Current Writing Award Winners

ASJA’s Annual Writing Award Winners

Congratulations to our winners! Our judges worked hard to select from the abundance of great submissions.

First-Person Essay

Winner: Dead Weight by Claire O’Brien, in Hippocampus Magazine
Claire O’Brien’s deft slice-of-life essay gives readers a peek into a fascinating and difficult job: death investigator. It’s filled with human insight and just the right details; it moves at a fast pace through what could feel like tangents in less capable hands, but blends together into a seamless narrative here about suicide and its aftermath. This piece stays with readers and leaves us wanting the rest of the story, so it’s great to learn that it’s part of a larger project to come.

Honorable Mention: Sight and Insight by Liane Kupferberg Carter, in Longreads
Liane Kupferberg Carter has strabismus, also known as a lazy eye. Her essay flows through her life and depicts what living with this issue has been like: difficult, when she’s been bullied by both kids and adults; full of love, when she meets her husband and builds a life with him; and insightful, as the title states. Her writing covers her emotions, her pain, her love, and what she learns from it. To find out her insight, be sure to read it—the essay is worth it.


Winner: Why It’s Important to Push Back on ‘Plandemic’—And How to Do It by Tara Haelle, in 
Tara Haelle’s deep dive into the big issue of coronavirus disinformation is comprehensive and compelling, a thoughtful guide for thinking people whose Facebook friends got suckered in. It’s a smart piece that touches on a fresh, new concept and terminology that is a pervasive part of our lives. Like any stellar op-ed, it ticks the “So What?” and “Why Should I Care?” boxes in a deft and engaging way.

Reported Essay

Winner: Your ‘Surge Capacity’ is Depleted—It’s Why You Feel Awful by Tara Haelle, in Elemental
The pandemic was personal, and Tara Haelle elevated the reported essay form by illuminating deeper currents of human resilience and response to what most of us encountered for the first time. Strong reporting married a transparent and compassionate point of view to propel this reported essay to the top spot as the clear winner.


Winner: Liminal Spaces by Zachary Petit, in Writer’s Digest
Zachary Petit’s profile of Erik Larson grabs the reader with an engaging lede. The whole article is organized around a single question that pulls you through as he reaches for answers. Petit uses a style that mirrors Erik Larson’s own—thorough and vivid, with precise, strong language—tightly woven and deliberately written. The piece is immersive and evocative: You feel like you’re right there with Larson.
Honorable Mention: This Bird Survived Because She Never Quit by John Moir, in Audubon Magazine
John Moir brings his subject sympathetically to life from the opening paragraph. The story is deeply researched and developed, with authoritative sources and revealing, telling details. We have an animated and absorbing portrait of a modest yet dedicated scientist still contributing to her profession at age 90.


Winner: The Case of the Autographed Corpse by Jack El-Hai, for Smithsonian Magazine
Jack El-Hai’s story of how the author of the Perry Mason series came to the defense of an Apache shaman wrongfully convicted of murder is gripping, beautifully researched and written, unfolding like the true crime mysteries we love. One jurist said, “I liked it because it combines history with prevalent issues like race, culture and social justice.” Jack’s subject would make a great screen play or documentary.


Winner: Sunrise Kingdom by Meg Lukens Noonan, in Coastal Living
Meg Lukens Noonan takes a commonplace destination—the state of Rhode Island—and turns it into a magical land, where rabbits stand at attention and the sea air lends flavor to the stuffed clams. She captivates her readers by weaving the tone of an obscure Wes Anderson film into her visit to the southern New England shore, blending firsthand experience, personal profiles, and local lore to reveal the mystique of the seaside culture.

Social Change

Winner: What are U.S. Airlines Missing? Women Pilots by Arielle Emmett, in Air & Space
Arielle Emmett’s article spoke most directly to the name of the category: social change. By profiling a group of advocates working within the aviation industry to improve its level of diversity, this article is informative but may also be a catalyst for accelerating this process.

Honorable Mention: The Next Generation of the French Far Right by Rebecca Nathanson, in VICE World News
This piece offers a close-up view of the young people in France who are affiliating with the radical right-wing parties. The direct quotes from, and the vivid descriptions of, the movement’s up-and-coming leaders brought home the reality of the growing problem of political extremism in France.

Honorable Mention: The Sins of the Father by Michaela Haas, in Medium
A chilling account of an unregulated, unethical (and very creepy) sperm bank in Atlanta. The intimacy reflected in the personal stories of the subjects draws attention to a social phenomenon sorely in need of reform.


Winner: Adult Women Struggle With Eating Disorders, Too. Here’s Why Treatment Looks Different by Beth Howard, in Prevention
Beth Howard explores an infrequently discussed fact: Eating disorders are surprisingly common among women in middle age. Howard’s reporting includes the perspectives of experts, delves into research on the topic, and shares the thoughts of women recovering from eating disorders. When considered in the context of so many women losing work, becoming responsible for at-home school, and all the other stresses of 2020, Howard’s piece is particularly interesting and poignant.

Excellence in Reporting

Winner: Climate Change Turns the Tide on Waterfront Living by Jim Morrison, in The Washington Post Magazine
Jim Morrison’s important story highlights how discussions on the climate problem of rising tides must go beyond resilience to include retreat—and details all the implications for communities, government budgets and homeowners’ lives from pulling back from the waterfront. Morrison writes a compelling narrative on an issue many in U.S. coastal communities may eventually face, which lingers with readers long after.

Honorable Mention: When Can We Really Rest? by Nadja Drost, in The California Sunday Magazine
Nadja Drost provides an unsettling glimpse into how migrants are crossing the dangerous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama—thousands of miles of mountainous rainforest and marshland filled with impassable terrain, robbers, rotting corpses, and the undying hope for a better life in the United States. The strength of the article is her personal experience with a group of migrants thrown together by fate to vividly render their treacherous journey.


Winner: How Manipulating Rodent Memories Can Elucidate Neurological Function by Amber Dance, in TheScientist 
This is a stunner of a feature, expertly crafted. Amber Dance draws the reader in with excellent storytelling while simultaneously educating them, explaining some complex science in language simple enough for lay people to understand. While a specialized topic, we found it to be an accessible, enlightening and fascinating read.

Fitness & Sports

Winner: The Surprising Role Sports Played in Women’s Suffrage by Haley Shapley, in Teen Vogue
Haley Shapley’s well-researched and well-written story is rich with details that brought the characters to life—a potentially difficult task, given that the events are long past and the principals now deceased. It is particularly timely, given the current intertwining of athletics (both male and female) and activism.

Content B2C

Winner: Body Composting Is the Newest Sustainable Death Practice by Kelly McSweeney, in Now. by Northrop Grumman
Kelly McSweeney has produced a master work in the Business-to-Consumer category. Taking the topic of body composting, which could have been uninteresting, unpleasant or morbid in lesser hands, she creates a compelling case for considering what we want to happen to our bodies when we die. In addition to educating us about an innovative alternative to burial or cremation, she gets us thinking in new ways about how the dissolution of our own bodies affects the environment after we’re gone, and how the way we think about death can lead us to an inspiring appreciation of the circle of life.


Winner: A Legacy of Endless Limbo, by Lauren Martin, in Temporary 
Lauren Martin’s beautifully woven narrative—one that paints individual portraits of “faceless people”—maintains a delicate balance with her in-depth exploration of the multiple layers of politics behind the immigration crisis, the public fear and ultimately, the endless state of limbo. Martin humanizes the experiences of her subjects, defying readers’ assumptions. The story reached great dimensions and depth in physical effort, that sense of limbo, hope breaking through fear. We’re gripped by Martin’s expertise in allowing us to feel the crisis. From there, we try to grasp the “why.”

Honorable Mention: The Remote Workforce by Dawn Papandrea, in Monster
Dawn Papandrea’s data-driven report sheds light on what may occur when the pandemic’s “infinite present” comes to a close, and delves into the future of work. Papandrea offers a fresh take on a subject that has been widely debated in the past 12 months. The use of specific company data made for a compelling comparative analysis on the trends that are likely our future.

Service (Book)

Winner: Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living by Kris Bordessa
In clear, down-to-earth language, Kris Bordessa delivers a timely and beautiful book that offers a lifetime of guidance on how to be more self-sufficient for reasons of health, satisfaction and happiness. Attainable Sustainable offers a solid foundation for practicing the necessary skills and crafts or just the ability to dabble among dozens of how-to topics. The book’s presentation and photographs are gorgeous, thanks to publisher National Geographic, but Attainable Sustainable is far more than a pretty facade. It’s practical and sensible, which is exactly what a stellar service book should be.

Children (Book)

Winner: Sea Otters, A Survival Story by Isabelle Groc
This engaging and informative book for middle grade readers details sea otters’ lives and their impact on the ecosystem and makes the reader care about these creatures and their future. Sidebars about scientists in the field provide more information about the science of the ecosystem and may serve to encourage future marine scientists.

Honorable Mention: Strange Sea Creatures by Erich Hoyt
Erich Hoyt engages his readers with fascinating, well-researched facts about sea creatures of all sizes, from the surface to the sea bottom and everywhere in between. Each entry is a writing gem, and the stunning photography is a welcome bonus.


Winner: Talking to Kids about Race, by Heather Greenwood Davis, in National Geographic
This story is not only an important topic, but timely, well-reported and beautifully and sensitively written, including specific examples and serviceable how-to advice for parents.

Food & Drink

Winner: Asafoetida’s Lingering Legacy Goes Beyond Aroma, by Vidya Balachander, in Whetstone Magazine
This is a beautifully written piece exploring the spice. The writer strikes an intriguing balance between her personal experience and history, anthropology and politics. A fantastic piece combining in-depth research and skillful writing.


Winner: Collision, by Bhavya Dore, in FiftyTwo
Bhavya Dore has skillfully crafted a compelling narrative that kept judges engaged from beginning to end. Dore incorporates highly technical information into the story line without
dimming the impact of the primary theme—a breakdown in communications that triggered the airliner crash. Dore clearly illustrated the complications of different spoken languages with technology—and how technology can help overcome those complications.


Winner: Get Rich Selling Used Fashion Online—or Cry Trying by Alden Wicker, in Wired
With an engaging anecdotal lede, strong nut graf and nice kicker, this story is well-written with in-depth reporting. Using multiple sources, the story is full of facts and stats about Poshmark and its evolution while also weaving in the experiences of a Poshmark reseller.

Blog Post

Winner: Framed: Practicing Art, Love, and Creativity in My Home by Janice Lynch Schuster
“To me, every canvas is a novel,” writes Janice Lynch Schuster, who skillfully weaves vivid stories of how family members—especially her mother and grandmother—influenced her early foray into painting and sculpture, thereby creating a vibrant picture of the art on Schuster’s walls at home and in her heart.

Honorable Mention: Treading Between Coronavirus Worlds by Dulce Zamora
At the onset of the pandemic, Dulce Zamora and her family were “drowning in an ocean of coronavirus info” as American expats in Singapore. She elevates her riveting account of the experience with imagery and ultimately—despite the “waves of chaos”—hope.


Winner: The Butterfly and the Blaze by Matthew LaPlante and Jacob Stuivenvolt Allen, in Eugene Weekly
This story is so skillfully put together, with a compelling narrative that conveys a complicated scientific topic that has significant implications as we move deeper into the climate crisis.

The Donald Robinson Memorial Award for Investigative Journalism

Winner: “It’s a national tragedy”: What a Devastating Covid-19 Outbreak at a California Slaughterhouse Reveals About the Federal Government’s Failed Pandemic Response by Nick Roberts and Rosa Amanda Tuiran, in The Counter
More than a gotcha story about a single meatpacking plant, this piece takes a broader look at how the system to protect workers—in meatpacking plants or otherwise—is broken. It succeeds by painting a nuanced picture, demonstrating how both the company and the government fell short.

The Arlenes: Articles That Make a Difference

Winner: We Need to Talk About What Coronavirus Recoveries Look Like by Fiona Lowenstein, in The New York Times
Fiona Lowenstein, a 26-year-old freelance writer and COVID-survivor, wrote this op-ed about the long-term implications of the novel virus, which inspired the formation of one of the first COVID-patient support groups, now 18,000 members strong. Members formed an internationally recognized patient-led research group that meets regularly with the CDC and has helped author its website pages on long-term COVID effects. They have testified to the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health and co-authored a letter to Congress that resulted in an allocation of $1.15 billion in funding for NIH research into long-term COVID effects. Ed Yong, influential health and science reporter for The Atlantic, wrote that the article had “seismic impact.”

General Nonfiction (Book)

Winner: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
The masterful combination of storytelling and research, written in a consistently readable style, whether when relating individuals’ stories or explaining scientists’ work, draws the reader into the author’s own ten-year journey to restorative breathing. James Nestor, while going through a rough patch, followed the recommendation of his doctor to attend a class on Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing technique invented by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in the 1980s. Any initial skeptical response to the narrative turns into thinking about how to apply this knowledge about how to breathe as our ancestors did.


Winner: Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
A haunting and compelling story, beautifully written, with a poet’s attention to words. From the author’s intimate, personal voice we are made to feel all that she experiences and journey with her through pain, loss, grief and resilience.


Winner: The Unanswered Letter: One Holocaust Family’s Desperate Plea for Help by Faris Cassell
This beautifully written book, the product of many years of research, skillfully combines history and biography, using the stories of particular individuals to illuminate a tragic and pivotal era of history in Germany, Austria and the United States. In addition to penetrating insights into deep moral and emotional questions, it offers new information on an aspect of Holocaust history in both Europe and the United States that has received little attention and may surprise many Americans. Beyond all that, it is a gripping read.


ASJA relishes in the opportunity to recognize these fine works and their authors. Our annual awards program highlights stellar nonfiction articles, essays, books, and content marketing writing in a variety of categories.

Learn more