Nina LaCour, winner of this year’s Michael L. Printz Award for her young adult novel We Are Okay (Dutton), spent the hours immediately following the official prize announcement on her way from her home in San Francisco to Palm Springs, Calif. “It’s a very glamorous place to be!” she told PW after landing. “It wasn’t at all to do with the awards, just a happy coincidence.” But LaCour isn’t on a celebratory vacation; she is back to work on a new book.
Though LaCour had received word of her medal from the Printz committee on Saturday morning, in some ways she has not yet touched down from the elation. Describing the moments before getting the news, she said, “I was just changing the sheets on the bed, and doing some chores at home. I didn’t expect a call at all. It was incredible. I saw the call was from a New York number, which didn’t necessarily mean anything. But I think everyone is on high alert on ALA weekend. I answered and was told it was the Printz committee. At first, I thought I had gotten an Honor, and I was overjoyed. Then I was told it was the Medal.”
Her response? “I started sobbing, and I sobbed through the entire phone call. I was basically incoherent. But I promised [the committee] I would be more articulate for ALA annual!” The overall feeling, she said, was one of disbelief. “I spent the whole phone call wondering if it was really happening. It felt so otherworldly, like this amazing fantasy.”
LaCour kept her win mostly under wraps before the formal announcement, telling only those closest to her. “I really tried to keep it a secret. I called my wife and my daughter, who were out running errands. I was crying, and at first my wife thought something was wrong.” LaCour assured her otherwise. “My daughter is four and had no idea what was going on, but she was very sweet,” she added.
Remembering a tip from friend and 2015 Printz Medalist Jandy Nelson, LaCour subtly encouraged her friends outside of the YA community to tune into the ALA press conference. Since the news went public, she said, “It’s been an incredible influx of happy and kind and really meaningful messages from friends and colleagues and librarians—people I know very well, and people I’ve never met.”
We Are Okay, which is her fourth solo novel, tells the story of Marin, a college freshman from San Francisco who is spending winter break alone on a frigid East Coast campus. When her friend and former girlfriend, Mabel, visits from California, Marin begins to open up about her unexplained silence and the tragedy she has kept locked inside since the previous summer.
LaCour said of the novel, “It’s a really personal book for me. It feels like a distillation of a lot of different experiences and losses and also connections and wonders I had experienced over the course of about a year. It was a very tumultuous time: I had just become a parent and recently lost my grandfather, and my parents had separated and were getting divorced. There were a lot of shifts in my idea of what family was and what it meant. That led to a lot of exploration, and luckily I was able to channel it into writing the book.”
Sharing such an intimate story with readers has been deeply moving, LaCour said. “I was on the road for most of last year, and I heard some really wonderful things. The most meaningful feedback for me was from librarians and teachers who said, ‘Now I know what book to give my students when they’ve experienced a great loss.’ ”
When LaCour first enrolled in the MFA program at Mills College, she hadn’t imagined writing for teens. “I went into grad school with part of an adult novel. And I haven’t given it up; I still work on it from time to time. But my heart has really been with YA.” She cited author and professor Kathryn Reiss as helping inspire her change in focus. “Through her classes, I started reading YA in a way I hadn’t before and realizing how rich it is to immerse yourself in the teen experience and relive it, with all the possibilities it has to offer.”
It was during that course that LaCour began work on her debut novel Hold Still (Dutton, 2009). Writing the book, she said, she felt “a sense of rightness—it was what I was meant to be working on.” The post-publication response from readers and critics bore out that feeling: LaCour was named a PW Flying Start for the book, which was also a finalist for the William C. Morris Award for a first-time YA author.
In addition to writing, LaCour currently serves as a faculty member at Hamline University’s MFA program. She previously taught high school, but switched to a more flexible schedule after her daughter was born. “I love it, being in this environment where children’s literature is so deeply respected,” she said.
As far as celebrating her award, LaCour hasn’t made any plans as of yet, but is forging ahead with her new novel, which will also be published at Dutton with editor Julie Strauss-Gabel. “I hope to get a lot done here [in Palm Springs].” Though she is hesitant to share details about the plot at this stage (“I’m feeling pretty protective of it at the moment. It took me a long time to get to the right idea”), she said, “It does grapple with many of the themes in We Are Okay. It also has a lot of grief, but takes things in a different direction. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before; it’s a stretch for me.” It isn’t a stretch to imagine that readers are eager for more.