Book awards tailored for outdoor adventure

Contest helps attract attention for authors in little-understood niche

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2004

BOISE, Idaho - A decade ago, adventure writers and photographers who climbed the world's tallest peaks, paddled the most dangerous waters and told the tallest tales had trouble peddling their stories.

The larger publishing houses in New York and elsewhere were reluctant to invest untested authors in a little-understood market niche. Many authors had trouble attracting attention or recognition for their work.

But for the past few years, the Pocatello, Idaho-based National Outdoor Book Awards list has provided an increasingly respected signpost to the best in environmental-friendly outdoor reading.

As director of Idaho State University's renowned Outdoor Program in 1995, Ron Watters saw a gap that needed to be filled.

"There were lots of other niche book awards, but there wasn't anything for outdoor books," said Watters, who has written several books himself and is an expert in flatwater and easy whitewater canoeing.

"There was all this good stuff going on in the outdoors, but there was no place where the writers could send their books in to a national contest."

In 1995, Watters pitched his idea to friends and associates at a conference of outdoor recreation leaders in New York. It drew enough interest to form a committee, which for the next two years set standards, submission procedures and selected judges. The contest launched in 1997 with 30 entries.

Over the years, the organization has expanded its categories. Besides the real-world adventure narrative, there's room for "how-to" instructional books, fiction, biographies, photography, nature guidebooks, even children's books.

In 2003, "Jam & Jelly by Holly & Nellie," written by Gloria Whelan and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, took the prize for the children's book category.

Whelan is a Michigan native who lives in a Thoreau-like setting in the Upper Peninsula. A small lake is the centerpiece of her 260 acres, which have been preserved by conservation easement.

"Jam & Jelly" is a journey though the northern woods as a mother and daughter pick various berries through the seasons. Her story is supported by warm, comfortable illustrations by van Frankenhuyzen.

"Each berry is found in a different place," Whelan said. "Blueberries are on a bank, where you see the lake. Blackberries are deeper in the woods, where it can be a kind of a scary place."

The underlying message to her young readers is that it's important to look closely at the nature that's around us, to see both the whole picture and the parts.

"Even in the city, there's a lot of nature to look at. The closer you look, the more you realize how valuable it is," she said.

Not all the work will be fully accessible to general readership. This year's winner in the Outdoor Literature category was Joe Simpson's "The Beckoning Silence." It begins with a hair-raising - yet fairly technical - account of climbing a brittle set of ice falls.

"He does assume you have a basic knowledge of mountaineering," Watters said. "It doesn't necessarily have to appeal to someone who has never climbed before."

As a book judge, Ley said he does not let his passion for the outdoors excuse substandard writing, editing or organization.

"I'm looking for excellence," said Ley, who for the past four years has judged submissions in the categories of outdoor adventure guidebook, instructional, and classics. "I lose it if I find a misspelled word or a crummy index. Those are real black marks for me."

And he wants his winning picks to be physically robust, stout enough to survive handling in the elements.

"I've got to hold this book in my hand, and it has to feel appropriate. Guidebooks have to feel like guidebooks," he said.

While the title - National Outdoor Book Award - suggests the award is wide open to any work that deals in outdoor recreation, Watters is unapologetic about narrowing the focus to the types of recreation he feels are appropriate.

Bloodsports such as hunting and fishing, while certainly considered as outdoor adventures by many hunters and fishermen, may not be accepted. It depends on the tone and direction of the work.

Anything with a motor is definitely out.

"It's not about catching fish and running around on a motorized boat. That's not going to make it in our contest," Watters said. "The adventure part is part and parcel of the NOBA contest, and that takes a lot of adventure out of it, when you've got a motor."

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