2021 Oklahoma Book Awards Finalists

Because of continued uncertainty due to the pandemic, the Center has decided to cancel the 2021 Oklahoma Book Awards ceremony. The competition continues (115 book award entries for this year!), but our medalists will not be picking up their honors at an in-person event.

Author, attorney, educator, and consultant Hannibal B. Johnson, who was to receive the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 will be given the award this April. We are working on plans to properly honor all of our 2021 Book Award recipients online.

Read more about the cancellation of the event.

Winners were announced on Saturday, April 24.


Children / Young Adult

Norman: One Amazing Goldfish
by Kelly Bennett
Candlewick Press
In this sequel to Not Norman: A Goldfish Story, Norman’s person takes his goldfish to Pet-O-Rama to dazzle the crowds with Norman’s circles, bubbles, and flips. Norman is going to be famous! But when it’s time to perform before the judges, Norman freezes and hides behind his plant. Oh, no! Could poor Norman have stage fright? This warm and wryly funny story is about being there for your fishy friend when he needs you most. Bennett lived in Oklahoma from 1985 to 1997, where she was an active member of Tulsa Writers and the Oklahoma Writers Federation. She currently divides her time among Texas, New York, and “Mimiville,” (which is wherever her grandparents may be.)

Love Won: The Oklahoma Standard
by Cathy & Frank Keating
Oklahoma Hall of Fame Publishing
Following the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, drawings and notes of sympathy began pouring in from young people throughout the United States and the world. Oklahoma’s former Governor and First Lady use photos along with the drawings and messages from students to illustrate this true story of tragedy, resilience, recovery, healing, and the ultimate triumph of love over evil. Governor and First Lady Keating received national acclaim for their compassionate and professional response to the Oklahoma City Bombing. The Keatings have three children and eleven grandchildren and reside in Oklahoma City.

Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place
by Barbara Lowell

Lerner Publishing Group
Inspired by Miep Gies’s book Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family, Lowell wanted to tell the story to children of how Gies tried to save Anne Frank’s family during the Holocaust, and how saving Anne’s diary allowed others to hear the young girl’s story. Gies’s bravery and the dilemma of the Frank family shine through in Lowell’s retelling of the devastating impact of Nazism and World War II on a European family. The story of this young Jewish girl and her family continue to resonate with people around the world. Lowell lives in Broken Arrow with her husband and two terrific cats.

My Mastodon
by Barbara Lowell

Creative Editions
My Mastodon is a fictional story inspired by a unique American family, the Peales of Philadelphia. Sybilla lives with her large, artistic family at America’s first natural history museum. One day, she helps her papa and big brother assemble the bones of a magnificent mastodon. She soon starts visiting her fossilized friend for regular tea parties and chats. But then her mastodon is invited to tour Europe, and she is heartbroken. Will Sybilla be content to share her best friend with the world? A lover of non-fiction and biographical works, Lowell says reading as a child and reading to her daughter inspired her to write books for children. She lives in Broken Arrow.

Seekers of the Wild Realm
by Alexandra Ott

Simon & Schuster
Twelve-year-old Bryn has big dreams: she wants to become the first female Seeker in her realm, a position tasked with collecting magical items and protecting the creatures who dwell within her world. Ari, a boy who is competing for the same title, convinces Bryn to help him secretly care for a baby dragon in exchange for his support of Bryn’s wish to become a Seeker. Despite bonding over their mutual love of magical creatures, Bryn can’t forget that Ari is still a rival, and she is suspicious of his connections to the current unrest in the village. When Bryn realizes just how high the stakes are, can she save both her family–and the realm? Ott is a 2018 Oklahoma Book Award finalist for Rules for Thieves. She works as an editor and lives in Tulsa with her tiny canine overlord.

The Farm That Mac Built
by Tammi Sauer

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Three-time Oklahoma Book Award winner Tammi Sauer presents this barnyard show inspired by “The House That Jack Built” and “Old MacDonald’s Farm”. The Scarecrow Master of Ceremonies presents all of the animals that live on a farm: pigs, chickens, horses, cows, sheep, and monkeys. Monkeys!? Yes, monkeys, elephants, kangaroos, and penguins all want to get in on the act! What’s a Scarecrow MC to do? Sauer resides in Edmond with her family when she’s not out on the road presenting at libraries and schools throughout the country.

The Secret Life of Sam
by Kim Ventrella

HarperCollins Publishing
When Sam’s dad dies, he’s shuttled off to the dusty town of Holler, Oklahoma. He misses everything from his former life in the Louisiana swamp, especially the stories his Pa used to tell him. Once in Holler, though, he encounters a mysterious cat who leads him to a strange portal through which Sam can revisit his old life for a few minutes at a time, and be with Pa once more. As Pa’s old stories unfold around him, in beautiful but sinister detail, Sam begins to realize that Pa is not quite himself. Sam will learn an important but bittersweet lesson: sometimes, loving someone means having to say goodbye. Ventrella’s Skeleton Tree was a 2019 Oklahoma Book Award finalist. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and cowriter, Hera.

Design / Illustration

McFarlin Ranch
cover and interior design by Laura Hyde and Kristen Stroup
Müllerhaus Legacy
Starting with its textured and embossed dust cover, this handsome book was designed to celebrate the Ingersoll family and their cattle ranch. Carefully composed spreads are packed with an abundance of snapshots and other photographed memorabilia—including numerous aerial shots of the ranch. Chapter divider pages feature full page photographs facing titles set in an attractive “antique” typeface. The body text is laid out in short measures, two and three columns with ragged right margins and extra lead. The overall effect is warm and fitting to a family story.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum: Looking Back. Thinking Forward
designed by Skip McKinstry
Oklahoma Hall of Fame Publishing
Large type and generous white space lend some lightness to a serious subject. In contrast, a solemnness is suggested by chapter divider pages with full page photographs tinted in a rich dark blue and titles set in formal, transitional serif. “Reflections” sections found throughout the book are introduced by full spread photographs of the Memorial and sturdy, all-caps, san serif type. The end papers are covered by a full-color grid of photographs of the men, women, and children killed on April 19, 1995.

Renegades: Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture
designed by Tony Roberts

University of Oklahoma Press
Documenting Oklahoma’s respected and renowned architect Bruce Goff, this oversized paperback uses elegant and straightforward design to compliment the subject. Renegades is illustrated throughout with architectural renderings, sketches, drawings, paintings, and photographs. Fine design details are found on nearly every page, from the artistic font used for the title, to the simple blue rule along the top of captions. Among the remarkable style choices is the ample, almost exaggerated white space at the bottom of most pages, appearing to push body text upward, while also enabling illustration captions to sit uniformly in the bottom quarter of each page. The beautiful cover—an artwork by Ernest Burden, a student of Goff’s—attracts the reader, while the design choices within keeps us reading.

Why the Possum Had No Hair on His Tail
illustrated by Leslie Stall Widener
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Sweet and earthy paintings carry the reader along with texture and character. As envisioned by Widener, the animals are lively and endearing. When the opossum burns his tail, the wide-mouthed, wild-eyed expression paired with a full page yellow and red “Yeow!” renders the experience vivid. The final hug between opossum and raccoon provides a touching ending to this empathetic tale.


Liquid Grace
by Lu Clifton

Two Shadows Books
Clifton’s compelling novel is set at the beginning of World War II in downtrodden eastern Oklahoma and the fertile fields of central California. Jane Guthrie is an old woman now dealing with the eventful summer when she was thirteen. In vivid detail she charts her memories of train trips and fruit orchards, minstrel shows and mushrooms, harvest gypsies and rivers in a box—and her mother’s mysterious calling to help someone in need. An excited teenager when her mother and four siblings caught the train west, Jane is an adult by summer’s end, left on her own to get what remains of the unraveled family back to Oklahoma safely. By telling her story, Jane hopes that she can put to rest dark memories of that summer, which have haunted her into her old age. Clifton won the Oklahoma Book Award in 2017 in the young adult category for her book Seeking Casandra. She lives in Davis, Illinois.

The Fire on Poteau Mountain
by Stan G. Duncan

Adelaide Books
In this intriguing book of short stories, an elderly pastor reflects on the people and stories he encountered in a small town at the foot of Poteau Mountain in the early 1970s. As a young pastor, filled with his own feelings of doubt and inadequacy, he interacted with his parishioners and today retells their stories of pain and loss, heroism and humor. In stories both uplifting and gritty, the characters struggle in a world of sin and grace, tragedy and hope, and their devotion to their little church on the hill is somewhere in the middle. A native of Oklahoma, Duncan has lived in other states and countries working primarily as both an economics instructor and local church pastor. He currently resides in Newton, New Hampshire.

by Mary Anna Evans

Poisoned Pen Press
The suspicious drowning of Captain Edward Eubank breaks archeologist Faye Longchamp’s heart. It also confuses her, because he was found in scuba gear and she’s never heard him mention scuba diving. During their last conversation, he told her that he believed he had found a storied shipwreck, but when Faye checks it out, she finds nothing there. Surrounded by a community struggling in the aftermath of a major hurricane that has changed the very landscape, Faye grapples not only with the loss of her friend, but also fears for her daughter who is now being romanced by a man who may be dangerous. Faye no longer takes an “anything goes” attitude when the law stands between her and a dig, and there is nothing she won’t do to protect her daughter. Evans won the 2020 Oklahoma Book Award in fiction for her book Catacombs. She lives in Washington, Oklahoma.

All God’s Children
by Aaron Gwyn

Europa Editions
In 1827 Duncan Lammons, a disgraced young man from Kentucky, sets out to join the American army in the province of Texas, hoping that here he may live and love as he pleases. That same year, Cecelia, a young slave in Virginia, runs away for the first time. Soon infamous for her escape attempts, Cecelia drifts from owner to owner until she encounters frontiersman Sam Fish, who helps her escape from a slave auction in New Orleans. Sensing an opportunity for freedom, Cecelia travels with Sam to his Texas homestead. There they begin a life together, unaware that their fates are intertwined with those of Sam’s former army mates, some of whom harbor dangerous dreams of their own. This novel brings to life the paradoxes of the American frontier in the decades leading up to the Civil War—a place of liberty and bondage, wild equality, and cruel injustice. Gwyn was raised on a cattle ranch in rural Oklahoma. He teaches English at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. This is his fourth novel.

The Spiderling
by Marcia Preston

The RoadRunner Press
Eleven-year-old Kiwi Seager knows two things: she’s going to hell someday and, even worse, her mother can never love her again. Her only friend is the journal where she confides her hopes and fears. Kiwi had done something no mother could ever forgive, something that has forced this mother and daughter to flee their California home and to accept the help of strangers. Can they run fast enough and far enough to lose the evil following them? Or does new danger await them, wearing the face of a helpful stranger. Kiwi holds out little hope of a mother and child reunion, but for now they are together. Preston is the author of several books including Song of the Bones which won the 2004 Oklahoma Book Award for fiction and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Preston lives in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves
by Sidney Thompson

University of Nebraska Press
Before Bass Reeves could stake his claim as the most successful nineteenth-century American lawman, arresting more outlaws than any other deputy during his thirty-two-year career as a deputy U.S. marshal in Oklahoma Territory and other dangerous places, he was a slave. After a childhood picking cotton, he became an expert marksman under his master’s tutelage. His skill had serious implications, however, as the Civil War broke out. Reeves was given to his master’s mercurial, sadistic, Moby Dick quoting son in the hopes that Reeves would keep him safe. The ensuing humiliation, love, heroics, war, mind games, and fear solidified Reeves’s determination to gain his freedom and drew him one step further on his fated path to an illustrious career. Thompson, the author of this work of historical fiction, teaches creative writing and African American literature at Texas Christian University. He resides in Fort Worth, Texas.


The Best Courts Money Could Buy: Reform of the Oklahoma Judiciary, 1956-1967
by Lee Card

University of Oklahoma Press
Card examines the Oklahoma Supreme Court cases from 1956 to 1967. He contends that justice was for sale in Oklahoma’s highest court and decisions went to the highest bidder. In fact, one attorney, O.A. Cargill grew rich peddling influence with the justices. Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice N. S. Corn, one of two justices who would ultimately serve time in prison, cheated his partners in crime and stashed vast amounts of ill-gotten cash in a locker at his golf course. The author describes a system infected with favoritism and partisanship in which party loyalty trumped fairness and a shaky payment structure built on commissions invited exploitation. Card holds a doctorate degree in history from the University of Oklahoma. For twenty-eight years he served as associate district judge in Carter County, Oklahoma. He lives in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State
by Russell Cobb

University of Nebraska Press
Cobb weaves a fascinating story regarding the state of Oklahoma, noting it is much more than a “flyover state.” He notes that Oklahoma is one of the most tragic, fascinating, and unpredictable places in the United States. Over the span of a century, the state gave birth to movements for an African American homeland, a vibrant Socialist Party, armed rebellions of radical farmers, and an insurrection by a man called Crazy Snake. At the same time, the state saw numerous oil booms, racial violence, a statewide takeover by the Ku Klux Klan, and the rise of a paranoid far-right agenda by a fundamentalist preacher named Billy James Hargis. Cobb explains Oklahoma has been a laboratory for all kinds of social, political, and artistic movements, producing a singular list of weirdos, geniuses, and villains. Cobb is an associate professor in Latin American Studies and creative writing at the University of Alberta, Canada. He resides in Edmonton, Canada.

Breaking Down Barriers: George McLaurin and the Struggle to End Segregated Education
by David W. Levy

University of Oklahoma Press
Levy provides a succinct, detailed account of George McLaurin’s fight to become the first African American to attend the University of Oklahoma School of Education as a graduate student in October 1948. Levy details the life of McLaurin, noting he was a notably private person, a veteran educator, and a qualified candidate for admission to the university. When he was denied entrance, solely on the basis of race, the NAACP and its lead attorney Thurgood Marshall vigorously fought for McLaurin in both state and federal courts. The University of Oklahoma allowed McLaurin to attend classes in a segregated area, which set off a firestorm of national outrage. Ultimately, in 1950 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McLaurin’s favor. The court decision did not end the doctrine of “separate but equal,” but led directly to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Levy is retired as the Irene and Julian J. Rothbaum Professor of Modern American History and David Ross Boyd Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. He resides in Norman, Oklahoma.

Twentieth-Century Honky-Tonk: The Amazing Unauthorized Story of the Cain’s Ballroom’s First 75 Years, 1924-1999
by John Wooley & Brett Bingham
Babylon Books
Wooley and Bingham explore the famous Cain’s Ballroom and its people, tracing the ballroom’s beginnings as a Tulsa dancehall inexplicably called the Louvre, to its fabled run as the headquarters of western-swing pioneer Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. They follow the ballroom’s evolution to when it became a major club on the cosmic-cowboy circuit as well as an early stop for some of the most famous rock ‘n’ roll bands ever, including U2, the Police, Van Halen, and the Sex Pistols, who gave their penultimate performance at the venerable hall. This is the story of how Cain’s Ballroom started and how it persevered throughout the last century—the changes and challenges, the hits and misses, the glorious highs and the abject lows, told through the words and the deeds of the people who propelled it through its first seven and a half decades. A four-time Oklahoma Book Award finalist, Wooley has written, co-written, or edited more than forty books including Shot in Oklahoma. He lives in Foyil, Oklahoma. Bingham currently is the business manager for Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, under the direction of Jason Roberts.


The Age of Phillis
by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Wesleyan University Press
An exceptional work of scholarship and art, this National Book Award Finalist celebrates the extraordinary life of Phillis Wheatley: daughter, slave, wife, and the first published African-American poet. In the process, it becomes an important literary milestone in the path to understand the impact of slavery and racism. When Wheatley’s collection of poems was published in 1773, it would challenge Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities. Jeffers’s poetry imagines the life and times of Wheatley from her childhood with her parents in Gambia, to her life with her white American owners, to her marriage to the enigmatic John Peters, and to her untimely death at the age of thirty-one. Jeffers’s writing also reflects on the political, philosophical, intellectual, and religious upheaval of the time, illustrating the background that would both nurture and challenge Wheatley. Jeffers has received multiple awards and honors for her poetry and writing. She is a Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.

Sunlight & Cedar
by Ken Hada
Strawberry Hedgehog Press
The entire day is Hada’s palette in his eighth collection, a palette that he fills with the wisdom of one who practices observation as art: from first light (“We are made for the morning. Starting over is something we should get right”) to the sliver of a moon “dropped in heavy sky so far away, so far away from anything like light.” He fills his day and his poetry with the love of life, family, friends, and his faith that “what good we do follows the good we believe.” This is Hada’s fifth honor as a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. He has received awards from the Western Writers of America and the National Western Heritage Museum. In 2018 he received the Friends of the Oklahoma Center for the Book’s Glenda Carlile Distinguished Service Award for creating and leading the annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada. Hada teaches literature at East Central University.

A History of Kindness
by Linda Hogan
Torrey House Press
Hogan offers this poetic medicine for a world on the precipice. She excavates how history instructs the present. She envisions a future alive with hope for a healthy and sustainable world that now wavers between loss and survival. Relating experience by experience, tear by tear, her poems are unique to her history, childhood, friends, and family; they are also universal in their guidance to reclaim happiness, gratitude, and kindness. The Chickasaw poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, teacher, and activist calls this collection “a tree,” an image that reflects growth upon growth and the interconnectedness of all things. She has received numerous literary awards, including the 1991 Oklahoma Book Award in fiction for her novel Mean Spirit, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her poetry collection The Book of Medicines was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

by Don Stinson
Turning Plow Press
What are we hungry for? “As we scamper through, trailing latte foam and chaos, certain everything depends upon what we’ve still to do,” we search. We search for meaning, love, redemption, truth; for a means to survive and thrive in a puzzling world. Stinson looks for nourishment in the everyday of his and our experiences. He questions, examines, and reflects, often provoking laughter as he spins new ways to look at our everyday life. With poems that elevate the spirit and captivate the imagination, he magnifies our lives and wishes us well. His poems have been published in numerous literary journals and he shares some of his work on the blog Immersion: Poems by Donald Stinson. Hunger is his second collection of published poetry. A Doctor of Philosophy, Stinson was born in California and serves on the Language Arts faculty at Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa.