The Margaret A. Edwards Award and 30 Years of Young Adult Literature

Angela Carstensen takes a look back at three decades of YA—its evolution, groundbreaking titles, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award that honors its authors.

The Margaret A. Edwards Award is born into a world without smartphones, Goodreads, social media, email, or the Michael L. Printz Award. No one has heard of J.K. Rowling, and teenagers access books in libraries or brick-and-mortar bookstores. Paperback series like Francine Pascal’s “Sweet Valley High” and R.L. Stine’s “Fear Street” dominate sales.

It is 1988, and we were there from the beginning. While not an auspicious time for teen literature, the leaders of School Library Journal and the American Library Association’s Young Adult Services Division (now the Young Adult Library Services Association) believe in the importance and impact of YA books and want to give an award for “an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.” They also have the foresight—long before the category is respected and enjoyed by adults as they are today—to see that novels written specifically for teens are going to endure.

This condensed history can’t mention every important writer or novel. It can, however, present an overview of the last 30 years of YA, touching on some Margaret A. Edwards Award (MEA) winners, many of YA’s most groundbreaking work and moments, and its rise in popularity and respect while establishing a stronghold in publishing and pop culture.

The MEA committee hits it out of the park by honoring S.E. Hinton with its inaugural award. Authenticity is a hallmark of her characters and settings; Hinton’s novels never sugarcoat the struggles of teen life. Her characters have charisma, their relationships teem with caring and conflict, and their lives are rife with issues and violence. The Outsiders is read by teens today, and authors cite Hinton as an important influence. In his 2014 SLJ Edwards Award winner interview, Markus Zusak shared that reading Hinton’s books made him want to be a writer when he was a teen. Her themes are universal and continue to resonate through young adult literature thanks to generations of writers who follow her lead. In the 30 years since Hinton won the Edwards Award, YA has grown with its readers, earned respect in the literary community, found popularity beyond the library, and produced many groundbreaking works.

In the late 1980s when the Edwards Award arrives, many writers are making an impact. Walter Dean Myers’s Scorpions (1988) portrays the world of Harlem gangs, and gives his readers relatable characters. Teens are fascinated by the survival techniques in Gary Paulsen’s “Brian’s Saga” series, which begins with Hatchet (1987). Terry Pratchett is well into the “Discworld” books, and Tamora Pierce completes her “Song of the Lioness” series with Lioness Rampant (1988). Pierce and Susan Cooper provide fantasy for the teens who loved C.S. Lewis when they were younger.

Voices of the 1990s

Francesca Lia Block’s “Dangerous Angels” kicks off with Weetzie Bat in 1989, which pushes the boundaries of sexual identity in literature and redefines family. Chris Crutcher gives struggling teens a voice in works such as Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993). Angela Johnson writes the joy and pain of three generations of women in an African American family in Toning the Sweep (1993). The next year, Jacqueline Woodson wins a Coretta Scott King (CSK) honor for I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You, which shares the story of two girls who dare to cross the racial boundary lines of their town to become friends. At the same time, Sharon Draper wins the CSK author award for Tears of a Tiger, in which she tackles death, depression, and suicide among African American high school friends and teammates. These writers’ authentic novels are examples of #OwnVoices years before the movement would push the publishing world for more such work.

In the late 1990s, young adult literature gains a new respect and position in the wider literary world. The National Book Award establishes the Young People’s Literature award in 1996, and in 1999 the first Michael L. Printz Award committee convenes. English teachers take notice, assigning titles in their classes in larger numbers, giving teens even more exposure to books written just for them, books that make them feel heard and help them navigate the world.

Pop culture phenomena

About the same time, the popularity and exposure of these books explodes beyond the publishing world into pop culture. With that, came book sales. In 1998, the first novel in the “Harry Potter” series is published in the United States. A children’s book series, a fantasy series, inspires kids and teens to unabashedly share their love of reading about a boy magician in an imaginary England. It brings adults to a children’s book in droves. Rowling’s genius in having Harry age, book by book, along with her readers is breathtaking in retrospect and accounts at least in part for the longevity of the series’s popularity with teens. They grow up with Harry. Reading and enjoying books over 500 pages long makes them feel empowered and accomplished. Twenty years later, teens still organize rereads with their friends, and a shorthand has grown around references to Harry Potter.

While Harry Potter was (initially) for children, “Twilight” (2005–07) and “The Hunger Games(2010–14) are truly teen phenomena. These two series share more than love triangles. They inspire movie franchises and boost genre fiction. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight creates demand for paranormal romance read-alikes and genre blends for both adult and young adult audiences. It inspires young people to write fanfiction. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games creates overwhelming interest in dystopia. Lois Lowry won the Edwards Award in 2007 for The Giver, but The Hunger Games takes the genre’s popularity to new heights, as teens devour postapocalyptic read-alikes. Young adult literature demonstrates the power to shape wider popular culture, especially movie and television deals, from “Twilight” to “The Maze Runner.”

Realistic fiction

While readers lose themselves in fantasy, realistic fiction helps teens forge a sense of identity, shifting though it may be. Who am I? What do I want? Who will I be? Young adult literature adapts to offer possible answers to those questions inside an evolving culture. Teens experience characters and events that help them learn and empathize, and find their unique voice. Authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson and Paul Zindel write about the difficulties teens encounter with great sensitivity, compassion, and honesty. Sarah Dessen’s novels make teens feel empowered and understood.

In 2003 David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy—which YA expert Michael Cart termed “the first upbeat gay novel for teens”—signals a sea change for young adult literature. This romantic comedy features a small town in which sexual identity is not an issue.

John Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska, is published in 2005 and a star is born. Green’s success shows that teen fandoms can grow up around realistic fiction as easily as speculative fiction. His popularity grows with the success of Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel hosted with his brother, Hank. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is the must-read book of 2012. The later movie version only increases its popularity.

Graphic novels

At the beginning of the 2000s, graphic novels and comics enter school and public library collections. Teens partner in collection development for these projects. Adult titles like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Craig Thompson’s Blankets are as popular as superhero comic collections and manga series. The novels earn industry respect as well. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is a National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature in 2006 and the Printz Award winner in 2007.

There is something for every teen, and these collections quickly become staples in libraries, driving up circulation statistics and filling the aisles. (Teens often seem to sit down on the floor right in front of graphic novel shelves.)

Explosive growth

All of this interest helps spark tremendous growth in the industry. In 1997, 3,000 young adult books are published. In 2009 the number is closer to 30,000 (some of this increase is thanks to a change in the way that titles are counted). How does this impact readers? In the 1990s, with fewer books to choose from, teens were mostly reading adult books, especially older teens. But the increase creates a depth of choice in every genre and a greater range of representation. Teens can find books that reflect and affirm their own lives; they can read about people living very different lives from theirs in order to expand their horizons or escape from their reality.

Books being published for the young adult audience are largely read by students ranging in age from 12 to 15. By 10th grade, teens begin to mix YA literature with adult books. The crossover goes both ways. By 2015, Nielsen statistics show “80 percent of all the YA books that are selling are being bought by adults.”

Now, reading is reported to be on the decline, despite teenagers constantly reading on their phones and tablets. And the technology can encourage more reading. The latest binge-worthy Netflix series sparks interest in the book it was based on. Teens have a community of readers at their fingertips, making reading interactive and social. They share their opinions, post reviews (whether print, audio, or video), and create book trailers. Book events crop up around the world, some organized by teens themselves. Authors go above and beyond to connect with their readers, taking on school visits (live and virtual), conferences, and festival appearances.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

The most important and prominent recent movement in YA is the increase in representation of diversity of experience in young adult books: skin color, race, and ethnicity, yes, but also religion, culture, socioeconomic status, gender, ability, sexual identity, and geography. This progress is largely thanks to the work of the Diversity in YA, We Need Diverse Books, and #OwnVoices movements, which encourage effort and attention, a determination and drive to effect change.

The envelope of what is considered appropriate for teens has been pushed again and again. Sexuality is addressed more openly and positively; teenage protagonists are depicted engaging in healthy emotional and sexual relationships.

LGBTQ characters are increasingly represented and more often portrayed in a positive and nuanced light. Nancy Garden’s groundbreaking 1982 novel Annie on My Mind was the precursor to these works.

Today, teens are ready to fight for a more inclusive future. They are feeling their power and finding their voice, standing up for their values, and using their influence and social media prowess to build the world in which they want to live. They are living through struggles with immigration policy, the refugee crisis, and gun and police violence. As teens head to the streets for the Women’s March in January 2017 or March for Our Lives following the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, FL, their struggles are reflected in the best and most urgent young adult fiction today, books such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down. These books speak directly to today’s teens—teens who need to see strong, empathetic characters navigate a changing world.

What is next for young adult literature? The push for diversity of authors and characters will continue. Novels will focus on subject matter that involves political and environmental activism. The literature will always reflect the times and the teens trying to navigate them. Authors will continue to make the impact that the Edwards Award honors, with books that “illuminate their experiences and emotions, giving insight into their lives.” The writing will encourage and inspire young people to use their energy and passion to create a better future.

It’s Her, Margaret

A champion of library services for young adults and an authority on literature for teens, Margaret A. Edwards (1902–88) was the adult services learning coordinator at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. During her 30 years at Enoch Pratt, Edwards “developed one of the country’s earliest public library programs for the promotion and encouragement of reading among teenagers,” according to a 1991 SLJ article.

Edwards’s 1969 book, The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts (Hawthorne), outlined a philosophy for YA library programs and services and was used to train young adult librarians.

During the summers of 1943–45, Edwards drove a horse-drawn carriage loaded with library books to economically depressed areas of Baltimore, reaching people who might not otherwise have used library services.

A 1957 winner of the American Library Association’s Grolier Award, Edwards was recognized for “the enrichment she has given to the lives of young people [and] her contagious enthusiasm for books and reading, which has been felt not only by the young people in Baltimore, but indirectly by young people all across the country; her success in the skillful training of young adult librarians; her fine cooperation with library groups, especially the school of Maryland;…and her creative genius and integrity of purpose.”

The Margaret A. Edwards award, formerly known as ALA’s Young Adult Services Division (YALSA)/School Library Journal Adult Author Achievement Award, was renamed to honor Edwards in 1991. It is currently administered by YALSA and sponsored by SLJ.—Sarah Bayliss

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