by Bill Castanier
January 16, 2012
If you’re an author and aren’t Stephen King, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Erik Larson, Janet Evanovich or Laura Hillenbrand — all on this week’s The New York Times Best Sellers list — how do you get noticed?
It’s a problem. But because some of the most important and intriguing writing is being done at the regional and state level, the Library of Michigan each year selects 20 outstanding books with Michigan connections and calls them Michigan Notable Books.
To make the list, books must be by authors who live in Michigan or are from Michigan or are writing about Michigan. That’s the first cut. The second cut is even more difficult. It must be a great book. This year the selection committee considered several hundred books published in 2011 that fell in those categories.
This year’s list includes eight non-fiction books, two memoirs, three children’s books and seven fiction books. The books were written by both nationally recognized authors (Bonnie Jo Campell, Michael Moore, Mark Kurlansky) and by debut authors (Bruce Allen Kopytek, Ellen Airgood and Scott Sparling).
Grand Rapids librarian and selection committee member Christine Byron (also one of this year’s award winners with her husband, Thomas R. Wilson, for the book Vintage Views Along the West Michigan Pike) said the Notable Book program reaches back to 1991, when the fledgling Great Lakes Booksellers Association was casting around for ideas to promote books.
According to Byron, she and George Weeks, the spouse of the owner of a Northern Michigan bookstore, suggested creating an annual list of Michigan books for Michigan Week, the third week in May. Byron, who was a regional manager for Community News Center, a statewide bookseller, understood how regional books were easily overlooked. Weeks, a Detroit News columnist and former Governor Milliken’s chief of staff, helped create the initial list. (George also has authored several books on Michigan, and it was his father who helped found Michigan Week in 1954.)
The Library of Michigan has overseen the selection process since 2002, using a team of 8-10 librarians, booksellers and writers to make the final selection. (You can read more about the Notable Book Awards and browse previous selections here.)
Randy Riley, a state librarian who helps manage the process, said the Notable Book program puts an important spotlight on Michigan authors and helps create a market for regional books that otherwise wouldn’t get noticed.
“Jim Harrison, Bonnie Jo Campbell or Michael Moore doesn’t need a Michigan Notable Book Award to sell books, but it also recognizes smaller books, debut authors and small publishers. As a result, books on the list may go into a second or third printing, and publishers may take another look at authors who have won the award.”
D.E. Johnson, whose book Motor City Shakedown was named to the list this year and whose book The Detroit Electric Scheme won last year, said, “The award can add a lot of credibility to a lesser-known author and make people more comfortable to try his books. I definitely picked up readership for Electric Scheme and I’m sure the same will happen with Motor City.”
The Michigan Notable Book authors are feted at a mid-spring event at the Library of Michigan and also are given the opportunity to become part of a statewide library tour that hosts authors at 50 libraries across Michigan. In the past, Michigan Notable Book authors also have gone on bookstore tours and were selected for area book festivals as presenters.
Riley said the list helps librarians across the state develop collections of Michigan-related books and decide which books to order. In addition, bookstores and libraries often create displays of the award-winning books, which spurs additional interest.
Susan Bays, owner of Arbutus Press, a small Michigan publisher whose work includes this year’s Notable West Michigan Pike, said the program has provided more exposure for authors and publishers.
“The list helps identify a lot of important work that the community at large may not know about,” Bays said. “There is always disagreement with what’s on the list, but that’s part of the dialogue that gets people reading.”
First-time author and Shelby Township native Bruce Allen Kopytek’s book Jacobson’s I Miss It So is about Jacobson’s Department Store and the Rosenfeld family who owned it. He said he is “overwhelmed by the acceptance and the comments from people who remember Jacobson’s and how it disappeared, Atlantis like.”
For the first time this year, three children’s books are on the list. Children’s books are most often written for a national audience and seldom make the list, but books on Detroit artist Tyree Guyton and boxer Joe Louis along with a book on a fictional Michigan teacher made the 2012 Notable list.
Each year the list includes books on Michiganians who otherwise might be lost to time. This year’s list is no different. A book about Republican political leader Elly Peterson helps provide a missing chapter in the political history of Michigan, and a book by Detroit News writer Susan Whitall details the life of Detroiter Little Willie John, who helped create soul music.
Sara Fitzgerald, author of Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, drew on childhood memories of watching Peterson on television as the inspiration for the book.
“Even though I left Michigan many years ago, my roots are still there. To be recognized by my home state is particularly gratifying,” Fitzgerald said.
Whitall, who sees her name in print almost every day as a writer for the News, said she was “thrilled” with the announcement. “Just to be included on a list with authors like Jim Harrison is amazing.”
Whitall’s book about the influential Detroit music pioneer is receiving international recognition and helping to stir a revival in his music. The book also is set to be released in paperback later this year.
Two of the award-winning books delve into the importance the automobile industry has had on the state, and Byron’s and Wilson’s book on the West Michigan Pike shows how the automobile spurred road building and helped create the demand for tourism along the state’s Lake Michigan shoreline.
The New York Times Detroit Bureau Chief Bill Vlasic’s Once Upon A Car, on the fall and rescue of the U.S. auto industry, is a more somber look at the state’s relationship with the automobile and will continue to be required reading in colleges and Big Three headquarters for some time.
State Librarian Nancy Robertson said, “This year’s Michigan Notable Books celebrate Michigan as a place and a people that even in the most trying of times find transformation.”
There is no doubt Notable Books can be transformative. One of this year’s award winners, Ann Arbor attorney Jack Dempsey for his book Michigan and the Civil War, said he is still “speechless” after learning about the award.
That’s something for an attorney.
“Now, I don’t have to cow-tow to my little brother,” Dempsey said, referring to Dave Dempsey, who has notched two Notable Book awards, most recently a biography of Governor William G. Milliken.
This year’s honorees are:
Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, by Sara Fitzgerald. Michigan native Sara Fitzgerald writes about a different era of the Republican Party in Michigan. This new biography gives full credit to one of the first female political leaders in this country.
Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan, by Craig Fox. Shedding light on this unsettling chapter in Michigan’s history, Fox explores the origins of the organization’s strong influence and popularity in the state during the 1920s.
Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul, by Susan Whitall. Detroit’s Little Willie John lived for only 30 years, but his dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on what we now know as soul music.
Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One, by Mark Kurlansky. No baseball player has ever had a swing quite like the Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg, but he may be remembered more for a 1934 game with the Yankees that he chose not to play because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Jacobson’s, I Miss It So: The Story Of A Michigan Fashion Institution, by Bruce Allen Kopytek. Michigan’s answer to Macy’s is remembered in stories that date from the beginnings in Reed City until the chain’s bankruptcy and closing.
Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice, by Jack Dempsey. Offering a fresh and readable glimpse into Michigan’s role in the preservation of the Union, Dempsey leads us through the major characters, battles and events of the Civil War.
Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers — GM, Ford, and Chrysler, by Bill Vlasic. A fascinating story of the Big Three’s fight for survival in Detroit. In a tale that reads like a corporate thriller, Vlasic takes readers into the executive offices, assembly plants and union halls.
Vintage Views Along the West Michigan Pike: From Sand Trails to US-31, by M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson. Utilizing hundreds of historic postcards and photographs, Byron and Wilson detail the history of the road that has become US-31, and the Lake Michigan communities it connects.
Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, Contemporary Michigan Literature, edited by Keith Taylor and Laura Kasischke. Here’s an anthology of supernatural stories from renowned Michigan authors.
Misery Bay, by Steve Hamilton. In this eighth novel featuring Alex McKnight, the 2006 Michigan Author Award winner takes us on a suspenseful adventure in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Motor City Shakedown, by D. E. Johnson. Shakedown is a thrilling ride set in 1911 Detroit. Will Anderson looks to find justice for the death of his best friend while battling the Detroit criminal underworld, a corrupt police department and his own personal demons.
Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The National Book Award finalist and past Michigan Notable Book author creates an unforgettable heroine in 16-year-old Margo Crane, who takes to a Michigan river in search of her mom.
Songs of Unreason, by Jim Harrison. Harrison’s latest collection of poetry proclaims his reverence for rivers, trees, dogs and women. Each poem comes to life on the page with the richness and clarity of Harrison’s voice.
South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood. This first Airgood novel celebrates taking joy in the little things in life. Chicago transplant Madeline Stone moves to the fictional town of McAllister, Michigan, in the hope of finding an escape from her old life.
Wire to Wire, by Scott Sparling. This debut book is a crime novel with a full cast of colorful characters, including the brain-damaged, freight-car-hopping lead figure.
Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, by Michael Moore. The Oscar-winning filmmaker, bestselling author and vocal social critic tells of growing up outside of Flint.
In Stitches: A Memoir, by Anthony Youn, M.D. Dr. Youn’s memoir describes his transformation from a geeky outcast in Greenville to celebrated plastic surgery expert on popular talk shows like Good Morning America.
Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art, by J.H. Shapiro and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Shapiro tells the story of the Heidelberg Project and Tyree Guyton, the true story of an artist and his impact on his community.
Miss Martin Is a Martian, by Colleen Murray Fisher and illustrated by Jared Chapman. Second grader Melvin Eugene Baxter knows his new teacher is from Mars. Armed with a hockey stick — and with his head protected by a pot — he is determined not to let Miss Martin the Martian take over the planet.
A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. On the eve of World War II, boxer Joe Louis fought German Max Schmeling in a historic bout that many Americans viewed as a symbol of the nation’s battle against Hitler.