The Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature

For those of you following along, you may know that I am ecstatic to have recently become a member of the Whippoorwill Book Award selection committee. When I saw this award come on the scene a few years ago, I was so excited that there was someone out there finding Rural YAL and taking it seriously enough to give it an award.

Before this, I had trouble even finding contemporary rural YAL, so I really wanted to be on the committee – to be in-the-know about all the rural YA books out there. And now I am! And the rural YA books keep coming in the mail. Someone pinch me!

Since it’s a relatively new award given to a category of literature that generally has issues with visibility to begin with, it feels like not many people know about it. Which is such a shame. Whether you are a teacher or teacher educator in a rural, urban, suburban, or rurban school, you should know about this award and the books that win it. Because whether they’re mirrors, windows, or sliding glass doors, books that represent a diversity of identity intersections – including rural identities – deserve to make it into the hands of young people – even if they don’t share those identities.

So, (with permission – I promise!) I’m reprinting the section of the Whippoorwill Committee’s inaugural article from The Rural Educator that introduces it, so y’all can learn more about the award, why it’s so important, and how the winners are decided. If you want to know more about the 2019 winners, visit the article here. I hope you check it out and pass it along to a friend.


Whippoorwill Seal

The Inaugural Year of the Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature

Narratives about American public education often focus on urban settings and the needs of urban students. Similarly, the government bases decisions about school consolidation and pedagogy on research from urban and suburban communities (Eckert & Alsup, 2015; Tieken, 2014). However, a large number of children live and attend school in rural America: one-fourth of American public schools are rural, and one-fifth of our students attend these schools (Showalter, Klein, Johnson, & Hartman, 2017). Although rural is certainly not synonymous with deficit, rural students and families do face similar social, economic, and educational challenges as their urban counterparts (Eckert & Alsup, 2015; Showalter, Klein, Johnson, & Hartman, 2017). This population deserves focused attention on their specific needs and settings. 

Media and popular culture are laden with deficit stereotypes of rural people and places, including stories of small town “deprivation and decline” and “backwoods, backwater, and backward” folk or romanticized depictions of “uncomplicated simplicity,” quaint farm-towns, and easy-living (Tieken, 2014, p.7). In addition, Howley and Howley (2010) note that “rural schools are the principal institutions in which young people learn authoritatively to leave rural places” (p.46). Often, well-intending teachers and administrators encourage students to leave their community for “a better life,” contributing to the rural flight epidemic. Eckert and Alsup (2015) address the need for teachers to reflect on the stereotypes and prejudices that they may bring into their rural classrooms, whether they are from rural communities themselves or migrate in and out of rural spaces. They work with educators who have articulated “how they moved past the prejudice that they brought with them – preconceived and negative notions of rural people, rural schools, and rural communities – in order to become part of the community in which they teach… creating and pulling on connections made with rural geography through cowboy poetry, with rural community history and current events, with rural perspectives on hunting,” and so on (p. x). It is essential to develop explicit counternarratives among educators and with youth about the value in their places and the opportunities to sustain or grow their communities.

Young adult (YA) literature is one place where educators can find such counternarratives or stories depicting multiple, diverse perspectives on rurality, because narratives are a way of knowing the world – a way of making sense of our lived experiences (Bruner, 1990; Short, Lynch-Brown, & Tomlinson, 2018). Our social and cultural worlds shape narratives, and reciprocally, narratives also serve to shape our worlds themselves (DeVitt, 2004). Therefore, it is vital for rural youth (as well as all children) to have literature reflecting their diverse identities and geographies. Additionally, when those narratives are problematic, youth need the skills for critically interpreting and responding to the stories and for creating new narratives. 

As teacher educators who taught in rural schools in South Carolina and Florida, we wondered how rural people and places were depicted in contemporary YA literature. When we searched for YA novels that authentically represented rural people and places, we had difficulty finding quality books or recommendation sites. Thus, the Whippoorwill Award for Rural Young Adult Literature emerged as our social action project: to provide classroom teachers with a curated list of high-quality literature with which they can facilitate critical conversations about rurality with their students. Award books must meet the general criteria for excellence in YA literature in its genre. In addition, the literature should portray the values of rural spaces, knowledge, cultures, and histories; represent rural places without overly romanticizing or denigrating them; have an in-depth treatment of rural issues, rural sustainability, and/or rural concerns; and contribute to diverse representations of people and places. Award titles portray characters and settings accurately and authentically and avoid stereotypes of rural people and places by representing the complexities of the situation, problem, and/or people. 

Though these books offer multiple and diverse perspectives on rurality as individual texts and as a set, we recommend that teachers read them with their students through a critical literacy lens. Critical literacy goes beyond critical thinking to interrogate dominant narratives privileged by uncritical readings or acceptance of the text and “correct,” literal interpretations often contained in curriculum materials (McDaniel, 2004). Because of the New Criticism movement, English teachers often lead students in reading the text for “objective” meaning rather than searching out the meanings motivated by the author’s worldview, the socio-cultural-historical context, and the intended audience. No one text or story can capture all the experiences and voices related to a topic, culture, or social issue, so noticing those gaps and seeking out multiple voices is a powerful practice for understanding others and our world. Critical literacy involves analyzing each of the meanings uncovered to identify inequality, imbalances in power, missing or marginalized identities, and hegemonic ideologies within the text (Mills, 2016). With each book annotation in this article, we have provided critical literacy questions that illuminate marginalized or missing voices from the text, nudge students to consider varied perspectives, or ponder ways the books can spur students into social action. 

The official Whippoorwill Award criteria are as follows:

  1. The book meets general criteria for excellence in young adult literature in its genre. For example, it addresses universal truths, problems, topics, or issues; leaves a lasting impression or has an enduring quality; utilizes interesting and unique language, style, and/or wordplay; writing is appropriate for a young adult audience of ages 12-18. 
  2. The literature portrays the value of rural spaces, knowledges, cultures, and histories. 
  3. The literature represents the reality of rural places without overly romanticizing or denigrating a place.
  4. The literature portrays characters and settings accurately and authentically in terms of physical characteristics, social and economic statuses, intellectual abilities, and other human attributes.
  5. The literature has an in-depth treatment of issues related to rurality, rural sustainability, and/or rural concerns.
  6. The literature avoids stereotypes of rural people and places by representing the complexities of the situation, problem, and/or people. 
  7. The literature contributes to the body of diverse YA literature by providing representations of diverse people and places.

Authors and 2019 Whippoorwill Award Committee Members:

Jennifer Sanders, co-chair. Jennifer is the Dresser Endowed Professor of Rural Teacher Education at Oklahoma State University and founding Whippoorwill co-chair.  Contact:

Jill Bindewald, co-chair.  Jill is a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University in Education – Language, Literacy, and Culture and founding Whippoorwill co-chair.  Contact:

Devon Brenner, committee member.  Devon is Professor of teacher education at Mississippi State University and co-editor of The Rural Educator.  Contact:

Karen Eppley, committee member.  Karen is an Associate Professor of Education at Penn State University.  Contact:

Kate Kedley, committee member.  Kate is an Assistant Professor in Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Education at Rowan University in New Jersey.  Contact:

Nick Kleese, committee member.  Nick is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota.  Contact:

Natalie Newsom, committee member.  Natalie is a high school English teacher at Richmond Hill High School in Georgia.  Contact:

Stephanie Short, committee member. Stephanie is adjunct faculty in English at the University of North Georgia. Contact:

*Reprinted with permission. Original publication: Whippoorwill Committee, (2020). The inaugural year of the Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature. The Rural Educator, 41(1), 1-7. 

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