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Dayton Literary Peace Prize: UD Librarians Narrow the Field

By Bridget Garnai, Kayla Harris and Zachary Lewis

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is the first and only literary award in the United States that focuses on writing that promotes peace. Inaugurated in 2006, the program selects a winner and a runner-up in both adult fiction and nonfiction books. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation also annually presents the Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Award for Distinguished Achievement.

Experience as First Readers

To narrow the field of literature each year for the final judging process, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation uses first readers to evaluate five to six books in either fiction or nonfiction. The first readers rate each book on both literary quality and the books’ connection to peace that increases “understanding between and among people as individuals or within and between families, communities, nations, ethnic groups, cultures and religions.” Recommendations from the first readers are forwarded on to the panel of four award-winning writers who serve as the final judges. In 2020, 78 individuals from a variety of backgrounds served as first readers, including three librarians from the University Libraries. 

  • Bridget Garnai: My colleague Zachary let me know that the Dayton Literary Peace Prize was looking for first readers this year, so I signed up to be a first reader for nonfiction books. After finishing graduate school last year, I felt like I finally had more time to read things that were not assigned to me by professors, and I’d already enjoyed some great nonfiction books recently, so I was really excited to diversify my reading list by participating as a first reader. Through this experience, I learned about anti-racism, the personal lives of the first cultural anthropologists, the experiences of a first-generation American, the difficult path to forgiveness after a church massacre, and the survival of women in ISIS. 
  • Kayla Harris: I became involved as a first reader for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2018 after a former colleague in the library suggested it to me. I was excited to see that some books I had loved were previous winners or runners-up, such as 2016’s fiction winner, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I have a background in creative writing, but with three young boys at home, I have very little time to devote to reading beyond my sons’ picture books. This seemed like a great opportunity to commit to something that not only forced me to read more, but to read outside of my comfort zone. I’ve now served as a first reader in fiction for two years and have found some new favorites that I’m not sure I would have picked up otherwise. The finalist list represents only a small portion of the many worthy titles. 
  • Zachary Lewis: I first learned about the DLPP from Kayla, who suggested that I might be interested in becoming a first reader because of my endless hours talking about Goodreads. I was really interested in turning my leisure reading hobbies into something more productive, and the idea of helping to recognize authors who cover such timely and important topics appealed to me. In 2019, I had a personal goal of reading 250 books, so it was nice to focus on five individual books and reflect on their meaning and impact. For 2020, perhaps in unconscious preparation for the hectic year to come, my sights were set a little lower at 100 books, so spending time with the five DLPP books offered an opportunity to reflect on the importance of these issues.

The Finalists

The 2020 finalists — six books for each category — were announced in early October, and the winners will be announced on Oct. 28. A ceremony to celebrate the winners, which normally occurs in the fall, is tentatively scheduled for spring 2021 due to the pandemic. This year, each of the first readers from the University Libraries had a book recognized as a finalist. 

  • Bridget: Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness is a non-fiction finalist. I found this to be a very powerful and emotional book that challenged how I think about forgiveness and grief. Jennifer Berry-Hawes’ research and writing honor the tragic experiences of each victim, survivor and family member in the wake of the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 
  • Kayla: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is a finalist in the fiction category. Luiselli tells the story of a disjointed family’s journey through the American Southwest while she chases the stories of the “lost children” crossing the United States-Mexico border. As an archivist myself, I found it interesting to see how Luiselli referenced professional archival theory.
  • Zachary: I loved all of my assigned books this year, and I was thrilled to see that Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a finalist in the fiction category. Lefteri aims a critical eye at the way displaced persons are treated and deftly handles issues of trauma and loss with heart and sensitivity. I’ve read a few of the other finalists this year as well, and I think any of them would be deserving of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Copies of past finalists for the prize are available for checkout in the University Libraries’ leisure reading collection; the 2020 selections — courtesy of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation — will be available soon.

— Bridget Garnai is a lecturer in the University Libraries. Kayla Harris is an assistant professor and a librarian and archivist in the Marian Library. Zachary Lewis is an assistant professor and the student success librarian in the University Libraries.

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