Fiction Book Award
by Julie Stielstra
I have been very impressed with the exceptionally high quality of the work represented by this year’s authors across such different genres as crime fiction, historical fiction, and young adult fiction. This has made the job of judging this year’s winner quite a task but also a genuine pleasure. As the novels represented so many different genres, my approach was to evaluate each work according to the conventions of those genres as well as execution of craft and finally, readability. Based on these criteria, I am pleased to select Opulence Kansas by Julie Stielstra as my choice for the J. Donald & Bertha Coffin Memorial Award for Fiction.
Stielstra’s 15-year-old protagonist Kate, reeling from the suicide of her father and the subsequent investigation into his shady financial dealings, leaves her high-rise Chicago condo for rural Kansas, to stay with her father’s estranged older brother and his wife. This relocation seems to be the respite Kate needs from the chaos back in Chicago and she settles in well, observing her new surrounds through the lens of her burgeoning talent for photography. As her relationship with her newfound family blossoms and she becomes more deeply embedded in the small-town community, she begins to appreciate a slower pace and living close to the land. Katie also meets Travis, a young man with a troubled past, who seems initially stagnate and destined to see life pass him by; however, Kate and Travis, with the help of her family and the local community, begin to heal their personal traumas and find redemption from the sins of their fathers.
Stielstra writes with humor and compassion, and her characters are subtle and layered. The tone of the work manages to be uplifting but never sentimental or saccharine. The prose is witty and energetic, and the world she creates is beautifully observed. In Stielstra’s capable hands, rural Kansas itself takes on a vivid character of its own.
2022 J. Donald & Bertha Coffin Memorial
Fiction Book Co-Judge
Heather Varnadore was born and raised in Atlanta but currently lives in the Flint Hills of Kansas with her family. She received her M.A. in English from Kansas State University in 2008 and her M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2012. She has previously taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and currently teaches at Kansas State University. She is the recipient of the Seaton Fellowship for Creative Writing, the Umass MFA Fellowship for Poets and Writers, the Cara Parravani Memorial Award in Fiction, the Delaney Fellowship for Fiction and multiple teaching awards. She is currently finishing work on a novel.
Due to the number and heft of this year’s fiction entries, I divided them between two co-judges. Judge Varnadore and Judge Strnad both identified contenders for the award from the books they read. Tie-breaker judge Linda Knupp made the final decision. After 20 years of service, Knupp retired a year ago as director of the Manhattan Public Library and the North Central Kansas Library System. She remains active with the state-wide Friends of Kansas Libraries (FOKL) and urges all of you to join your local library’s Friends group as well as groups like the Kansas Authors Club. Judge Knupp was impressed with the clear narrative structure of Opulence Kansas, which takes the main character through a summer of changes and revelations after the tragic death of her father. “Thoughtful and resilient characters deal with a number of challenges during this time without losing their compassion for others, hope for the future, and their appreciation for the small rural community of Opulence.” According to Judge Knupp, author Julie Stielstra “certainly has a future in the wide field of YA literature.”