Jennifer Smith Turner’s Debut Novel Wins BCALA Prize

Founded in 1970, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) is a leading advocate for libraries serving the nation’s African-American community. The BCALA has given awards for traditionally-published poetry and prose for twenty years.

2020 Self-Publishing Literary Award goes to historical portrait Child Bride

Founded in 1970, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) is a leading advocate for libraries serving the nation’s African-American community. The BCALA has given awards for traditionally-published poetry and prose for twenty years. In 2016, the BCALA launched the Self-Publishing Literary Award in cooperation with BiblioLabs, a Charleston-based software/media company. This award celebrates extraordinary achievement in the presentation of the cultural, historical, and sociopolitical aspects of the Black Diaspora.

Tiffany A. Duck, manager of Library Locations for Virginia’s Suffolk Public Library, served on the committee that created this award to honor the best self-published eBooks by African-American authors. “Our goal is to highlight and amplify new African-American voices,” says Duck. “These authors use non-traditional publishing platforms, so they are not well-known. We encourage everyone to submit. We would like to get a variety of submissions from all over the country.”

BiblioLabs, which sponsors the Self-Publishing Literary Award, helps libraries discover local talent through community engagement tools. The custom submission pages encourage local writers to produce unique content to share through a library’s community collections. “BiblioLabs put together a curated collection of eBooks which created another avenue for amplifying new voices,” says Duck, “We encourage librarians to add the BCALA award-winners to their eBook collections.”

“The Self-Publishing Literary Award really caught my eye,” said this year’s winner, Jennifer Smith Turner. “I am a lover of libraries, so it was a perfect connection.” Turner shared that on Martha’s Vineyard, where she currently lives, there are six libraries for twenty thousand residents. “When I was growing up in Boston, we did all our reading in the public libraries. Libraries were our community centers.”

Turner’s winning debut novel, Child Bride, tells the story of a young Black woman in an oppressive marriage who struggles to find new opportunity and lasting happiness. Turner says, “The protagonist, Nell Bight, will come alive for you. It’s historical fiction that shows how far we
still have to go for women’s rights and social justice. This book highlights Emmett Till’s 1953 murder. Now, in 2020, we have George Floyd.”

Nell Bight’s journey began as a minor character named Mother Claire in Turner’s unpublished first novel. Publishers criticized and rejected Turner’s work, except for one who loved Mother Claire. Turner set aside her manuscript and returned to poetry while studying the craft of novel-writing. “I started reading fiction through a different lens. My poetry tends to be very compact. So, I had to learn to sit down and be in a scene for an extended period of time. I had to be very patient, attend to the fine details, and let the story unfold.”

Turner’s first draft stayed in the file cabinet drawer for several years. Then, she scanned the manuscript for each appearance of Mother Claire, whose voice came “blazing through and I knew I had to write her story.” Mother Claire was renamed Nell Bight to become the main character in Child Bride. Readers see Nell begin her life in early 20th Century rural Louisiana, then move to Boston after being married off at age sixteen. “We were looking for a developed story and a character to fall in love with,” says BCALA’s Duck, “Jennifer’s writing resonated with the committee. It’s for lovers of historical fiction and romance.”

Winning the Self-Publishing Literary Award helped Child Bride connect with readers across America and in countries like Germany and Italy. Via Zoom, Turner has spoken with multiple book clubs, small and large. “This award opened a new universe to me. Quite frankly, it was stunning. You work and work then suddenly these characters start to mean something to other people in different ways. That doesn’t happen with a poem. And this public recognition could never have happened without the BCALA.”

“That makes me so excited,” Duck says. “We really tried over the year to get the word out there. We hope librarians will pay attention and make an intentional effort to diversify collections and programming. Librarians can achieve this by highlighting our wonderful winners on social media pages, in displays, and by inviting authors of color to speak.”

Duck’s team at Suffolk Public Library organizes writers’ groups, to build community and support first-time novelists like Turner. “Our first award-winner just got a traditional publishing deal from St. Martin’s Press,” Duck says proudly, hoping to inspire as many writers as possible to visit and share the BCALA contest submission page link at https://bcala.librariesshare.com/bcala-ebook-contest/. To be considered for the award, authors must submit by February 28, 2021.

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