The Legacy of Margaret A. Edwards and the Birth of an Award

A YALSA past president reflects on the influence of Margaret A. Edwards and the award that bears her name.

Shortly before Linda Waddle became deputy executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a post she held from 1991–2002, she was my instructor in YA lit at the University of Northern Iowa. That was the first time I read The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, Margaret A. Edwards’s seminal book that provided a road map to YA library service. In her book, Edwards seemed to say, “Here’s what I did, how I did it, and why.” She gave the impression of conjuring teen library services out of thin air, as did Waddle, who was steeped in the philosophies that Edwards promulgated so persuasively. Waddle herself seemed to pull the inaugural Margaret A. Edwards Award (MEA) out of SLJ and YALSA’s hat as a way to recognize YA’s best authors and promote their books to teens.

Joel Shoemaker Photo: Rebecca Kobos

Of course, there was no magic on Edwards’s part. Rather, there was hard work and good ideas driven by her steadfast belief in the importance of reading and its ability to transform lives. During her long career at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL), Edwards literally hauled books to teens in the city via a horse-drawn wagon. She created a teen collection and housed it in what might now be called a “TeenSpace.” Edwards also developed a suite of services delivered by specially trained librarians to meet the needs of young adults, decades before that term of respect and professional courtesy was imagined. The second tenet of her work was that librarians serving teens needed to read widely, sensitively, and constantly, in order to “hook” their young patrons—via booktalking—to help create a community of lifelong readers. Her career spanned the decades leading up to what was first called “the new realism” in YA literature, circa 1968, and led inexorably to the rich, varied, dynamic world of YA lit that we enjoy today.

Establishing the Edwards Award

As librarian at Cedar Falls (IA) High School, Waddle saw first-hand the transformations that can occur when the right book is brought to the right reader at the right time. In the mid-1980s, Waddle was also a member of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) committee. At a time when YALSA was constricted by a tight budget, she helped guide the creation of the MEA on a shoestring: there were already YALSA committees selecting the best books, paperbacks, audiobooks, and more. Waddle was proud to honor MEA inaugural award winner S.E. Hinton, one of the founding mothers of the new realism and what we now think of as the modern age of YA lit. One observation from Edwards’s book that Waddle impressed on her students has stayed with me: “There is no age group more important than the young adults, who in a few short years will be guiding the destiny of this nation, deciding among other things whether to drop the bomb or to use atomic energy for man’s good. Fortunately, they are impressionable, more open to ideas, more ready to listen to suggestions than are adults, and they are more likely to become thoughtful readers.” Always practical, Waddle added, “and they will soon be the voters who will support bond referendums that build and fund our libraries.” On this 30th anniversary of the MEA, I asked others to reflect on the award’s relevance and the future of YA lit. Deborah D. Taylor, president of EPFL, was YALSA president in 1997 when Gary Paulsen won. “His work reflected the intensity in story and character that have become hallmarks of YA literature,” says Tayolr. “Any of his cited works would have been deemed literary enough to be eligible for a Printz award had it existed then.” "I was a member of the second Edwards Committee that in 1990 selected Richard Peck and have thought about the changing YA readership, with so many adults reading YA,” adds Pam Spencer Holley, YALSA president from 2004–07. "These changing demographics lead to questions of where YA literature will head next and what readers will expect. Perhaps our definition of Young Adult will change." Personally, I love that Angela Johnson is the 2018 recipient of the MEA. Her Toning the Sweep was one of my favorite titles when I was a member of YALSA’s1994 Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) committee. I remember visiting with the somewhat shy, smart, young woman—and her parents— at her publisher’s lunch during the 1994 American Library Association conference in Miami Beach, FL. Our committee picked a winner. Celebrating the best literature for young adults can take so many forms, and move in so many directions. We have more to look forward to: the 20th anniversary of the Printz Award, founded in 2000, is just on the horizon.

Joel Shoemaker, YALSA past president (1998-99), has been chair of the BBYA and the Michael L. Printz Award committees. He is a former reviewer for SLJ and retired librarian at Southeast Junior High in Iowa City, IA (1991-2010).

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