In the months ahead, I’ll be highlighting new additions to our library collection that have recently won or been nominated for awards. One of the major awards in young adult literature is The William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which was first awarded in 2009. The Morris Award “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” YALSA recently announced the 2017 Morris Award Finalists. I’ll highlight one of these today.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is an unusual story about an unusual group of friends: Dill, a talented musician whose Pentecostal minister father is in jail for unspeakable crimes; Lydia, whose hipster fashion blog promises to launch her far away from their rural Tennessee town; and Travis, who finds meaning and, maybe, real love through his favorite fantasy series and online fandom. The novel unfolds in the third person, with alternating chapters devoted to the experience and perspectives of the three characters.
I loved these characters, their realness, and the complexity of their struggles. And it was refreshing to read a young adult novel set in the rural South, in which issues of poverty, class, and religion simmer in the foreground. Among other things, this book takes an honest and compelling look at the challenges facing working class young people, some of whom are the first in their families to consider applying for, let alone attending college. While the serpent theme was somewhat underdeveloped ( more snakes, please!), this debut novel by Jeff Zentner is full of brains and heart.