The native of Lorain, Ohio, had climbed heights no other
American writer of the past half-century had achieved, winning every major
award from the Pulitzer Prize to the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in
1993, the Nobel Prize for Literature.
This month marks a
milestone in Morrison’s life and career. It was 50 years ago, in November 1970,
when her first novel, The Bluest Eye,
was published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. At the time, Morrison was
working as a textbook editor for L.W. Singer. Because she was a relatively
unknown writer, the initial print run in hardcover was only 2,000 copies. But
it brought her acclaim, which would continue to grow with her second novel, Sula (for which Morrison won her first
literary prize – the Ohioana Book Award in fiction), and her third, Song of Solomon, which solidified her
position as one of America’s greatest writers.
With controversial themes that include incest and rape, The Bluest Eye has often been challenged as high school reading material and has appeared several times among the list of titles most frequently banned. But in the 50 years since its publication, it has become a classic.
For those not familiar with the novel, Chiquita Mullins-Lee, herself an award-winning poet and playwright, as well as the Arts Learning Coordinator for the Ohio Arts Council, offers this summary:
“The Bluest Eye presents a treatise on
slavery’s legacy of self-loathing and self-rejection. Toni Morrison channels
the generational trauma of a little black girl who internalizes societal norms
that devalue her looks, culture, and very existence. In Pecola Breedlove’s world,
Black value and Black beauty are non-entities. From a deeply broken spirit,
Pecola identifies the prize: blues eyes promise entry into a place that
privileges white skin and tolerates the physical features of a “high yellow
dream child.” In possession of neither blue eyes nor light skin, Pecola
languishes in a world that fails to affirm her. That same destruction of the
spirit is revealed in the pathology of her father, Cholly Breedlove, who
exemplifies one who has received and transmitted a lethal legacy that fractured
families. Ironically, the acquisition of blue eyes could be only a superficial,
as well as impossible, fix. Toni Morrison assigns Black folks the
responsibility to cherish our children, love ourselves, and heal our spirits
In 1988, the year Morrison
won the Pulitzer Prize for her most acclaimed novel, Beloved, and also received the Ohioana Career Medal, she did an
interview with Thames Television on the subject “Why I Wrote The Bluest Eye,” which you can watch on YouTube:
One of the fascinating aspects of Morrison’s writing was her meticulous care and attention to detail. In an article for The Paris Review, she wrote:
We began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
Ohioana board member Dionne Custer Edwards, who is also a poet and Director of Learning and Public Practice at the Wexner Center for the Arts, spoke on the impact Morrison’s words had on her:
“As a mother of three, I too often think about
rituals of making inside of the demands of work and life. About how to shape
lines, images, narratives, and texture—especially in these days—in the
midst of a societal crisis, or two or three. I think about pursuing language in
an enduring moment where living is a pattern of abundant isolation from breath,
sound, movement, people. I think about life as it once was and grieve it with
dignity and a few fresh notes of comfort when I am reminded by the sky that I
am still breathing even as I consider the enduring length of suffering. I think
about time. About how I have often captured the practice of writing in the
draft along the wood floors between deep quiet in the house and the folds of
I remember meeting Toni Morrison while I was an undergraduate student at Ohio State University. I will never forget how she stayed with a small group of us after her public talk. How she advised, encouraged, held us in a moment of wisdom, comfort, and candor. How she shared ideas about writing and how to make use of hours and space. Back then, I was an English major trying to figure out what to do with my words. So grateful to have lived during a time when Toni Morrison wrote about the complexities of Black lives as real and imagined experiences in literature. ”
The complexities of Black lives as real and imagined experiences in literature that began 50 years ago with The Bluest Eye.
With special thanks to Chiquita Mullins Lee
and Dionne Custer Edwards.
It’s July 10, and today we celebrate the 115th birthday of one of Ohio’s greatest writers – Mildred Wirt Benson. Her name might not be as familiar to you as some noted Ohio authors, but you’ve certainly heard of her pen name and the beloved fictional character she created – Nancy Drew.
Yes, indeed, “Millie” was the first “Carolyn Keene” – the pseudonym given to all the many writers of the enduringly popular mystery series built around the mythical teen sleuth. And most importantly about Millie – she infused Nancy with many of her own personality traits, talents, and interests. You could almost say that Millie was the REAL Nancy Drew.
She was born Mildred Augustine on this day in 1905 in the small town of Ladora, Iowa. A tomboy from the time she was a child, she excelled at sports. She developed a lifelong love of adventure and travel and was a talented musician.
But writing was her passion. “I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk,” she said. “I had no other thought except that I wanted to write.” She began writing stories in grade school; she won her first writing award when she was 14.
At the State University of Iowa, she became the first person in the school’s history to earn a master’s degree in journalism. While there she met and fell in love with Asa Wirt, who worked for the Associated Press. They married in 1928 and settled first in Cleveland, moving later to Toledo. Millie would remain an Ohioan for the rest of her life. Her only child, daughter Peggy, was born in 1937.
In 1927, Millie was hired by Edward Stratemyer as a ghostwriter for his syndicate, which produced popular books for teens, including the enormously successful Hardy Boys series. Ghostwriters worked for a flat fee and did not share in royalties of the books they wrote, which were published under pseudonyms created by the syndicate. They had to sign a confidentiality agreement to not reveal their true identities as authors.
After having Millie write several novels for the Ruth Fielding series (under the pen name Alice B. Emerson), Stratmeyer gave Millie a new assignment: to create an original series about a girl sleuth named Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer provided her with titles and plot outlines for three books. But it was left to Millie to flesh out the character.
And flesh her out she did, creating a character that was smart, self-confident, fearless, and fun-loving. As Millie would say years later, she was trying to make Nancy Drew “a departure from the stereotyped heroine commonly encountered in series books of the day.” Edward Stratemeyer was concerned that Nancy “was too flip,” but when the three books – The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery – were published in April 1930, they were an immediate sensation. Young readers couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew and “Carolyn Keene.”
Millie would go on to pen 23 of the first 30 Drew novels. And those were just a small part of a huge output that ultimately totaled more than 130 books produced for young readers between 1927 and 1959, both under pseudonyms and her real name. Other than Nancy Drew, Millie’s most popular character (and her own personal favorite) was Penny Parker, the heroine of a series that appeared under her own name, as Mildred A. Wirt.
As an Ohio author, Millie’s books under her own name had begun to be collected by the Ohioana Library almost from the time we were founded in October 1929. In 1957, Millie provided us with a completed biographical form that we could add to our collection.
Interestingly, Millie noted that among her writings were “mystery books published under various pen names.” Remember, as a ghostwriter for Stratemeyer, Millie could not disclose her authorship of the Nancy Drew series, or any of the other books she wrote for them.
That changed in 1980, when a lawsuit was filed over publishing rights to the Stratemeyer syndicate titles. The question of authorship of books came up, and Millie was called to testify. For the first time, 50 years after the first novels had been published, Mildred Wirt Benson was revealed as the original Carolyn Keene, the creator of Nancy Drew.
By that time, Millie had long ceased writing novels for young readers, concentrating instead on a career as a journalist that had begun in the mid-1940s, first for the Toledo Times and then for the Toledo Blade. Millie’s first husband, Asa Wirt, had passed away in 1947. Three years later, she married a second time, to George Benson, editor of the Blade. He died in 1959.
Together, Millie and George traveled a great deal. She particularly loved visiting the Mayan ruins in Central America. Once, while in Guatemala, she was briefly kidnapped. It was like a real-life Nancy Drew adventure! Readers of Millie’s column, On the Go, loved sharing vicariously in her exploits.
Millie loved to fly, earning her pilot’s license in 1964 at age 59. In 1986, she applied to NASA to become the first journalist-in-space. She was 81 at the time.
In 1989, the Ohioana Library honored Millie with a citation “for distinguished service to Ohio in the field of children’s literature.” Informed of the award, Millie said, “So many years have elapsed since I actively wrote children’s books that I doubt I deserve the honor.”
Unable to attend the award ceremony in Columbus because of an injury, Millie was presented her award in Toledo by Ohioana board member Ann Bowers, who fondly remembers Millie’s youthful outlook and optimism.
There would be many other honors in the following years, as more and more people heralded Millie’s achievements, especially in creating Nancy Drew.
Even as she entered her 90s and began suffering from failing health, Millie kept writing. On May 28, 2002, Millie was at her desk at the Blade when she fell ill. She was taken to Toledo Hospital,
where she died that evening. She was 96 years old. News of her death made headlines around the world.
By the time of her death, more than 70 years after the first novels had appeared, notable women in every field had cited Nancy Drew as a role model and inspiration. So much so, that it surprised even Millie, who in an interview the year before she died said, “I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I’m glad that I had that much influence on people.”
Dozens of writers followed Millie as “Carolyn Keene,” keeping the Nancy Drew series thriving for decades. And it expanded way beyond the books – films, television shows, games, coloring books, puzzles, and more. As Nancy Drew celebrates her 90th anniversary this year, one would have to say that, except perhaps for Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster’s Superman, no character created by a writer from Ohio has become such a pop culture phenomenon as Nancy Drew.
And now fans past, present, and future have a new place where they can celebrate Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson: the Jennifer Fisher/Nancy Drew Collection at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. Fisher, a Drew scholar, is writing a biography of Mildred Wirt Benson. She also hosts the unofficial Nancy Drew sleuth website, a must for Drew fans worldwide. The exhibit at the library will feature several thousand items from Fisher’s personal collection.
So on this 115th anniversary of her birth, Ohioana salutes Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, the first Carolyn Keene and the creator of Nancy Drew. And on behalf of your millions of fans over the last 90 years . . . thank you, Millie! Further reading:
“Curating a Nancy Drew Collection,” guest blog by Jennifer Fisher, https://www.toledolibrary.org/blog/curating-a-nancy-drew-collection
Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University/Swallow Press, https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Missing+Millie+Benson And visit Jennifer Fisher’s Nancy Drew website: http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. The Stonewall Uprising, which began on June 28, 1969, was a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. In the United States the last Sunday in June was initially celebrated as “Gay Pride Day,” but the actual day was flexible. In major cities across the nation the “day” soon grew to encompass a month-long series of events. Today, celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia and concerts, and LGBTQ+ Pride Month events attract millions of participants around the world. Memorials are held during this month for those members of the community who have been lost to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the commemorative month is to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and members of the extended community who identify under the LGBTQ+ spectrum, have had on history locally, nationally, and internationally.
For this Pride Month, Ohioana would like to share a chronological list of books from among our state’s most noted LGBTQ+ voices, past and present.
White Buildings – 1926, Hart Crane (Garrettsville)
This first book of poems by hart Crane, one of his three major collections, was originally published in 1926. The themes in White Buildings are abstract and metaphysical, but Crane’s associations and images spring from the American scene. Crane associated his sexuality with his vocation as a poet. Raised in the Christian Science tradition of his mother, he never ceased to view himself as a social pariah. Though he was only semi-public with his homosexuality, as necessitated by the mores of the time, Crane was clear with his intentions in poems like “The Broken Tower,” and “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.” Crane tragically took his own life at the very young age of 32, leaving behind a legacy of poetry that is sadly underappreciated today. Though he is not well known now, Crane was admired in the early 20th Century by many poets and playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, whose play Steps Must Be Gentle was based on Crane’s relationship with his mother.
A Boy’s Own Story – 1982, Edmund White (Cincinnati)
A Boy’s Own Story is the first of a trilogy of novels, describing a boy’s coming of age and documenting a young man’s experience of homosexuality in the 1950s in Cincinnati, Chicago and Michigan. The trilogy continued with The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), which brought the setting up to the 1990s. These semi-autobiographical novels were a deeply personal journey for Cincinnati’s Edmund White, written, in part, because of his own reading journey as a child. White has said, “As a young teenager I looked desperately for things to read that might excuse me or assure me I wasn’t the only one, that might confirm an identity I was unhappily piecing together.” He decided that, since he could not find any books to read about people like himself, he would create them on his own. Considered an icon in the world of LGBTQ+ literature, White has gone on to write over 50 novels, plays, and essays over his career, most of them featuring same-sex themes, and has won multiple awards, including the 2019 National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dream Work – 1986, Mary Oliver (Cleveland)
Mary Oliver was born and raised in Maple Hills Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She would retreat from a difficult home to the nearby woods, where she would build huts of sticks and grass and write poems. Oliver’s nature-focused poetry won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, 2 Ohioana Book Awards, and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Reviewing Dream Work for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.” Though notoriously secret about her private life, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with her partner, Molly Malone Cook, for more than 40 years.
Thomas the Rhymer – 1990, Ellen Kushner (Shaker Heights)
Award-winning author and radio personality Ellen Kushner’s inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, this World Fantasy Award-winner is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift. A graduate of Barnard College, Ellen Kushner also attended Bryn Mawr College, and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She began her career in publishing as a fiction editor in New York City, but left to write her first novel Swordspoint, which has become a cult classic, hailed as the progenitor of the “mannerpunk” (or “Fantasy of Manners”) school of urban fantasy. Swordspoint was followed by Thomas the Rhymer, and two more novels in her “Riverside” series, including The Fall of The Kings (2002), written with her wife Delia Sherman. Kushner has been praised as a vanguard of positive depictions of bisexual characters and relationships in fantasy fiction.
The Prize Winner ofDefiance, Ohio – 2005, Terry Ryan (Defiance)
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio introduces Evelyn Ryan, an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the “contest era” of the 1950s and 1960s. Stepping back into a time when fledgling advertising agencies were active partners with consumers, and everyday people saw possibility in every coupon, Terry Ryan tells how her mother kept the family afloat by writing jingles and contest entries. Ryan’s signature wit and verve made this story so popular it was turned into a successful film. With artist Sylvia Mollick, Ryan was also the co-creator of the long-running cartoon T. O. Sylvester in the San Francisco Chronicle. She was married to her long-time partner, Pat Holt, by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom on St Valentine’s Day 2004. Her account of her wedding, titled We Do!, was published by Chronicle Books. Sadly Ryan was diagnosed with cancer not long after her big success, and passed away on May 16, 2007.
Bright Felon – 2009 Kazim Ali (Oberlin)
Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. In 2003 Ali co-founded Nightboat Books and served as the press’s publisher until 2007. He has received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and his poetry has been featured in Best American Poetry. In this follow up to his Ohioana Book Award winner Sky Ward, which won the 2015 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry, Ali details the struggle of coming of age between cultures, overcoming personal and family strictures to talk about private affairs and secrets long held. The text is comprised of sentences that alternate in time, ranging from discursive essay to memoir to prose poetry. Art, history, politics, geography, love, sexuality, writing, and religion, and the role silence plays in each, are its interwoven themes. Bright Felon is literally “autobiography” because the text itself becomes a form of writing the life, revealing secrets, and then, amid the shards and fragments of experience, dealing with the aftermath of such revelations.
The Last Nude – 2012, Ellis Avery (Columbus)
The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery was the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) received Lambda, Golden Crown, and Ohioana Book awards, and her work was translated into six languages. She taught fiction writing at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. Ellis was raised in Columbus, where she discovered a love of theater, anthropology, and religion that she interwove into her works of fiction. Avery was also considered to be at the forefront of a queer historical fiction movement in which the historical setting is, among other things, an allegory for the queer child awakening to her identity in a household that cannot recognize or name her existence. In her later work, through her struggles with cancer and reactive arthritis, Avery became interested in medical narratives by both those afflicted with illness and medical professionals, and in 2018 led a narrative medicine storytelling and writing workshop at Harvard Medical School. Ellis Avery passed away on February 15, 2019, at the age of 46.
The Last Place You Look – 2017, Kristen Lepionka (Columbus)
Kristen Lepionka is the author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. Her debut, The Last Place You Look, won the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. novel and was also nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards. This novel is a throwback, of sorts, to hard-boiled PI detectives of old, only Roxane Weary is a very modern character. A deeply troubled, but also deeply empathetic (often to her own detriment), person, Roxane juggles her grief over her father’s death alongside her alcoholism, her juggling of her relationships with men and women, and her mentorship of a young queer teen as she navigates life as a PI in Columbus. With each installment Roxane grows as a character and Lepionka’s incredible writing talent shines. Lepionka is also the co-host of the podcast “Unlikeable Female Characters,” featuring feminist thriller writers in conversation about “female characters who don’t give a damn if you like them.”
How We Fight for Our Lives – 2019, Saeed Jones (Columbus)
Saeed Jones is a relatively recent transplant to Columbus, but not a new name in the world of poetry. Jones has been a winner of the Pushcart Prize, the Joyce Osterwell Award for Poetry from the PEN Literary Awards, and the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Award for Literature, and a nominee for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. In 2019 he published his first memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, an unflinching story of his coming-of-age as a young, gay, Black man in the South. Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves. The book earned Jones the Lambda, the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction in 2019, and the Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography, in 2020.
The Gravity of Us – 2020, Phil Stamper (Dayton)
Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel, The Gravity of Us, is the story of two teens, Cal and Leon, who are brought together when their parents are both selected for a new NASA mission to Mars. Stamper balances the boys’ burgeoning relationship against a backdrop that brings the space race into the 21st century. In a 2020 interview, Stamper, who was raised just outside of Dayton, says, “I’ve always felt that we need all sorts of queer stories and experiences out there. I built this book in a world where homophobia is just not acknowledged, and I wanted this story to be a safe space for queer teens who always feel like they have to keep their guards up when reading a book.”
If you are looking for more on the history of Pride Month itself, you may also enjoy Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, the story of Ohioans Jim Obergefell and John Arthur and their fight for marriage equality, written by Obergefell and Debbie Cenziper. Today is the fifth anniversary of the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Readers may also enjoy LGBT Columbus, LGBT Cincinnati, and LGBT Cleveland, written by 2020 Ohioana Book Festival author Ken Schneck, and published by Arcadia, and How to Survive a Summer, the acclaimed debut novel by Columbus author Nick White, as well as the works of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Ruth Awad, Berenice Abbott, and P. Craig Russell.
Of course, this list is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many, many more LGBTQ+ authors, and their voices have too often been marginalized. We hope that perhaps this brief summary will encourage you to explore other gifted LGBTQ+ writers, not just from Ohio, but everywhere.
Ohioana is very happy, this Pride Month, to have had the privilege of interviewing one of our current Ohioana Book Award finalists, Alex DiFrancesco. Alex is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which is a Fiction finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy of the Arts. They run the interview column “We Call Upon the Author to Explain“ at Flypaper Lit, and are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
Alex is the first trans and non-binary award finalist in Ohioana’s history. We asked them to answer some questions about All City, the writing process, and telling queer stories in 2020.
Ohioana: All City is about people and art and a lot of other things, but it’s also about systems that allow people like Evann to flourish and people like Jesse and Makayla to struggle. It feels so relevant, especially now. How did you approach the writing of those oppressive systems?
Alex DiFrancesco: There’s never been a time in my professional career when I didn’t write about the political. I believe, as a minority writer, that it’s just not possible to see the world without looking at these systems of injustice; I find it difficult to tell stories without them, even when I’m writing absurdism, or something “light.” We’re all entangled in the political as the personal every day, with every move we make. As a writer who writes character deeply, I don’t see how I could tell the stories of the people who I wish to tell stories of without doing this.
Ohioana: Your characters are, simply stated, so HUMAN. They feel like real people. How much of yourself do you put into characters like Jesse and Makayla, and even Evann?
AD: A whole lot. Makayla, though she’s demographically the person most unlike me who narrates All City, has more of me as an emotional core than any other character in the book. I think, especially when we’re writing those outside our purview, it’s important to have these true north feelings that coincide with us and our characters. Jesse, though they’re the most like me on the surface, and have many of my own memories from my time as an activist, is very different than I am, a lot harder than I am, a lot more a fighter and survivor. Evann, who’s nothing like me, still has a lot of my cultural touchstones, approached in a wildly different way than I would. For example, I also adore Jean-Micheal Basquiat’s art, though I’m not a person who will ever own a Basquiat.
Ohioana: Reading this story is actually both hopeful and frightening. How do you create a balance between the banding together of the survivors with some of the very realistic, traumatic experiences people like Makayla and Jesse endure? What do you think the disparate reactions of the characters to the shared experience of the storm says about human nature?
AD: I think that there’s a baseline in life that some people experience trauma, and say “I’ll never let this happen to anyone else,” and some experience it and think, “I made it through, so should everyone have to.” A lot of the characters in this novel take the former approach, using trauma to create survival and community. But it’s well within human nature to take the latter approach, too.
Ohioana: Can you tell us a little about what your daily writing process is like (if you have one)? Are you an outliner or a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants”-er?
AD: I write every morning when I wake up, with coffee and cigarettes. I try to write, at minimum, 500 words a day. If I make it through that, I’m good. Often I go longer. I am very much an outliner. I actually use old-school grade-school brainstorming techniques — maps, thought webs, family trees, outlines, visual mapping of the story, character sketches — to get my feet under me. I often hang these things up in my office, returning to them as I write.
Ohioana: You reference music a lot in your books. Do you have any particular music you use to get into a writing mood?
AD: I quite obsessively listen to the Lounge Lizards experimental jazz album The Queen of All Ears when I write. I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the despair in the world lately, and though I often listen to sad music, I’ve been trying to counteract it with hopeful music, and have had Nina Simone on rotation a lot lately. It’s hard for me to write to music with a lot of words, because I become too caught up in the lyrics. Jazz, classical, and experimental music are mainstays for writing for me.
Ohioana: So we definitely have to ask you an Ohio question! You’re an Ohio transplant. Was it a culture shock to come here after living in other, bigger places? Has that been a big adjustment? Have you found Ohio and especially Cleveland to be a good community for writers?
AD: I lived in Geneva, Ohio for a year before coming to Cleveland, and that was a huge culture shock. Cleveland is actually the city of my dreams. Its industrial blight reminds me of my hometown, a former coal mining town in Appalachia, but the community here is so vibrant, so different than where I’m from, that I fell very hard in love with this city immediately. As far as arts go, I have the most talented, diverse, committed, and brilliant group of writer friends here, The Barnhouse Collective and the Sad Kids Superhero Collective, who I’m so proud to work with and support, who support me right back. I’ve had a lot of opportunity here as a writer, and Cleveland’s got this great underdog vibe of, “We’ve heard the jokes, we know what you think of Cleveland, but we’re here doing amazing things, and will be doing so when you figure it out and catch up to them.” I adore it here.
Ohioana: You write across several genres including novel-length fiction, short stories, and essays. Is there a genre you enjoy the most? Do you find it difficult to switch between them, or to change from your writer to your editor “hat” when you’re writing for Flypaper Lit, Sundress, or any of the other publications you have worked for?
AD: I switch around a lot not only in the categories or writing, but in the subgenres in them a whole lot because I’m a very restless person who isn’t satisfied unless I’m pushing and challenging myself with something new. I think good writing is good editing, and they’re really two sides of the same coin when you get down to it, so that’s not a hard switch for me either.
Ohioana: You have also written Psychopomps, which is so deeply personal about your identity and your life. Do you feel it is getting easier to tell queer and trans stories? Do you have any advice for writers who might be struggling with their identity but afraid to fully tell those queer stories?
AD: I think the moment for trans narratives has definitely arrived. When I transitioned, there were very few presses willing to take on trans writing. That’s not the case now. My advice is, if one person thinks it’s good, there will be more out there who do, too, so do your research and don’t settle for less than the place that will support and champion your work relentlessly. I’ve been very lucky with my Seven Stories Press family in that regard — they’re a mid-sized press who’s published work by Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky — and they show me every bit of care and respect they show all their other authors. Every trans writer deserves that, and shouldn’t settle for less.
Ohioana: You are the first trans and non-binary Ohioana Book Award finalist (that we know of; we are not sure if there were folks in the past who may not have been out), and it is also Pride Month. Can you tell us what Pride means to you?
AD: Pride means being aware of history. Forefronting the struggles of BIPOC queer mama-papas and trancestors who have always been at the forefront of the struggle, who have always had the most to lose and fought the hardest. It’s not about parades and glitter and dance parties and wilding out. If Pride is just a time for you to celebrate and get laid and not to revere those who got us to where we are today, those who fought tooth and nail for every one of our rights, then you’re missing the point.
Ohioana: Can you tell us anything about your next writing project?
AD: I’d be delighted to. I’m working on a linked story collection that takes place in SoHo, Manhattan, in the year 2000. It revolves around a group of fine dining servers at a failing restaurant in the neighborhood David Bowie lived in then, who are dreaming of interacting with all of his stage personas in various genres. I like to think of it as Kitchen Confidential meets Cloud Atlas meets the career of David Bowie.
First given in 1942, the awards are the second-oldest state literary prizes in the nation and honor outstanding works by Ohio authors and illustrators in five categories: Fiction, Poetry, Juvenile Literature, Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature, and Nonfiction. This year’s winners will be announced in July, and the 2020 Ohioana Book Awards will be presented at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Thursday, October 15. Follow our social media for more information, including our “30 Books, 30 Days” celebration of the finalists.
Check back tomorrow for book suggestions from more Ohio LGBTQ+ authors!
Earlier this spring, we announced postponement of the 2020 Ohioana Book Festival from April 25 to August 29, in the hopes that the COVID-19 crisis would be in the process of passing and it would be safe to meet in large groups once again.
Unfortunately, as we’re sure you are all aware, this has proven to be an unprecedented, and lingering, health crisis. We have made the difficult decision at this time that the 2020 Ohioana Book Festival will not be presented as a live event. We are confident it is the correct direction to go, for the safety of everyone – authors, attendees, volunteers, and staff.
While we’re disappointed that we won’t be able to see you in person, we ARE excited and happy to tell you the Ohioana Book Festival WILL go on – as a virtual event.
The Ohioana staff has been working from home since March, during which we’ve been building up our virtual programs via Zoom, Facebook Live, etc. We’ve been happy with the wonderful response from both authors and attendees to these programs.
We’re working out details, but we can tell you our virtual festival will involve a variety of formats, including panel discussions on Zoom and other programs spread across all of our social media platforms. We feel it will be to our advantage not to hold it all on one day, so we plan to start on Friday, August 28 until Sunday August 30. We are also looking into the possibility of recording some things in advance to share before the official event as outreach, as we do every year. The Columbus Metropolitan Library will also still be involved in helping us to host and promote all of the virtual events.
At this time, we are exploring a lot of exciting ideas as to what a virtual festival will look like for us. As stated above, we are not entirely sure what format everything will fall into, but we anticipate author readings and some interviews in addition to panel discussions. We also do plan to have books for sale, as always.
Obviously this change is not our ideal. However, we are optimistic given the success of our newest virtual events as well as a number of book fairs and festivals that have already taken place online, that we can have a fun and dynamic virtual event to celebrate the literature and authors of Ohio in 2020.
Thank you all for your patience and understanding in this process. We hope that you are all safe and well, and look forward to seeing you – online – during the weekend of August 28-30! Please follow our social media accounts and check our website for more information soon.
The Ohioana Library is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2020 Ohioana Book Awards. First given in 1942, the awards are the second-oldest state literary prizes in the nation and honor outstanding works by Ohio authors and illustrators in five categories: Fiction, Poetry, Juvenile Literature, Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature, and Nonfiction. The sixth category, About Ohio or an Ohioan, may also include books by non-Ohio authors.
Among the literary honors this year’s finalists have previously received are the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Coretta Scott King Book Award, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Edgar Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. One author is a finalist for her debut book. Five are past Ohioana Book Award winners, and two received Ohioana’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant early in their writing careers.
Beginning June 15, Ohioana will profile all the finalists with the return of “30 Books, 30 Days,” a special feature on our social media in which one finalist is highlighted each day.
Later in June, Ohioana will launch its fifth Readers’ Choice Award poll, allowing the public to vote online for their favorite book from the finalists.
Winners will be announced in July, and the 2020 Ohioana Book Awards will be presented at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Thursday, October 15. The finalists are:
DiFrancesco, Alex. All City, Seven Stories Press.
Hurley, Kameron. The Light Brigade, Gallery/Saga Press.
Montgomery, Jess. The Widows, Minotaur Books.
Scibona, Salvatore. The Volunteer, Penguin Press.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Red at the Bone, Riverhead Books.
Abdurraqib, Hanif. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, University of Texas Press.
Brinkley, Douglas. American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, Harper.
Kaufman, Kenn. Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Salamon, Julie. An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer, Little, Brown and Company.
Vanasco, Jeannie. Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, Tin House Books.
About Ohio or an Ohioan
Abbott, Karen. The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America, Broadway Books.
Brouwer, Sigmund. Moon Mission, Kids Can Press.
Grunenwald, Jill. Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian, Skyhorse Publishing.
McCullough, David. The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, Simon & Schuster.
Ruffner, Howard. Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience of Kent State 1970, Kent State University Press.
Abdurraqib, Hanif. A Fortune for Your Disaster, Tin House Books.
Atkins, Russell. World’d Too Much: The Selected Poetry of Russell Atkins, edited by Kevin Prufer and Robert E. McDonough, Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
Selcer, Anne Lesley. Sun Cycle, Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
Townsend, Ann. Dear Delinquent, Sarabande Books.
Weigl, Bruce. On the Shores of Welcome Home, BOA Editions.
Guidroz, Rukhsanna. Illus. by Dinara Mirtalipova. Leila in Saffron, Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Hoefler, Kate. Illus. by Sarah Jacoby. Rabbit and the Motorbike, Chronicle Books.
Houts, Michelle. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. Sea Glass Summer, Candlewick.
Mora, Oge. Saturday, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Salas, Laura Purdie. Illus. by Angela Matteson. In the Middle of the Night: Poems from a Wide-Awake House, Wordsong.
Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature
Daigneau, Jean. Code Cracking for Kids: Secret Communication Throughout History, with 21 Codes and Ciphers, Chicago Review Press.
Davis, Ronni. When the Stars Lead to You, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
McGinnis, Mindy. Heroine, Katherine Tegen Books.
Takei, George, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, Illus. by Harmony Becker. They Called Us Enemy, Top Shelf Productions.
Warga, Jasmine. Other Words for Home, Balzer + Bray.
Last week saw the release of the final episode in Hulu’s 8-part Little Fires Everywhere miniseries, based on the 2018 Ohioana Award winning novel by Celeste Ng. As big fans of Ng and all things Ohio literature related, the staff at Ohioana were very excited for the show. Ng’s novel, originally released in 2017, takes place in the late 1990s and is set in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights. Upon release, the book became an instant bestseller and was featured on many “best of 2017” end-of-year booklists. The miniseries has now garnered praise and popularity, as illustrated by the concurrent rise of the novel to the become the #1 title on the New York Times fiction best seller list from the weeks of April 12-April 25. Upon watching Hulu’s adaption, it’s not hard to see what people are loving about it – from new viewers to established fans of Ng’s novel.
One of Little Fires Everywhere’s first fans was actor Reese Witherspoon, known for her extensive filmography in movies such as Legally Blond and Gone Girl, and more recently for her starring role in the television adaptation of Big Little Lies. Witherspoon is also an avid reader and hosts a book club online – picking a book each month for fans to read along with her. Little Fires Everywhere was Witherspoon’s pick for September 2017 and on her website she gave it a rave review, saying: “This story of two families in Ohio moved me to tears. Celeste Ng writes with stunning accuracy about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love and the danger of perfection – and the fire that destroys it all. To say I love this book is an understatement!”
Witherspoon discovered Little Fires Everywhere and began plans for a limited series adaptation before the book’s official publication. It was only a few short months after picking the book for her book club that it was announced on March 2, 2018 that the miniseries was officially in production, with Witherspoon starring. Witherspoon, co-star Kerry Washington, Lauren Neustadter, and Pilar Stone were announced as executive producers of the show, with Liz Tegelaar as writer and showrunner. Celeste Ng was also brought on as a producer and consultant for the show. Joshua Jackson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jade Pettyjohn, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Gavin Lewis and Jordan Elsass were then cast to also star in the series.
The miniseries consists of 8 episodes and makes good use of every minute of that time, giving careful attention to each detail of the story and building a narrative that is emotionally investing and tense. Fans of the book will be happy to find that the miniseries is quite true to the plot and pacing of the novel, with a few key differences. For those who are not familiar with the premise: the story begins when Mia (Washington), an artist and single mother, and her daughter Pearl (Underwood) move to Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment from a well-to-do family called the Richardsons – Elena (Witherspoon) and Bill (Jackson) with children Lexie (Pettyjohn), Trip (Elsass), Moody (Lewis), and Izzy (Stott) – who live in the wealthiest part of Shaker Heights. Eventually the members of each family become inextricably tangled in the lives of each other and that of Bebe Chow (Huang Lu), a poor immigrant mother who is trying to win back custody of her daughter who is being adopted by a family friend of Elena’s. The story explores topics of inequality, motherhood, sexuality, immigration, friendship and family relationships.
Little Fires Everywhere presents a familiar setting – and not just to those of us who are intimately acquainted with Shaker Heights and Ohio. The setting of 1990s suburban Ohio might be enjoyably recognizable to those of us Ohioana who watch it (though the series was actually filmed in California) but the scenarios that take place and the superb acting that bring the characters and story to life are what really give the series its shine. One of the most notable aspects of Ng’s novel was the ensemble-cast style form of storytelling – each character was given sufficient time in the limelight, their story examined and empathized with, their flaws brought into realistic and sometimes uncomfortable clarity.
The miniseries captures this feeling of character study excellently. Witherspoon and Washington are particularly captivating in their leading roles, often acting as opposing forces against each other. Witherspoon as Elena Richardson is fantastic as the upper-class mother of four, shiny and perfect – until she is forced to confront the things she doesn’t want to think about. Kerry Washington plays the creative, headstrong and fiercely loving Mia Warren convincingly – and shows the darker aspects of the character just as authentically.
As mentioned, a few differences do exist in the book versus the miniseries, a choice that can often risk alienating fans of the source material. However, the changes in Little Fires Everywhere truly seem to enhance the themes of the story and were done with Ng’s input and consultation. The first big change is that Mia and Pearl Warren are black, whereas in the book their race was never specified. Ng, who is Asian American, had initially wanted to write Mia and Pearl as people of color, but didn’t feel it was her place to tell that story (Atlantic). Though issues of race are explored in the novel, adding in this detail about the Warrens adds a new aspect that further complicates the relationship between the Warren and Richardson families.
The second change that fans of the novel will notice is that the ending of the miniseries diverges significantly. An interesting aspect of this change is that it seems to better set up the series for a continuation of the story. Though the novel has no sequel, and at this time there are no official plans for a second season, the miniseries has gained significant enthusiasm and popularity that indicates that viewers would like to see more. Regardless, the Little Fires Everywhere miniseries proves itself as a beautiful adaptation of Ng’s work that both acts as a companion to the novel and stands alone very well.
Have you watched Little Fires Everywhere? If you’ve read the book, how do you think the miniseries compares? Would you like to see the story continue in a second season? We would love to hear your thoughts! Please share with us in the comments of this blog post or write to us on our social media platforms.
Thank you for joining us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and here on the blog today as we took a look back at some of our favorite memories from past Ohioana Book Festivals. We hope you’ve enjoyed it – we certainly did!
Below is a collection of links to everything we have shared today. We’re looking forward to seeing you on August 29th for the 2020 Ohioana Book Festival!
Our debut festival in 2007 was built around ten authors and a single book. Within two years, the number of authors and books had grown to almost 50! Here’s a fun look at the early days of the festival, when it was still being held at the State Library of Ohio, in a 2009 segment taped for WOSU Public Media‘s popular series, ArtZine. #FestivalFlashbackhttps://vimeo.com/10598448
Children’s authors and illustrators have always been popular at the Ohioana Book Festival. Cartoonist Steve Harpster has appeared a number of times at the festival, and will again this August. Steve does a daily 2 p.m. feature called “Draw with Me” on his own Facebook page, Harptoons Publishing – check it out! Here is Steve at his first Ohioana festival, talking with Doug Dangler. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqKOpGH8n7c
Thirteen years of the Ohioana Book Festival wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of our funders: Presenting Sponsor Ohio Humanities, Greater Columbus Arts Council, Ohio Arts Council, the Reinberger Foundation, Honda of America Marysville, OH, the Tom E. Dailey Foundation Inc., State Library of Ohio, Ariel Corporation, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers. Thanks also to our festival host Columbus Metropolitan Library, media sponsors The Columbus Dispatch and CD102.5, and our official bookseller, The Book Loft of German Village. Our thanks to all of them for hanging in there with us through this unprecedented crisis!
It’s spring! Along with the season comes fresh flowers, warm sunshine and, historically, the Ohioana Book Festival. Right now in Ohio, we are following a stay at home order to keep our communities safe. As such, the Ohioana Book Festival, which was originally scheduled for April 25th, has been postponed until Saturday, August 29th. That doesn’t mean the fun has to be put entirely on hold, though! We thought today was the perfect opportunity for us to share some of our favorite memories from past Ohioana Book Festivals – we’re calling it a Festival Flashback!
We also figured there was no better time to share the templates for a few crafts from Ohioana Book Festival’s past. Spending time at home is a great chance to get creative and use things you can find around your household to make these fun, literature themed creations. These crafts were all featured at Ohioana Book Festival’s in past years – each one incorporates themes from books by Ohioana Book Festival authors from that year.
As we’re working from the kitchen, doing schoolwork from the couch, and in general doing our part to stay inside and keep ourselves and others safe, we can still stay busy and have fun. Reading is a favorite pastime of Ohioana’s, of course, and so are these crafts! We hope you enjoy.
Images and tutorials for the crafts are below. If you or your family tries out any of these creations, we’d love to see what you’ve made! Share your pictures with us on Facebook and Twitter @Ohioana.
When the American Library Association picked “Find Your Place at the Library” as its theme for this year’s April 16-25 celebration of National Library Week, little did anyone know at the time that we’d be in the middle of an unprecedented world health crisis that would force most libraries to close temporarily. The Ohioana Library being one of them.
Libraries may not have their physical spaces open to the public, so that we can help keep everyone safe and healthy. But they are continuing to creatively serve their communities by providing virtual services and digital content online. If anything, this crisis has shown that libraries are more vitally needed – and more appreciated – than ever before.
And so recently the ALA decided to flip its original text to create a second theme for National Library Week 2020: “Find the Library at Your Place.”
Since 1958, National Library Week has been set aside to celebrate the contributions of our nation’s libraries and librarians and to promote library use and support. All types of libraries – school, public, academic, and special – participate.
The Ohioana Library is a special library – of course EVERY library is special! But we are special in the sense that we have a very specific purpose and focus: to collect, preserve, and celebrate Ohio literature and other creative endeavors.
To fulfill our mission, Ohioana works with just about every kind of other type of library there is, especially on our largest program, the Ohioana Book Festival. Librarians from the Ohio Educational Library Media Association (OELMA) help put together our teen programming at the event. Several OELMA members help arrange visits to their schools by festival authors. A number of public library systems throughout Ohio partner with us on the festival, including Cleveland, Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Toledo and Lucas County, and right here in Central Ohio the libraries of Bexley, Pickerington, and Upper Arlington. And of course the festival itself takes place at Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Library.
These, and libraries throughout the state, sponsor their own programs and events that make literature come alive. The days when a library was only a place where your borrowed a book or other physical item are long gone. Today’s library is a vibrant part of the community it serves. Today’s libraries offer everything from helping adults learn computer skills to teens getting homework help to story time for toddlers and book clubs for senior citizens.
The adaptability of the modern library has never been more evident than in the COVID-19 crisis. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, ZOOM – all are tools that libraries like Ohioana are using. Just this past weekend, Ohioana held its first-ever virtual book club. It was a great success, and we have had many people already asking when we’ll be doing one again!
National Library Week 2020 wraps up this Saturday. But there’s still plenty of time to join in the celebration, and many ways to celebrate. Just check out these ideas on the American Library Association’s website: http://www.ala.org/conferencesevents/celebrationweeks/natlibraryweek