Meet the Judges of the 2022 BookLife Fiction Prize!
Each judge is tasked with selecting a finalist from among five titles.
For this year’s BookLife Prize in Fiction, meet our judges: Melissa Hart, Melissa Marr, Maggie Toussaint, Lyn Liao Butler, and Pippa Grant. The judges have made their selections for the top five books, announced here. We spoke to the judges about their work, their genres, and what they’re looking for in a finalist.
Melissa Hart - Middle Grade/YA
Author, public speaker, and journalist, Melissa Hart reflects on the power of Middle Grade and YA books to inspire and transform young readers.
What makes the Middle Grade/YA market the best soil for planting seeds of change?
I love middle graders. I coached an Oregon Battle of the Books team for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at my daughter’s school, and so I got to experience first-hand how passionate they feel about the world, and how funny they are. Kids this age are so open-minded and exuberant about learning. In sixth grade, in particular, they’re not afraid to take risks—to dress up in funny costumes, to attempt bizarre science experiments, to question the world and challenge those things they don’t agree with.
Middle-schoolers are also still willing to go for it when given a seemingly impossible assignment like “changing the world for the better.” The inspiration for the teacher’s assignment in Daisy Woodworm Changes the World came from a young friend of mine whose relatives were displaced by a flood in Kerala, India, and so she mounted a benefit dance concert to help them. I started researching other kids who’d launched these world-changing projects, and I found so many . . . some of these young people were only eight years old when they decided to save bees, or help people living on the streets, or tackle bullying.
How have your novels impacted the minds of young readers?
Avenging the Owl has inspired many young readers to learn about birds of prey and their importance to the world, as well as what goes on at raptor rehabilitation centers. It’s also inspired conversations about how to handle a parent’s mental illness; my protagonist’s father struggles with anxiety and depression, and his actions directly affect his son. I hope that readers see how my protagonist, Solo Hahn, learns to “follow his bliss” as a way to nurture himself and find independence and passion for the natural world during his father’s struggle.
Speaking of the natural world, I hope that both Avenging the Owl and Daisy Woodworm Changes the World inspire readers, regardless of age, to fall in love with the flora and fauna around them. I filled Avenging full of fascinating raptor facts based on the eight years I spent volunteering at my local raptor rehabilitation center, and also fun details about different plants and animals in my home state of Oregon.
Daisy is an amateur entomologist, and so I incorporated numerous weird facts about insects into the novel. She has Madagascar hissing cockroaches and stick insects as pets, and she teaches her new friend Miguel all about them, as well as about sand crabs and other fascinating creatures. I love thinking that my novels have inspired young readers to get off their phones and get outside where the really exciting action is! You don’t even have to live in a rural or suburban area to observe nature; when I was growing up in Los Angeles, I had a wonderful time observing starlings bathing in the gutter, and I grew a tiny vegetable garden up my father’s pink stucco wall. Nature is everywhere!
What topics would you like to tackle in your next Middle Grade/YA book?
My next middle-grade novel is a prequel to Daisy Woodworm Changes the World; it’s called Kristen Rockefeller Saves the World, and it focuses on one of the minor characters from Daisy—Kristen—who’s dealing with PTSD after living in a car with her parents. Now that they live in a trailer, she’s a math tutor and a beekeeper for the family shelter that helped her during her period of homelessness. Her entire life changes when two characters from Daisy, Miguel and Devon, spot her in a thrift store wearing a used Portland half-marathon backpack. She lies about having completed the race, and they invite her to join the school’s cross-country team. Lonely and friendless, she accepts. But Kristen hates running. When Devon and a mysterious and very fast 10-year-old named Mercury agrees to coach her, she finds herself on a life-threatening adventure. Will she survive? And if she does, will she actually manage to cross the finish line of her first cross-country race?
Obviously, the book is dealing with issues surrounding poverty and homelessness, but also bullying, body image, and the importance of honeybee preservation!
Melissa Marr- Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror
Melissa Marr, author of the Wicked Lovely series and a prolific writer of young adult fantasy novels, shares quick insights from her writing career.
What inspires you most when writing sci-fi/fantasy/horror?
I like the puzzle of it all. From my first book (Wicked Lovely, published way back in 2007) to my indie trilogy (Faery Bargains) to my upcoming Harley Quinn graphic novel (D.C. Comics, 2023), I start with “but what if . . .” and then spin out the consequences of how things could go terribly wrong and “what would a person do if things did go off the rails.” Worldbuilding is part of that, but so is selecting the right character for that crisis.
What can you share about upcoming and current projects?
This past summer, I finished the Faery Bargains trilogy, but I also sold a pair of adult fantasy books to a NY dream editor and had the immense joy of being authorized to write my favorite comic character (Harley Quinn). Plus, I have a middle grade fantasy out in February (The Hidden Dragon, Penguin). It’s a lot, and I prefer to not have that many things in the fire at once, so I’m exhaling before launching anything else.
With so many sci-fi/fantasy/horror books on the market, what makes a story stand out?
Making me forget where I am. That’s the key for all books I enjoy. If the writer can make me forget the here and now—and the book I selected for this contest did just that!—it works. Transport me. Make me believe the world and the protagonist’s journey, and I’m sold. I’m not all about a twist ending, but about a great ride from start to end.
Maggie Toussaint - Mystery
Award-winning author of mystery, Maggie Toussaint, solves puzzles like a seasoned chess player. We got to pick her brain on what makes for a good sleuth.
What made you enter the Mystery/Thriller genre of writing?
From an early age, I asked “Why?” Yes, I was that kid. “Why does the sun come up?” “Why do leaves change colors?” As an adult, I dove into scientist and mystery author careers that satisfy my need to ask questions. Though the main question in a mystery is usually “whodunnit,” for me, the question is still “why?” Once I know why then I know who. When I began mystery writing, I planned each story with keen attention to detail. Then I realized if I wrote each character with motive to be the killer, story writing took on new life, and even I’m surprised by the killer’s identity. Nowadays, I adhere to a loose outline, and the journey of discovery keeps my writing fresh and exciting.
What is one common mistake novice mystery writers make?
In time, every writer develops a writing process that gets them successfully to The End, but there are multiple craft areas that novices often need to strengthen. For instance, character development is often lacking in aspiring authors’ works. If the characters aren’t emotionally invested in what they’re doing or saying, the story is always flat.
Coming to writing from the world of science, I didn’t grasp the depth of the word “motive.” Then I had a lightbulb moment at a writing workshop where the speaker mentioned the character’s agenda. As someone who attends meetings, I knew agendas were lists of topics, items, and actions.
This realization prompted me to layer character motivations, which strengthened each character’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Once I embraced this landmark change in my book crafting, I received my first book offer.
A good detective asks the right questions. What question do you think makes the reader keep reading to the last page?
As an avid reader, I must know how the book ends, and I assume that’s true for all readers. A well-crafted story holds my attention for hours on end. In the same way a cake seems more than the sum of its ingredients, a masterful story is more than words and execution of writing elements. It’s on par with the best adventure I’ve ever had. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to break down how someone else’s story was constructed, trying to identify how they did it. Instead, I end up reading the book again, savoring every word, and I don’t notice the story elements.
Therefore, I am left with one inescapable conclusion. The best storytellers are magicians. Their seamless stories render the craft invisible.
Lyn Liao Butler- General Fiction
Lyn Liao Butler, author of Someone Else's Life and Tiger Mom's Tale shares how culture and life experiences can shape the novels we write.
Were you influenced by your cultural background and upbringing in the creation of the characters in your novels?
Yes, definitely. I was born in Taiwan and moved to the States when I was seven. My MC in my debut, The Tiger Mom's Tale, is half Taiwanese and half white, because I wanted to explore how it would feel to look Asian on the outside, but feel American on the inside. And apparently, I like to write about Taiwanese food in my books (which I didn't realize I had) because people often remark that they were hungry when reading my books. Most people also don't know much about Taiwanese culture so I hope to continue to bring glimpses and pieces of my background into all my books.
They say art mirrors life, do you find fiction a tool for facing real life or the means of escaping it?
I have always been a huge reader and I read across genres. Books have been a way for me to escape my life when things are tough, or just dive into a different world that I couldn't imagine. For me, if I can provide either entertainment or a glimpse into a life someone is not familiar with, or just help someone with whatever they are facing, that is a win for me. And my main characters do face some of the hardships I myself have endured, but I also make up a lot of things that have never happened to me.
Are there any titles you are currently working on?
I just finished what will be my fourth published book, which is my second thriller, tentatively titled Searching for Luca and slated for February 2024. It's about an eleven-year-old boy who disappears from his aunt's driveway and the search for him links him to a woman who is battling to keep her husband alive from cancer, but who has deadly secrets of her own.
Pippa Grant- Romance
Amazon's bestselling author of rom-coms, Pippa Grant, spills the tea on what makes romance novels so juicy to write.
What led you to a career in writing romance?
I came to romance later than my colleagues who stole their mothers’ romance novels in their early teens. I was a young military wife, looking for escape, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series led me to her Loveswept backlist, and I’ve never looked back.
I started writing because I’d always wanted to, and again, as a young military spouse, I was struggling to find where I fit into that new life. I turned to writing fiction first as almost self-therapy, and then I fell in love, and my newfound love of romance novels merged with my newfound love of writing. Twenty years later, here we are.
Romance novels are seen as guilty pleasures, and yet they have been groundbreaking with inclusive stories of love. Do you feel the book industry should do more to uplift the genre?
My husband likes to say that he has the blueprint for marriage because he’s married to a romance novelist. (He also likes to say that I correct all of his faults in my books. He’s very funny.) But with our world so full of conflict right now, I wish that the book industry as a whole would recognize the power of fiction that unites us and teaches us more empathy and understanding of our fellow human beings, instead of mocking it and praising books with lots of explosions and murder and emotional abuse.
Someone in my life called romance novels trash to my face earlier this year. I’m rarely confrontational, but I pushed back, and I told her about how very deep romance novels go into the emotions and trials of being human. We need to recognize the humanity of all of those around us and the nuance that exists in the world. Additionally, because romance novels are known for being formulaic, and because there are endless numbers of romance novels these days, we have to be bigger, better storytellers with more depth, more emotion, and tighter plots to keep our readers’ interest.
Romance readers are so smart. So smart. So, yes, while romance is escapism, it’s also a genre that can teach us about people who live such vastly different lives than our own, and that can challenge us to broaden our worldview and rethink the preconceived notions and prejudices that we hold about our fellow human beings.
What is your favorite romance book of all time?
Oh, wow, ask the hard questions now! This is almost an impossible question. But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d lean into Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Natural Born Charmer. It’s the book I listened to on repeat when I first discovered audiobooks, and the hardback that I went back to anytime I had a bad day in my early days of loving romance.