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11th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards

Reading, Discussing & Celebrating Books Published in 2010

The Must-Read Books for 2011 were announced on April 28, 2011, at the Massachusetts Library Association Annual Conference. The award winners in each of the categories were celebrated at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, in October 2011.

Fiction  |   Nonfiction  |   Poetry  |   Children's/Young Adult  | MassBook Judges |

Fiction Award

Gish Jen, World and TownIn World and Town, Gish Jen explores the diversity of our New England, following characters we feel we live among as they immerse themselves in community rituals in which we, too, actively participate. Throughout her engaging and thought-provoking narrative, Jen weaves a rich tapestry of resilience against challenges that range from the personal to the geo-political and invites us to consider what continues and also what changes as new generations of travelers interrogate, even as they seek, a place to call home.

Must Read Fiction

36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Random House), by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is thought-provoking, possibly even challenging, but it's darn funny, too. The author tears away every rough-edged argument on religion, cuts through the hoopla and posturing, and zeroes in on the basic human struggle: to live and to love. Simply.  

A remarkable novel about the real-life Fox Sisters, 19th century girls who claimed they could communicate with the dead, Captivity (Unbridled Books), by Deborah Noyes, so successfully evokes the period and setting that readers will find themselves fully immersed in this elegant work of historical fiction.

Patrick and Angie are back in Moonlight Mile (William Morrow), Dennis Lehane’s fast-paced follow-up to Gone Baby Gone. The writing is smart, fresh and funny. Without sentimentality but with plenty of heart,
Lehane captures the roughness and vulnerability of hard-knock lives.
  From the very first page and straight on until the last, the clear and distinctive voice of Randy Susan Meyers’s The Murderer’s Daughters (St. Martin’s)will have you enraptured and wanting more--even though self-preservation may curl you into a ball to shield yourself from the painful circumstances of the two sisters. This is a heart-breaking and powerful novel.

Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress (Amy Einhorn/Putnam) transports the reader to a 1940s Cape Cod village and to a time when handwritten letters held power. The postmistress has a letter which she may (or may not) deliver. Across the ocean, during the London bombings, another letter is carried by a female reporter. How these women are connected and what they experience are beautifully told.


A tale of two women coming to terms with their lives on neighboring farms in the Midwest in the early 1900s, The Quickening (Other Press) by Michelle Hoover skillfully explores the complicated relationships between the women and between the women and the land, and helps us understand what is essential.

In a small town in the Mississippi Delta, a middle aged history teacher wrestles with his marriage, with his children leaving home, and with secrets from his childhood, including a death in his town on the night James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss in 1962. In Safe from the Neighbors (Knopf), Steve Yarbrough evokes the voice of struggles internal and external in an honest and skillful story.


Impeccably researched, but also wonderfully re-imagined, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (Norton) , by Jerome Charyn, takes an entertaining look at what might have been, or could have been, and allows readers to see behind the lace curtain of one of America's most-celebrated authors. Sure, liberties may have been taken, but the result is plausible and satisfying.

The sudden death of his young wife sends Arthur Rook on a journey to discover why a 16-year-old postcard went unmailed and who it was intended to reach. From Hollywood to rural New York, quirky characters and their relationships are beautifully explored in This Must Be the Place (Holt), Kate Racculia’s accomplished first novel.

  Julia Glass is a master at portraying the deeply moving and complicated relationships between family and friends. Here she continually confounds expectations and keeps reaching for more. Characters are laid bare without pretense in a voice that commands the page. It is an emotional and intellectual thrill to read The Widower's Tale (Pantheon).

For Martha Carrier the Massachusetts landscape brings neither beauty nor comfort, but it provides the perfect backdrop for Kathleen Kent’s exquisite novel. The Wolves of Andover (Reagan Arthur/Hachette) combines rich historical detail with suspense, romance, and superb storytelling.


Gish Jen’s World and Town (Knopf) is an elegant interweaving of words, characters, and places to form a rich and detailed tapestry of strong but broken people in a small contemporary New England town.


Nonfiction Award

First Family, Joseph J. EllisIn Joseph J. Ellis’s First Family (Knopf), a historical and romantic narrative of the life of Abigail and John Adams, Abigail embodies dedication to motherhood, marriage and the role of a woman who chose to stand behind her husband and his commitment to the founding of the American nation. The Adams relationship is one of kindred spirits who share a strong-willed belief in the importance of intellectualism, family and passion in the face of life's challenges. Ellis’s engaging account gives dimension to these historical figures and offers insight into the exceptional strength and vitality of a relationship between two members of a truly founding family.

Must Read Nonfiction

What if America’s founding fathers weren’t altruistic but, instead, profit-driven? Defiance of the Patriots (Yale UP), by Benjamin Carp, poses this question and others, examining relevant issues for both the English and the Colonists in the lead-up to the Boston Tea Party and onset of the Revolutionary War.   In Joseph Ellis’s First Family (Knopf), an historical and romantic narrative of a marriage and a family, Abigail Adams is not only the mother who raises John Adam’s children, but also the wife who longs for her husband and the woman who truly supports from afar this brilliant man who is devoted to the founding of the American nation.
Bruce Watson’s Freedom Summer (Viking/Penguin) is a fresh and powerful look at the summer of 1964, when civil rights workers flooded the South to help African Americans exercise their right to suffrage. This book gives us a rich and comprehensive story, as told by those volunteers who lived though this most harrowing and critical time in race relations in our country.   In The Great Penguin Rescue (Free Press), author Dyan deNapoli chronicles the amazing story of 75,000 dedicated volunteers who not only rescue 19,000 oiled penguins but who also save 20,000 more from sharing a similar fate after a tragic oil spill off the coast of Africa.”
Technology: does it help us or does it “destroy civilization”? This is the question at the center of Hamlet’s Blackberry (Harper) by William Powers, an engaging examination of the way that advances from the Gutenberg press to present-day computers have benefited us and created resistances in those who become convinced that life as they know it is over.   Throughout the joys, the trials and, ultimately, the grief of parenthood, this poignant memoir by Marianne Leone, originally published as Knowing Jesse and reprinted as Jesse: A Mother’s Story (Simon and Schuster), describes the challenges faced in a family raising an honor-roll student trapped by Cerebral Palsy in a quadriplegic body.
In Mornings with Mailer (Perennial), Dwayne Raymond communicates a very intimate and loving view of a much-read author, inviting us to share in some tender moments at the end of the life of a man of great genius and intellect who made Provincetown his home, the maddeningly arrogant, obstinate and, too, admirable Norman Mailer.   Follow the creation of the Rebecca, a two-masted schooner and the largest boat to be built on Martha’s Vineyard in decades. In text by Tom Dunlop and photos by Alison Shaw, Schooner (Vineyard Stories) introduces us to a small
Massachusetts shipyard which builds boats in the traditional way.
Stuff (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, is a truthful and fascinating account of the
mental illness that affects “hoarders,” those unfortunate souls who lose their health, their families, their marriages and their lives to an obsession with collecting and storing things, no matter what the cost to quality of life
  Sebastian Junger’s War (Twelve) is a powerful first-hand account of modern warfare that looks at the nature of war in overview and in particular, detailing the physical conditions of conflict and their effect on the soldiers, and paying special attention to the emotional bonds formed between soldiers and throughout a unit.

An epic narrative of the Great Migration, the journey of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to U.S. cities in the North and West in the early half of the twentieth century, The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House), by Isabel Wilkerson, presents three distinct stories interwoven with clear and compelling contextual background.

  Wounded Knee (Basic Books), by Heather Cox Richardson, is a unique look at the massacre of nearly 300 Sioux, who were killed while surrendering to the United States Army in 1890, assessing the politics of the event and positing a perfect storm of party politics, public paranoia and election-year posturing with tragic results.


Poetry Award

Daniel Tobin, Belated HeavensThe poems of Belated Heavens invite the reader to traverse both the physical and spiritual realms. Daniel Tobin’s deft and elegant poems explore and celebrate life as a journey. Throughout, he pays close attention to "the conveyances of getting there" and revels, as do his readers, in the sights and sounds along the way. 

Must Read Poetry

Daniel Tobin’s deft and elegant poems explore and celebrate life as a journey, paying close attention to "the conveyances of getting there" and reveling in the sights and sounds along the way.  The poems of Belated Heavens (Four Way) invite the reader to traverse both the physical and spiritual realms.   In East of the Moon (Ibbetson Street), Ruth Kramer-Baden has written poems that let wonder ripen into wisdom.  Her empathy is rooted in the understanding that life is always a desperate improvisation.  These poems resonate on a personal, historic, and mythic level.

In Ghosts and Whispers (Finishing Line), Krikor Der Hohannesian recounts the personal stories of his Armenian relatives, some of whom survived and some of whom were killed in the Armenian massacres of the early 20th century.  These are poems that make art out of tragedy.


God, Seed ( Tebot Bach) is lyrical, intense, and concerned with issues of Earth's survival.  It has a fierce yet loving attitude toward the natural world and human nature. Most of Rebecca Foust’s poems are matched with paintings by colorful artist Lorna Stevens. Also recommended: Foust’s All that Gorgeous Pitiless Song (Many Mountains Moving, 2010).

“Had Slaves”: Catherine Sasanov stumbles across these words in the family papers of her Missouri ancestors, and in this volume reconstructs fragments of what might have been the lives of the eleven men, women, and children held in bondage by her great-great-great-grandfather and his family. Had Slaves (Firewheel) is a powerful view of American slavery and its ongoing legacy.   In the long, spacious lines of Heaven & Earth Holding Company (Pittsburgh), John Hodgen entertains the reader with his witty storytelling.  His free-wheeling exuberant cadences disarm and charm the reader, and then deliver their meaning with
subtle force.
A poet who can make magic out of the hall closet is worth listening to.  Geraldine Zetzel’s mature work in Mapping the Sands (Mayapple) offers an expansion of the spirit, a patent playful imagination that reaches through strictures of propriety and convention to the bedrock of connection.  The book allows life to emerge "as if lit from within."     Bernard Horn's poetry in Our Daily Words (Old Seventy Creek) holds the beating heart of everyday's apparently random trivialities.  In beautiful language he juxtaposes surprising things that don't go together — except in real life.  His poems are organically musical and lift daily experience to spiritual and intellectual intensity.

Melissa Shook’s the Real Story (Finishing Line) shines a Klieg light into the dusty corners of real life in this accessible, unsentimental collection that will strike chords of recognition for readers.


With tremendous economy and control, Amy Clark delivers a bracing and honest collection about family, love, self-awareness, and vulnerability that at times "quivers with bedrock faith”: Stray Home (UNT Press).

In Triage (Cervena Barva), Tam Lin Neville casts her clear, compassionate eye upon the city and its often down-and-out inhabitants in need of triage from hopelessness, idleness, and fear.  Precise, vivid poems reveal a willingness to to be a part of rather than apart.  

In Unincorporated Persons from the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf), Tony Hoagland's keen eye, sense of play, and piercing intellect animate every poem. This is a collection that defies, challenges, and invigorates. With his quirky "muchness,"  Hoagland wrestles with his times in tragicomic fashion.


Children's/Young Adult Award

the Other Side of Dark, Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith's The Other Side of Dark is an engrossing tale that follows two Boston teens coming to terms with the legacies of race and power which built the literal foundations of our modern society. Part ghost story, part romance, part historical mystery, this expertly crafted book both absorbs and challenges us to look at familiar surroundings from a new perspective.

Must Read Children's/Young Adult Literature

Young Audiences    
Big Night for Salamanders (Boyds Mills), by Sarah M. Lamstein (Carol Bernoff, illus) beautifully illuminates the first night a child’s neighborhood salamanders return to their native pool, chronicling the actions a family takes during that night to protect the animals on their perilous journey.   Follow City Dog and Country Frog through the seasons as they form a friendship based on curiosity and sharing. City Dog, Country Frog (Hyperion) by Mo Willems (Jon J. Muth, illustrator) is a poignant story, beautiful and whimsical, about change and moving forward.
Join twins Ling and Ting on their daily adventures in this light-hearted storybook. Charming illustrations and lively action clearly depict the twins’ exuberant and sweet relationship in Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin (Little Brown)  

Here is an inspiring biography that will keep readers, especially emerging Red Sox fans, on the edge of their seats. In No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams Last .400 Season (Dutton Children’s) by Fred Bowen (Charles S. Pyle, illus) compelling text and stimulating illustrations enhance wonderfully this true story’s timeless appeal.

Middle Readers    
When the Nazis take over Paris in March 1940, eleven-year-old Gustave and his parents move to a safer place and prepare to emigrate to America. As life becomes more repressive and dangerous for Jews, Gustave becomes his father’s accomplice in their plot to escape. Their drama is palpable as time runs out. Black Radishes (Delacorte), by Susan Lynn Meyer, is a taut historical novel that makes for riveting reading.   Her mother and baby brother die in the winter of 1849, and twelve-year-old Addie is left alone in the shipbuilding town of Essex, Massachusetts. Fearful that she will be taken in as a servant, this resourceful and spunky, pre-adolescent escapes into the snowy woods where she meets an elderly Wampanoag woman and discovers some astonishing truths about her family. Daughter of Winter (Candlewick), by Pat Lowery Collins, is sure to please.
When he and his family move in with his grandfather, life becomes more complicated for Owen Jester and and downright hilarious for the reader. As with her earlier The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, Barbara O’Connor has given us in The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester (Farrar Straus Giroux) pure comfort food for the literary soul.   In16 one-page chapters, Anita Silvey presents a comprehensive biography of an entertaining, intelligent, Massachusetts historical figure. Embellished by the lush paintings of Wendell Minor, Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot (Clarion) will appeal to teachers as well as students. Research-report ready: source notes and a Henry Knox chronology are included.
Young Adults    
Mitali Perkins has done it again, returning to the Must-Read list with Bamboo People (Charlesbridge), which introduces readers to two boys, caught by circumstances beyond their control, who end up on opposite sides of the brutal civil war in Burma. This is a thoughtful exploration of the life of young soldiers and a powerful indictment of the current reality for those engulfed in the world’s longest war.   Pancho is an all-American teen stuck with a really rotten deal — both his parents are dead and even though it was ruled an accident he KNOWS someone killed his sister. He finds a new friend, but the friend has cancer and is about to die, too. Surrounded by all this death, Pancho has to figure out what it means to really LIVE. Heartfelt and totally engaging, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (Scholastic), by Francisco X Stork, a returning Must-Read author, hits no false notes.
The Other Side of Dark (Simon and Schuster), by Sarah Smith, set in Boston, is an engrossing tale that follows two teens coming to terms with the legacies of race and power which built the literal foundations of our modern society. Part ghost story, part romance, part historical mystery, this expertly crafted book both absorbs and challenges us to look at familiar surroundings from a new perspective.   In a parallel universe very similar to our own, Cassel is the outsider in a family of curse workers — people who can control others just by touching them. In this world curse work is illegal and usually associated with organized crime. White Cat (Simon and Schuster), by Holly Black, will keep you guessing. This fast-paced book is a captivating blend of magic, crime, romance, and coming-of-age that is sure to grab you.


MassBook Judges for the 11th Annual Awards

Anne Berard, Milford Town Library
Charlotte Canelli, Morrill Memorial Library, Norwood
Clayton Cheever, Boston Public Library
Carter Hasegawa, Porter Square Books
Nina Hunt, Bellingham Public Library
Stephanie Legg, Kingston Public Library
Frank Miller, Brockton Poetry Series
Theresa Parise, Boston Public Library
Marina Salenikas, Stevens Memorial Library, North Andover
Owen Smith Shuman, Groton Public Library
Beth Roll Smith, West Bridgewater Public Library
Jason Wargo, Worcester Public Library