Most readers are familiar with the more prestigious annual book prizes out there, among them the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the PEN America Literary Awards. A new prize—from Chicago no less—may soon join them. Last year, the Newberry Library and the Pattis Family Foundation partnered to create the $25,000 Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award—currently, one of the largest book prizes in the United States. Celebrating works that transform public understanding of Chicago, its history, and its people, the Pattis Award is in its second year and is poised to make a significant and lasting impact on the next generation of Chicago literary icons.
Toya Wolfe is this year’s winner. She received the Pattis Award for her debut novel Last Summer on State Street (William Morrow), a moving and complex coming-of-age story of Black girlhood set in one of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Robert Taylor Homes the summer before its demolition. The award panel also recognized Heather Hendershot as the shortlist award recipient for her nonfiction title When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America (University of Chicago Press).
“Toya Wolfe’s debut novel is an endearing, memorable, and page-turning work with broad appeal and deep ‘Chicago heart,’” said Daniel Greene, former President and Librarian of the Newberry and a Pattis Award jury member, in a provided statement. “Set during an important turning point in the history of public housing in Chicago, Last Summer on State Street is a compelling story of friendship, community, and home.”
Toya Wolfe grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side and earned an MFA
in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Last Summer on State Street was released to
critical acclaim in June 2022, with The New York Times Book Review calling it “a remarkable
achievement.” Since then, the novel was a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award in Traditional Fiction, and was featured as one of NBA champion Stephen Curry’s Literati Book Club picks.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Wolfe said in a recent interview, adding that she was “over the
moon” when she learned that she had won the Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award.
She described working several part-time jobs while writing and editing her award-winning novel,
and a transformative residency experience at Ragdale, the nonprofit artists’ residency program in suburban Lake Forest (recommended to her by one of her Columbia College professors, bestselling author Audrey Niffenegger). After landing her agent, Wolfe worked through more novel revisions over several years, which ultimately paid off: one of the Big Five publishers signed her debut, HarperCollins imprint William Morrow.
“I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that one of the big publishers in New York would latch onto
this book,” Wolfe said. “It was a publishing fairy tale.”
She described attending the PEN America Literary Awards ceremony in New York City, “the Oscars for novelists,” and being among celebrity authors including Tiny Fey, Molly Ringwald, and David Sedaris, a fellow award nominee with whom she struck up a conversation. A few months later, Wolfe went to one of Sedaris’ shows and he recognized her in the book signing line—remarking wryly about the fact that they both lost their PEN America awards.
“So fast forward, I win this Pattis Award—which is double the amount of money I would have
won for [the] PEN Award—and it’s from my hometown,” Wolfe said. “When you win an award
like this, it really takes the pressure off. It’s a reminder to you that you can do it—someone else
outside of you and your work is saying, ‘We believe in you, take this money and go focus on
Wolfe stressed the mentoring spirit in Chicago’s literary community, for aspiring writers who want to make connections and build support networks. She encouraged writers to go out and support their peers at reading events across Chicago, especially debut authors who don’t have the name recognition of their award-winning counterparts. Wolfe once went to a local bookstore event for Colson Whitehead’s debut novel The Intuitionist, nearly two decades before he won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (twice).
“I have always been in the mix on the literary scene, and that’s not going to change now that I’m
a published author. I love the size of our town, and I love that you can find your people,” Wolfe
said. “People talk about Chicago being this training ground for writers and for improv and
theater. What people are missing is that there are people out here just as hungry as you are […]
it’s not always about connecting with big-wig celebrities, but the people who are grinding just
like you, becoming friends with folks. Then you have a support system.”
More good news may soon be in store for this rising Chicago literary star. Wolfe said the Pattis
Family Foundation Chicago Book Award will enable her to focus on writing her second book, as
well as revising her TV series adaptation of Last Summer on State Street.
Wolfe will officially receive the Pattis Award during Chicago Storytelling in Bughouse Square
2023: Chicago Forward, a free event outside Newberry Library on Saturday, July 15, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. (award presentation at 4 p.m.). She’ll discuss Last Summer on State Street with Gail Kern Paster, interim president and librarian at the Newberry. Emceed by legendary Chicago media personality and author Rick Kogan, this event will also feature other Chicago storytellers and change-makers, including Shermann Dilla Thomas, Chad the Bird, Kim L. Hunt, Jahmal Cole, Ada Cheng, Channyn Lynne Parker and Kelly Suzanne Saulsberry.
The Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award is open to writers working in a variety of
genres, including history, biography, social sciences, poetry, drama, graphic novels, and
fiction—all relating to Chicago. Dawn Turner received the inaugural Pattis Award in 2022 for
Three Girls from Bronzeville. Authors may nominate their own books for the award, along with
nominations from publishers and members of the general public. For more information, visit
the Newberry Library site.
Note: Last Summer on State Street was recently reviewed on Third Coast Review here.
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