The 2016 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction goes to The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz, published by Candlewick Press.
When Joan’s father burns her beloved books as an undeserved punishment for shirking her housework, the put-upon fourteen-year-old makes a reckless gambit for freedom, running away to Baltimore in search of paid work. There she lies about her age and lucks into a job as a hired girl for an affluent Jewish family, assisting the not-completely-deceptively grumpy housekeeper Malka and serving as the Rosenbachs’ shabbos goy. In all, a new world indeed for a Catholic farm girl from Pennsylvania.
While the novel, set in 1911 and presented as Joan’s journal, displays and indeed revels in the classic tropes of the coming-of-age story, it is, the judges noted, very much a book of our time, confronting Joan with questions about prejudice and religious faith and tolerance in ways that speak to readers today without trapping itself into anachronism or wishful thinking about the past. It provides immersive detail about Joan’s circumstances that always serves the character and her story, and not once does that story forget it is Joan herself who is telling it. The judges saw more than a bit of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley in good-hearted but impulsive Joan, and Schlitz shares Montgomery’s ability to keep our respect for her heroine even while we cringe at some of her more ill-advised actions (a notion to convert the Rosenbach grandchild, for example). Like Joan herself, The Hired Girl is comedic, romantic, and always very real.
The Scott O’Dell award, created by Scott O’Dell and Zena Sutherland in 1982 and now administered by Elizabeth Hall, carries with it a prize of $5000 and goes annually to the author of a distinguished work of historical fiction for young people published by a U. S. publisher and set in the Americas. The winner is chosen by a committee appointed by Elizabeth Hall; its members are Ann Carlson, librarian at the Oak Park-River Forest High School; Deborah Stevenson, editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books; and, as chair, Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book. For more information about Scott O’Dell and the Scott O’Dell Award please visit scottodell.com.