In a state known for exceptional writing, the Florida Book Awards honor the very best. Here’s a guide to its distinguished history, this year’s winners, authors’ favorite Florida classics—and more.

Florida’s literary history is rich with names known far beyond the borders of the state: Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, John D. MacDonald—
to name only a few.

In 2006, Florida State University’s John Fenstermaker, an American studies and English professor, and Wayne Wiegand, a library and information studies professor, founded the Florida Book Awards (FBA). They wanted to celebrate Florida’s literary legacy by honoring the best new books either written by Floridians or about Florida. Today the FBA is among the nation’s most comprehensive awards programs, with 11 categories ranging from young adult to cooking and Florida nonfiction. (This year’s winning books and authors are highlighted beginning on page 30.)

Past winners include such notable authors as Dennis Lehane, Randy Wayne White, Lauren Groff, Patricia Engel, Carl Hiaasen and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

Gilbert King, who in 2012 received an FBA Gold Award for Devil in the Grove, won a Pulitzer Prize the following year for the book. It chronicles NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall’s defense of Florida’s Groveland Four in 1949.

Historian Jack Davis received a Gold Award in 2009 for his book An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. 

FBA cofounder Wayne Wiegand researched book awards programs throughout the country to glean the best ideas for Florida. In 2005, he visited the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco, which hosts that state’s book awards.

“I was taken to an open area two stories high, with walls lined with bookshelves,” Wiegand remembers. “My host took me over to one of the shelves and pulled out a first edition of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, opened it to the title page and allowed me to read the inscription: ‘To the Commonwealth Club of California, John Steinbeck.’ I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got to replicate this in Florida.’ And we have.”

Miami writer Gerald Posner recently finished post-production on a six-hour Showtime series based on his book PHARMA: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, which won the 2020 FBA Gold Award for nonfiction. 

“I had the misfortune of publishing in March 2020, the outbreak of the pandemic,” Posner says. “The publisher canceled the book tour and bookstores closed a few weeks later. The FBA put a spotlight back on the book.”

Boosting the profile of Florida authors is a top priority of the FBA, says Nicole Morse, director of the 2022 Florida Book Awards at the Florida State University Libraries

“We want to celebrate their work but also create a community and provide a platform that they might not otherwise have,” Morse says.  

The program has evolved over the years based on input from partners and participants. It started with seven categories in 2006, including the nation’s first-ever Spanish-language book award. Visual arts, general nonfiction and cooking were added in later years, with children’s literature splitting into two categories. 

In 2021 Johnny Bell became the inaugural winner of the Gerald Ensley Developing Writer Award, given in memory of a veteran Tallahassee Democrat columnist with a decades-long career and dozens of honors for his work. 

And this year, the FBA introduced a gold medal in poetry for chapbooks, which are short volumes of poetry, usually by emerging authors. 

“The breadth of the award-winning books and authors reflects the variety of the state’s literary culture,” Morse says. “These amazing authors are strengthening Florida’s reputation as a place that inspires great writing.” 

In 2022, 130 entries competed for 33 awards in 11 categories. Below we look at the winners of those awards and peek inside the pages of the books that won first-place gold.

Young Children’s Literature

Gold:
Footprints Across the Planet by Jennifer Swanson

Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of more than 40 nonfiction books for children, most of them about science and technology. Swanson, who started a science club in her garage at the age of 7, aims to pass on her love for STEM to other children with what she calls “info-licious” books featuring captivating art and design and language that delights as well as informs.  

Florida Book Award jurors agreed that Footprints Across the Planet does just that. Written as a poem, it takes readers on a journey around the world, using vivid photographs to show how all the inhabitants of the planet, with their feet, words and actions, leave an imprint, from the physical to the digital to the metaphorical. In a story of choices, consequences and empowerment, the book asks readers to ponder this question: What type of imprint will you leave? 

Silver:
Acorn Was a Little Wild by Jen Arena

Bronze:
If Your Babysitter Is a Bruja by Ana Siqueira

Bronze:
Forever Home: A Dog and Boy Love Story by Henry Cole 

Older Children’s Literature 

Gold:
The Bluest Sky by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

A boy and his family must decide whether to remain in Cuba under a repressive government or risk everything for the chance of a new beginning in this story from the award-winning author of The Red Umbrella.

Young Hector lives dual lives in Cuba, publicly pledging support to the communist regime after the father he privately loves and misses is exiled to the United States and labeled an enemy of the people. But in the summer of 1980, his two worlds collide when the Cuban government opens the port of Mariel to all who want to leave the country. While Hector’s mother wants the family to go to the United States, Hector is torn. He misses his father, but Cuba is the only home he has ever known. 

“You feel Hector’s fear, frustration, horror and physical suffering as his world turns upside down,” jurors said. “His experience will have you on the edge of your seat.” 

Silver:
Secrets of the Lost City: A Scientific Adventure in the Honduran Rain Forest by Sandra Markle

Bronze:
We Own the Sky by Rodman Philbrick

Young Adult

Gold:
Hello, Goodbye by Kate Stollenwerck

In this debut novel from Jacksonville author Kate Stollenwerck, 15-year-old Hailey helps her grandmother, Gigi, unravel a family secret, an investigation that leads to surprising discoveries. 

Jurors called it “a genre-blending novel featuring heartfelt family drama and the stirrings of first love, all intertwined with the intrigue of a decades-old treasure hunt. Readers will be moved by the emotions and enthralled by the mystery.”

The idea for the book came to Stollenwerck 20 years ago, shortly after her grandmother passed away. 

“I wanted to craft a story that captures the beauty and timelessness of the grandparent/grandchild connection,” Stollenwerck wrote on the website School Library Journal. “The great love of this tale isn’t romantic love, but rather the pure, unconditional love shared between a grandparent and grandchild.”

Silver:
A Magic City Wonders Novel by Taylor Thomas Smythe

Bronze:
Mission Possible: How to Graduate from College Debt-Free by Dr. Juan Phillip Chisholm

General Nonfiction

Gold:
We the Presidents: How American Presidents Shaped the Last Century by Ronald Gruner

As a three-time tech CEO who grew up in Oklahoma, which he calls “the reddest of the red states,” and spent his career in Massachusetts, “the bluest of the blue,” Ronald Gruner was troubled by America’s growing partisan divide. He decided to write a book about the last century of U.S. presidents—from Warren G. Harding to Donald Trump—that would eschew politics and instead show how each president’s economic, domestic and international policies shaped our world today. 

Gruner had never written a book, but he figured it was like any other entrepreneurial project: “do research, be objective and be persistent.” We The Presidents vindicates his confidence.

Written in a clear and engaging style, the book traces the historical decisions that laid the groundwork for issues, from civil unrest to the war in Ukraine, which face America today. Gruner also shows how each president’s personality and character helped inspire his choices. His book deepens our understanding of the country’s leaders, history and current challenges.

Silver:
The Borinqueneers: A Visual History of the 65th Infantry Regiment by Noemi Figueroa Soulet

Bronze:
The Vet at Noah’s Ark by Dr. Doug Mader

Florida Nonfiction

Gold:
Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida’s Turning Point by Gary Mormino

Is there anything author and scholar Gary Mormino doesn’t know about Florida? Probably not, as this 500-plus-page follow-up to his Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams proves. Drawing on a multitude of sources, Mormino analyzes the changes that remade Florida in the first decade of the 21st century, turning it into “a growth machine” that is devouring the state’s landscape, resources and unique sense of place. Demographics, politics, economics, national and world events, weather, urbanization, environmental disasters, Ponzi schemes and more—Mormino examines all their effects on the place he says has become a preview of where America is heading. 

Yet despite the shocks of that transformational decade, Mormino remains in love with the state he’s spent his life studying, and it’s clear that love fuels his concern and hope that we still might protect what makes Florida magical.

Eloquent and readable, this book, jurors said, was “crafted by a master storyteller” and “is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand modern Florida.”

Silver:
Maximum Vantage: New Selected Columns by Bill Maxwell

Bronze:
From Swamp to Wetland: The Creation of Everglades National Park by Chris Wilhelm

Poetry

Gold:
Worrisome Creatures by Kate Sweeney

In what she calls her first “poetry novel,” Kate Sweeney brings together a decade’s worth of poems in a collection that is both tender and harrowing. Sweeney, who moved to Florida to earn a master’s in fine arts from the University of Florida and is now a college professor in New Port Richey, has said she is “fascinated” with the “wild, kind of outlaw” aspects of Florida’s sometimes “creepy” wildlife. Some of that wildlife—including cockroaches—are among the “creatures” of the collection’s title. Others are family members and the fraught yet rewarding relationships between them.

Ex-lovers, invasive trees and her own inadequacies are just a few of the creatures that also inspire the poet’s heart and vivid, often witty imagery. Her book charts the essential human journey through a world full of trauma, loss—and love. 

Silver:
Thunderbird Inn by Collin Callahan

Bronze:
Field Notes from the Flood Zone by Heather Sellers

Chapbook Gold:
Concussion Fragment by Brendan Walsh

General Fiction

Gold:
All Day Is a Long Time by David Sanchez

This powerhouse debut by a young writer who is himself a recovering addict sweeps you into the maelstrom of addiction. The first-person narrator, David, has his first drug experience as a 14-year-old riding a Greyhound bus from Tampa to Key West. His rapid-fire descent into crime, suffering and self-destruction is told with raw honesty and no excuses. A book lover who draws literary connections between the stages of his bottomless addiction and works such as Moby Dick, David is a smart and sardonic storyteller, with insights into everything from the anatomy of a high and exercise classes in rehab to why wrestling is “the Platonic ideal of fighting.”

David’s journey to redemption is horrific, courageous, and above all, real. His story gets at “what’s at the heart of addiction itself,” said a New York Times review, “and somehow leaves us with hope.”

Silver:
Spillway by Kim Bradley

Bronze:
How We Disappear by Tara Lynn Masih

Popular Fiction 

Gold:
The Ex-Wives by Jenna Kernan

After scraping by as a single mother, Elana marries handsome, charismatic Jackson, who loves her daughter, Phoebe, and has the means and desire to take care of them both. But soon Jackson becomes controlling and punitive, and Elana learns he has two ex-wives whose daughters disappeared after their divorces. Has she unwittingly put Phoebe in mortal danger? Terrified but determined to find the truth, Elana vows to continue to play the perfect wife while she searches for clues.

Jurors praised how Kernan, who won a Florida Book Awards bronze medal in 2021 for her debut crime thriller, A Killer’s Daughter, brings to life the lengths a mother will travel to save herself and her child from an abusive relationship. In this gripping, roller-coaster of a psychological thriller, Kernan lures readers into a world of deception and desperation and keeps them riveted until the end. 

Silver:
Song of the Chimney Sweep by Tamatha Cain

Bronze:
A Dish to Die For by Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib)

Spanish Language

Gold:
Congregaciones by Felix Anesio

Cuban-born Miami resident Felix Anesio won for his eighth collection of poems, Congregations, published by Casa Bukowski, a Chilean company with a commitment to sharing “the best of pan-Hispanic literature.”

A previous Florida Book Award winner, Anesio divides his book, which contains more than 70 poems and epigrams, into four parts: Ephemerals, Remembrances, Otherness and Myself. In those sections, he explores what he’s called “life in all its aspects,” from family, illness and death to love, anguish, exodus and contemplation of beauty.

Jurors said that Anesio “speaks to us with sobriety, emotion and eloquence about his personal experiences and brings them to us through rich images and metaphors.” 

Silver:
El cuerpo nunca olvida: Trabajo forzado, hombre nuevo y memoria en Cuba (1959-1980) by Abel Sierra Madero

Bronze:
Un amor mas sano by Rossana Montoya Calvo

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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.