Elizabeth Findley Shores Wins 2023 Worthen Literary Prize
Elizabeth Findley Shores, an independent historian living in Little Rock, received this year’s Booker Worthen Literary Prize, presented by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies on behalf of the Central Arkansas Library System, for her book Shared Secrets: The Queer World of Newbery Medalist Charles J. Finger. Published by the University of Arkansas Press, Shores’s biography of Finger brings an important early-twentieth-century Arkansas writer to the attention of today’s readers. The Worthen Prize carries a $2,000 cash prize, making it and the Porter Prize the two richest awards for Arkansas writers. The Worthen Prize is presented to the Arkansas author of a book published in the three-year eligibility period following the book’s publication.
Charles J. Finger, an Englishman who settled in northwestern Arkansas, wrote for magazines, and even published one, as well as writing many books, including Tales from Silver Lands, which won the 1925 Newbery Medal presented by the American Library Association. Silver Lands is a collection of folktales from Central and South America.
Shores is also the author of On Harper’s Trail: Roland McMillan Harper: Pioneering Botanist of the Southern Coastal Plain (University of Georgia Press) and Earline’s Pink Party: The Social Rituals and Domestic Relics of a Southern Woman (University of Alabama Press).
The Worthen Prize honors Booker Worthen (1908–1981) for his twenty-two years on the library’s board of trustees. Establishment of the award and its endowment was one of the actions taken by former library director Bobby Roberts in 1999 to honor trustees important in the library’s history. Adolphine Fletcher Terry previously had a branch library named in her honor, and Roberts began a speaker series to honor J. N. Heiskell, Rabbi Ira Sanders, and Fred Darragh. For Booker Worthen, however, an annual book award named in his honor and given to an Arkansas writer seemed fitting. The endowment for the monetary award was funded in part by the Worthen family, generations of whom have been prominent in Arkansas’s banking history.
A book award also seemed appropriate for Booker Worthen, as he had established a library endowment while on the board. He named it the Asongout Fund after a French phrase (a son gout), meaning “to each his own” or “everyone to his own taste.” The interest from this endowment was to be used to help the library buy science fiction and mystery books, genres popular with readers but perhaps not so highly regarded in literary circles. Worthen believed that a public library should certainly provide “literature,” but also what he called the “not so good books” people liked to read. This whimsically named endowment still helps CALS buy books in those two genres.
In the twenty-four years of its existence, the Worthen Prize has recognized an impressive roster of important books and their authors. The winning books have been histories, novels, children’s books, autobiographies, true crime, genealogy works, and books about Arkansas music; one winning effort told about a German newspaper in nineteenth-century Little Rock and another was a biography of library trustee Rabbi Ira Sanders. Charles Bolton, Mara Leveritt, Grif Stockley, Kenneth Barnes, and Kevin Brockmeier have won the award twice.
By Bob Razer, retired CALS librarian and chair of the Worthen Prize selection committee