Henson’s ‘The Whole Sky’ only young adult book to ever make short list for prestigious literary award 

Published 10:41 am Friday, March 9, 2018

Local author Heather Henson has made it to the semi-finalist list for a 2017 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. Her book, “The Whole Sky” is the only young adult book on the list of those being considered. 

As a matter of fact, it’s the only YA book ever considered for the award. 

“It’s very exciting,” Henson says. 

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The award is organized through Castleton Lyons, a horse racing stable and breeding business in Lexington known best as Castleton Farm. All the books considered for the award are equine-related topics. 

“So much of Kentucky is about horses, and the people who work with and care for horses,” Henson says. “I set out to capture a bit of that world in ‘The Whole Sky,’ and I hope I succeeded.” 

Henson’s book details the story of a 12-year-old girl who can talk to horses, and she helps find the cause of mysterious foal deaths happening throughout the thoroughbred industry. Henson wrote the book after researching the 2001 thoroughbred crisis, called Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, that hit Kentucky. 

More than 500 thoroughbred foals died in one foaling season in 2001, in and around Lexington. 

“It struck me as I researched the book, how fragile both horses and humans can be, and yet how resilient,” she says. 

As far as she knows, there was no one person like the main character she developed for her book who ultimately helped connect the dots to solve the MRLS mystery. 

“There was no one girl who talked to horses. But I’m a writer, so I like to imagine there was — or is.” She had already done research before attempting to write “Dream of Night, her first book, which was written in the “voice” of a horse. That gave her the idea for “The Whole Sky.” At that time, she had a neighbor who rescued horses, and she found the sight of them galloping in the fields near her home as a “breathtaking sight and visually inspiring.”

Henson’s grandfather, the late Robert Hutchison, was a horse trainer in Mercer County. The farm where he trained is where Henson and her family live today. 

“I always heard stories of how he was a true horseman — it definitely influenced me as a writer.”

In the release from Castleton Lyons, it said for the first time in the award’s 12-year history, every honoree is a work of fiction, and that since its inception, only two novels have ever won. 

The award was named for Ryan, a “globally-known businessman, sportsman, and philanthropist who loved horse racing and fine literature.” Although Ryan died in 2007, the award has been continued by his son, Shane.  

Henson had not heard of the award before last year. Someone mentioned it to Henson’s publisher after they read “The Whole Sky,” that it should be entered into the race since the award specifically celebrates the horse and horse racing industry. 

“My publisher submitted it, and we just found out it’s a semi-finalist. I’m truly honored, because it’s the first book for younger readers to be included,” Henson says, and adds — not to mention, there are “some pretty big heavy hitters on the list.” 

She says one of her all-time favorite books, “Lord of Misrule” by Jaimy Gordon, won in 2010. “It’s a book I consider to be a literary masterpiece, so I have to say, it’s amazing to have mine even in the same conversation as that book.” 

The following are the other 2017 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award semi-finalists:

“Flamingo Road,” by Sasscer Hill; “Missionville,” by Alex Brown; “Out of Luck,” by John Perrotta; and “Pulse,” by Felix Francis. The winner will be announced during a reception on April 19 at the farm. 

Henson says, “Now that I’ve had a chance to learn more about the award, I think it’s really inspiring that someone like Dr. Tony Ryan wanted to combine his love of books and horses, and help promote that love in others as well.” 


According to castletonlyons.com, the late Dr. Tony Ryan had a vision for supporting those who promote the thoroughbred through literature, therefore developing the idea for a literary award honoring the best books pertaining to any aspect dealing with them. The $10,000 cash award competes with literature awards such as the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.