The Alex Awards were first given annually beginning in 1998. The titles were selected by the YALSA Adult Books for Young Adults Task Force from the previous year's publishing and were part of the Adult Books for Young Adults Project, which explored the role of adult books in the reading lives of teenagers and was funded by the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust. Edwards was a young adult specialist for many years at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. Her work is described in her book Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, and over the years she has served as an inspiration to librarians who serve young adults. With the approval of the Trust, the task force appointed to develop and implement the project named the awards the Alex Awards after Edwards, who was called “Alex” by her friends.
The task force decided to select ten titles annually, and also decided to select a top ten list rather than a single title or a long list because of the popularity of the concept and because it parallels the Top Ten titles selected by the Best Books for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers committees. The task force members also believed that selecting more than one book provided a greater variety of titles, whereas a longer list would be less selective than desired. A top ten list also allows for a more balanced list—fiction and nonfiction, as well as various genres. The task force also wanted to make diversity a priority in the lists.
In 2002 the Alex Awards were approved as an official ALA award, and the Task Force was superseded by the Alex Awards Committee.
The major sponsor of the Alex Awards continues to be the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust. Booklist is also a sponsor.