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Kate Lebo, Sundee Frazier win Washington State Book Awards

Sept. 13, 2022 Updated Tue., Sept. 13, 2022 at 10:02 p.m.

Spokane writer Kate Lebo has won a Washington State Book Award for her 2021 release “The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with recipes).”

Her book, a combination of essays and recipes about unloved or otherwise troublesome fruit – durian, quince, blackberries, juniper, yuzu – discusses these edibles in terms of their botanical, medicinal or sometimes personal connotations. As Alex Beggs wrote in the New York Times, “Every fruit is ripe for metaphor for Lebo, who is both a poet and a baker. She resists giving symbolism too much power, but it’s hard when you realize that the needy ex-boyfriend is like an Italian plum tree, a novelty to care for who soon becomes an intolerable burden.”

A winner in the creative nonfiction category, Lebo’s book was named among the best of 2021 by several organizations and publications, including NPR’s Books We Love project, the Globe and Mail and the Atlantic. Spokane-area readers are invited to grab a copy and join in reading “The Book of Difficult Fruit” for this fall’s Spokane is Reading program.

The state book award was not an accolade she was even expecting, Lebo said.

“I’m in shock,” she said. “I think the field of candidates in creative nonfiction was really incredible. I had kind of written myself off because I was sure one of them was going to win. … And I’m so very honored to even be in the company of those other fantastic books.”

As the book has found its audience, Lebo has thrilled at making connections with those who in turn connected with it.

“As I was writing it, I did start to wonder, who would make these recipes? Who would go find these fruits? Who has stories in their families like mine, or health stories like mine, that the might glean something from whatever I’m trying to find out?” she said. “Since then it has been so fun to hear from people. I have been gifted with secret thimbleberry patch knowledge, and huckleberry patch knowledge, which I do not take lightly. That is a really cool secret to be let in on.

“I also heard early on from a lot of medlar nerds, people who were obsessed with that particular fruit, and I loved finding out that there was a certain subset of people who also are obsessed with that odd fruit.”

Erin Dodge, president of Spokane is Reading and a communications specialist with the Spokane County Library District, said she hopes news of Lebo’s award brings even more readers to the book.

“It’s categorized as creative nonfiction, but it also defies categorization,” Dodge said. “You get memoir, you get natural history, you get recipes. I think how well it was crafted, how well she writes – her language is beautiful – it really captivated the committee. We were excited, before we knew she was nominated, before we knew she won the award, we were excited to have her be the book for the year.”

Another winning book with a Spokane connection comes from Sundee Frazier of Renton. Her winning novel for young readers, “Mighty Inside,” is set in 1955 Spokane as a Black teenager sets out to find his way in his high school against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Her book was inspired by the story of her grandparents, who were the first Black family to move to Empire Avenue in Spokane in the 1940s.

The book’s main character, Melvin, is modeled after her father, who along with his siblings attended Rogers High School. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review last year, Frazier said her grandfather was only able to buy the family home on Empire with the help of a white man who posed as her grandfather, William Tucker. Once the family moved in, neighbors objected, but the family stayed resolute.

“I very much relied on reporting of my aunt and uncles and Dad who grew up in Spokane in the ’50s and ’60s (people who) totally know that experience of not being biracial but being Black in a predominately white environment and channel their experience,” Frazier told The Spokesman-Review.

“The Mighty Inside” is her fourth book for young readers. During an appearance last year at The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club, Frazier said she wanted to show the dignity, perseverance and joy of the Black community.

“I really wanted it to be so compelling and beautiful, in terms of telling the story of my Black people,” she said.

The Washington State Book Awards, presented by the Washington Center for the Book and the Seattle Public Library, gives awards in eight categories for outstanding books by Washington authors, including fiction, biography/memoir, creative nonfiction, general nonfiction, poetry, picture books, young adult books and books for young readers. For the 2022 awards, judges read and evaluated 243 books that were published in 2021.

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