2022 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction

From Deborah Stevenson, chair of the O'Dell Award committee: 

Champaign, IL (January 10, 2022) — The 2022 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction goes to Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland, published by Balzer + Bray.

Ophie is twelve when she sees a ghost for the first time: her father’s spirit warns her to leave Georgia with her mother, after he has been murdered by white men. She and her mother find shelter with family in Pittsburgh, in 1922 only slightly more welcoming than Georgia to Black people, and take jobs as maids at Daffodil Manor, owned by a tyrannical elderly white lady. There Ophie meets a household full of new people, and she realizes that some of those people are ghosts, who offer glimpses into the household’s (and the nation’s) troubled history. One in particular strikes a chord with Ophie, who begins to suspect that the truth about this spirit’s mysterious death may reveal a terrible secret at the heart of Daffodil Manor.

Author Justina Ireland is best known for her superb work in YA books such as Dread Nation, but she’s equally skillful here in writing for the middle grades. The story unfurls with an absorbing and eventful pace, while creating an enticingly moody atmosphere in its bustling Great Migration–era Pittsburgh; the narrative lies within easy comprehensive reach of young readers while stealthily layering on concepts that will satisfyingly stretch their understanding. The prose is silky smooth, but there’s a keen edge to the portrayal of oppressive, murderous racism in the North as well as in the South, and Ireland writes her villains with nuance but without compromise. The book probes the precarious concept of racial divides, of what it means to “pass,” alongside Ophie’s ability to see past the divide between the living and the dead. Ghosts here are representations of secrets, of losses, of the layers of individual experience that collectively constitute history; no matter how benign those specters may seem, they always carry the possibility of danger. Young readers drawn by the notion of the uncanny will obtain a new understanding of their nation’s ghosts as well.

The Scott O’Dell Award, created by Scott O’Dell and Zena Sutherland in 1982 and now administered by Elizabeth Hall, the widow of Scott O’Dell, 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 Elizabeth Bush, former librarian at St. Damian School and adjunct faculty at the iSchool at the University of Illinois; Kate Quealy-Gainer, editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books; Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book; and, as chair, Deborah Stevenson, retired editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. For more information about Scott O’Dell and the Scott O’Dell Award please visit scottodell.com or contact Deborah Stevenson at dstevens@illinois.edu.

Read the Horn Book's starred review of Ophie's Ghosts and more by and about author Justina Ireland

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