Sue Ellen Bridgers Receives 2009 Arts and Sciences English Alumni Award
The recipient of the 2009 Arts and Sciences Alumni Award in English is Sue Ellen Bridgers. Sue Ellen graduated from WCU in 1976 with a BA in English and within a year her first novel, Home Before Dark, was published and was named one of the Best books for Young Adults by the American Library Association (or ALA). It was also named one of the Outstanding Children’s Books of the year by the New York Times. (The novel, by the way, was partially written in a creative writing class here at WCU). This achievement was followed by six more novels over the years (All Together Now, Notes for Another Life, Sara Will, Permanent Connections, Keeping Christina, and All We Know of Heaven) as well as a number of individual short fiction pieces and essays. Her accolades include New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, ALA Notable Book, The Christopher Award, Boston Globe-Horn Honor Book, National Book Award Finalist, Gold Award by Parents' Choice, NC AAUW Literature Award, and a Paterson Prize finalist.
But this atomization of her oeuvre in some ways detracts from the substantive content of her work and her achievements since graduating from WCU. In the English department we regularly work with our students to see the depth and richness reflected in sophisticated writing, and we encourage students to apply their analytical, interpretive, and research skills to improve their communities and the lives they touch. Sue Ellen’s works are a model of such sophistication, and an exemplum of social activism, in a genre – young adult fiction – often ignorantly dismissed for sentimentality or superficiality. As Karen Mitchell writes in the ALAN Review, Bridgers’ novel Permanent Connections extends the young adult genre as it affirms the bonds of family and community connections and of shared human experience. Both adult and adolescent characters alike come to terms with change, an inevitable reality in their lives, and with alienation, an inescapable phenomenon in modern times. In spite of different definitions of alienation for adolescents and women in this novel, the substance is the same-- alienation as a result of cultural oppressions, of conflicts between themselves, and of confrontations with their selves.
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She does not shy away from significant personal or cultural issues, including racial and social inequality, gender conflict, death, and class conflict. Her works are often set in rural America and in the South, and she herself has lived just down the road in Sylva since graduating from WCU. Her portrayals of the region, and her characters, are realistic and avoid both sentimentalization and clichéd demonization or vilification of southern culture. We are particularly honored to count Sue Ellen as a WCU English alum given her work to promote reading and literacy across the country while retaining her ties to the region. We are also honored that Sue Ellen has donated to WCU many of her drafts, revised manuscripts, proof copies, correspondences, and other materials relating to her novels – the Bridgers Collection now comprises approximately 12 linear feet of material in Hunter Library’s Special Collections.
The English Department truly believes Sue Ellen exemplifies what we wish for our alumni: to understand the human character in cultural, ethical, and historical contexts; to write at the highest professional standard; to instruct others; and to champion the humanities in the contemporary world.