Margaret A. Edwards

Who Is Margaret Edwards and What Is This Award Being Given In Her Honor?

by Betty Carter

This article originally appeared in The ALAN Review, Spring 1992, 45 - 48.

Ask many young adult librarians who represents the guiding spirit of their profession, and they will quickly reply, "Margaret Edwards." As administrator of young adult programs at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore for over thirty years, Margaret A. Edwards spent her professional life bringing books and young adults together, pioneering outreach services for teenagers, and establishing a stringent training program designed especially for librarians beginning their work with adolescents.

During the mid-point of this century, when adolescence was just being recognized as a distinct age different from both childhood and adulthood, Margaret A. Edwards recognized that teenagers needed --and by all rights should expect -- library programs different in both style and substance from those traditionally offered to older and younger patrons. That young adults had not only traditionally been neglected, but also discouraged, from library services is best shown in a quote from the Old Librarian's Almanac, published in New Haven, Connecticut in 1773. In this once standard handbook of our profession, "Jared Bean advise  his fellow librarians that the library, the Treasure House of Literature, 'is no more to be thrown open to the ravages of the unreasoning Mob [the general public, especially young people], than is a Fo-ir Garden to be laid unprotected at the Mercy of a Swarm of Beasts" (The Fair Garden, p. ix). Edwards challenged this perception by opening her "garden" at Enoch Pratt to thousands of young adult 'l)easts."

Born and reared in Childress, a small, provincial agricultural community in West Texas, Margaret A. Edwards had few literary advantages. She learned to read by decoding the passionate references on a Wine of Cardui calendar, and honed her skills on the King James version of the Bible. Although her family respected both literature and books, so consumed were they with eaking out a living, that they were unable to provide young Margaret with any titles beyond their personal copies of Dickens, Scott, and Milton. The town "library," composed of donations requested by the organizer of the Childress Woman's Department Club, was an idiosyncratic collection of castoffs ranging from the Little Prudy series to Anne of Green Gables to the works of Horatio Alger to the Meadowbrook Girls series.

Yet, among this paucity of titles and within this eclectic range of tastes, Margaret Edwards learned that reading could be a pleasurable activity. Seldom, though, was it a critical one. Although she admittedly questioned the ease with which Alger's characters made it to the top, and rejected the simple plot devices and coincidences found in the Meadowbrook Girls escapades, Edwards confesses that it was not until after graduating from college in Waxahachie and teaching in Vernon, Texas that she began to trust her own responses and instincts in literature: to question the provincial attitudes from her home town; to admit that a work could, and should, chalenge her own beliefs; and to accept a literary introduction to diverse characters that she might later encounter in life. Despite this theoretical framework, Edwards confesses that she still read sporadically, and that she had never met a person truly "well read."

Following a two year teaching stint, Margaret Edwards went to Columbia University for her master's degree. After graduation, she began teaching Latin in Towsend, Maryland, where her career was abruptly terminated after she offered a few ill-chosen words of free advice to an unappreciative supervisor. Thirty years old, out of work, and with a rebellious history, Margaret Edwards entered the library training program at Enoch Pratt. Her first assignment was to work with adolescents and their recreational reading There Margaret Edwards found her calling, for as she states "As I began working in this new field, I fell in love with teen-agers, whom I already knew, as well as with books, which I did not know" (The Fair Garden, p. 13).

Strong on instincts, but short on background, Margaret Edwards approached her first library assignment with a single vision: If it were books that she needed to know, then she would read. As Edwards confesses: "I was a slow and inexperienced reader but I read with desperate determination. I took armloads of books home, pfiing them on one side of my chair to read and then stacking them, as finished, on the other. I read in streetcars, on buses, in my dentist's waiting room, and on lunch hours" {The Fair Garden, p. 14) This marathon reading binge, lasting over several years, gave Edwards the confidence to establish special young adult collections in the Baltimore branch libraries. But, typical of her approach, Edwards did not merely order books reflecting her own taste; instead, she solicited suggestions and recommendations from teenagers in order to form a balanced core.

Recognizing that collections must not Just exist, but also be used, Edwards began reaching out to young adults in her community. First, she started booktalking in local high schools, an unheard of behavior for the 1930s. These booktalks extended to more ambitious programs, such as book and career fairs, and, in an age when marketing meant going to the grocery store, predated today's efforts to introduce young people to the services and materials available in their public libraries. Not content with these successes, Edwards further advertised the library's "wares" by renting a horse drawn wagon and riding this literary carriage through the streets of Baltimore to bring her collections to young adults unable to avail themselves of the library's services.

Edwards' love of reading, and conviction that only through literature would young adults move beyond themselves into a larger world, became the hallmark of her professional life. The standards she set for herself -- those of constant reading, questioning, and sharing -- were demanded of entry level professionals just embarking on careers in young adult services at Enoch Pratt. New librarians scheduled a meeting with Margaret Edwards, and together they reviewed the librarian's reading history and developed an individual reading list -- of at least 200 books -- that would, in Edwards' eyes, begin preparing these novice professionals to be effective in the field. Edwards met each staff member after she or he had completed the individualized reading plan, discussed the books, explored ways they could be brought to the attention of young adults, outlined more reading, and set up additional individual conferences. Clearly, this personal interaction with books on a professional level established a model for librarians to follow when working with teenagers: encourage reading, discuss that reading, and through these discussions recommend more reading.

These programs did not remain Enoch Pratt's secret success story, for, along with encouraging young adult services and reader's advisory programs, Margaret Edwards shared her vision with the profession. She outlined steps for developing successful booktalks, publicized effective programs, and spoke and wrote eloquently about the need for young adult services.

Young adult literature grew up, and became a separate and important component of library collections as well as a respected field of study. Publishing houses began targeting the adolescent audience, and this body of literature matured from straight adventure stories and romantic fluff that characterized many offerings in the first half of the century to memorable books that encompassed fine writing, important themes, and unforgettable characters. As these works gained both stature and respectabfiity, professionals began looking toward awards and prizes that would recognize the best of this infant field.

The American Library Association (Al,A) established a Best Books For Young Adults (BBYA) Committee, and since the 1960s this group has recognized outstanding books of both proven and potential worth for a young adult audience. As solid as these lists are, they nonetheless feature individual titles, and although several authors have multiple entries, neither the annual BBYA list, nor the retrospective ones developed every five years such as "Still Great in '88," directly honor the authors who produce those works. Similarly, books recommended for the reluctant YA reader, also compiled annually by the ALA's Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), cite individual titles but do not specifically recognize an author whose body of work speaks to young adults.

In an effort to acknowledge those authors who have over time made major contributions to young adults and their reading, Neff A. Perlman, publisher of School Library Journal (SM), approached Lillian N. Gerhardt, Editor-in-Chief, and asked her to develop such an award. Gerhardt decided that SLJ should not give the award but rather sponsor it, and she asked YALSA (formerly the Young Adult Services Division or YASD) to develop criteria and to administer it. Thus, in 1986, was born the concept of The School Library Journal Young Adult Author Award/Selected and Administered by the American Library Association's Young Adult Services Division.

YASD's then past president, Joan Atkinson, Vice-President/President Elect Vivian Wynn, and President Marian Hargrove worked with a special committee to develop the guidelines for this award. Their resulting charge states in ALA's 1991/1992 Handbook of Organization that the award is to be given to a "a living author or co-author whose book or books, over a period of time, have been accepted by young people as an authentic voice that continues to illuminate their experiences and emotions, giving insight into their lives. The book or books should enable them to understand themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationship with others and with society" (p. 92).

In addition to these broad goals, the committee established specific criteria for selecting a recipient and the particular books for which that recipient would be cited. According to YALSA's "Policies and Procedures for the Margaret A. Edwards Award," an annual selection committee will be formed. When choosing an author and naming specific books honored in the award, the committee must consider:

'(1) Does the book(s) help adolescents to become aware of themselves and to answer their questions about their role and importance in relationships, society and in the world?

(2) Is the book(s) of acceptable literary quality?

(3) Does the book(s) satisfy the curiosity of young adults and yet help them thoughtfully to build a philosophy of life?

(4) Is the book(s) currently popular with a wide range of young adults in the many different parts of the country?

(5) Do the book or books serve as a "window to the world" for young adults?"

Two changes have evolved since the award was first established. First of all, the award was originally set up as a biennial recognition; now it is given every year.  Second, the name has been changed. Although the original title, The School Library Journal Young Adult Author Award/Selected and Administered by the American Library Association's Young Adult Services Division, clearly outlined both sponsorship and administrative responsibilities, it was, as Lillian Gerhardt admitted in a June, 1988 editorial in SLJ, "a mouthful." In 1990 a YASD committee recommended the award be renamed The Margaret A. Edwards Award. That name stands today.

School Library Journal adds more than just its name as the sponsoring institution. The journal endows this award with a check to the author, and annually highlights the author in its June publication. In June, 1998 Lillian Gerhardt focused on the award by outlining its background and history in an issue that featured a commissioned oil portrait of the first recipient on the cover. Starting in 1990, Roger Sutton, Executive Editor for The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, has conducted interviews with the three winners, and these interviews have appeared in the respective 1990, 1991, and 1992 June issues of SLJ. S. E. Hinton, cited for The Outsiders; Rumblefish; Tex; and That Was Then, This Is Now, was the first recipient in 1988. For Are You In The House Alone?;, Father Figure; The Ghost Belonged to Me; Ghosts I Have Been; Secrets of the Shopping Mall; and, Remembering the Good Times, Richard Peck received the 1990 honor. In 1991, Robert Cormier, collected the prize, newly retitled as The Margaret A. Edwards Award, for The Chocolate War, I Am The Cheese, and After the First Death. And, in 1992 at the American Library Association's Annual Convention in San Francisco, Lois Duncan was presented with the fourth award.

The 1992 committee, which I was fortunate enough to chair, was composed of four additional members: Susan Baird, Head of the Patron Services Department at the Oak Lawn (Illinois) Library; Matthew Kollasch, Head Librarian at the Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School Library; Joy Lowe, Associate Professor of Library Science at Louisiana Tech University (Ruston); and Barbara Lynn, National Library Consultant for Econo-Clad Books, Topeka, Kansas. This committee met first in 1990 to begin establishing its own procedures for choosing a recipient. We created a pool by compiling a list'Sauthors who had multiple citations on all BBYA lists, on Booklisfs and SLJ's annual Editors' Choice selections, on state awards, on the International Reading Association's Young Adults' Choices lists, and on Don Gallo's poll of ~ members that established his pool for soliciting authors for Speaking About Ourselves. These names triggered other suggestions, such as those for authors who had written single, powerful titles that continue to have a major impact on the reading lives of young adults. In addition, the committee solicited field nominations through various Journals, such as The Journal of Youth Services and VOYA, and through individual contacts.

The committee read. Sometimes we read representative samples from authors, sometimes we read an entire body of works, sometimes we read books that had been in print for over thirty years, and sometimes we read publications Just five years old. We met at ALA's Annual Conference and Midwinter Meetings and discussed each possible nominee. We eliminated some names and added others. We read some more. In 1991 we narrowed the field to ten possible recipients, then five, then one. Even though the committee recognized that through all her published works Lois Duncan has made a powerful impact on young adult readers -- both for introducing them to the pleasures of literature and also for setting the stage to encourage divergent thinking -- we cited six particularly outstanding books in the award, five novels and one autobiography: Chapters, My Growth as A Writer, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Killing Mr. Griffin; Ransom; Summer of Feat, and The Twisted Window.

The committee agreed that each of Lois Duncan's five mentioned novels contains powerful themes that allow young adults to examine themselves, their circumstances, and their world. Whether accepting responsibility for the death of an English teacher or admitting to their culpability in a hit and run accident, the characters of Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer face a universal truth: Your actions are important and you are responsible for them. Forced into a different resolution is the heroine in Summer of Fear who discovers that evil has entered her life and that she alone must deal with the consequences. And, the five kidnapped young adults in Ransom, along with Tracy Lord from The Twisted Window, not only find inner strengths to escape from someone who has taken over their lives, but they also discover a sense of community in working with and helping others.

In her novels, Lois Duncan allows readers to look through a window at a world that houses many different individuals -- the strong, the weak, the kind, the evil, the fortunate, the underprivileged, the arrogant, the submissive, the impatient, the cautious, the cunning, the caring, and the indifferent. Her autobiography, Chapters, opens a different window to young adults, for in this work Duncan shares with readers her development as a writer.

All awards provide their own history, and the Margaret A. Edwards award is no exception. After winners are selected at AI.A's Midwinter Meeting, they must agree to personally accept the award at the following Annual Conference. Consequently, there's much pressure to contact the winner within a short time frame, so the traditional telephone calls have provided colorful stories for committee members. Sue Tait, chair of the first committee, remembers trying to notify S. E. Hinton on an inaccessible pay phone from the floor of the convention. Richard Peck was traveling in the Panama Canal Zone and had to be contacted by ship-to-shore radio, and Robert Cormier was, appropriately enough, reading a library book when his phone call came.

Lois Duncan wasn't home, and anxious committee members waited for her to return. Little did we know that she was in San Antonio, site of the 1991 Midwinter Meeting, celebrating the birth of a new grandchild. On an impulse, she decided to visit her editors at the exhibits, and the committee was able to notify her personally. In addition, her two editors, John Keller from Little Brown and Company and George Nicholson from Delacorte Press, were also there and shared the moment. Best of ~11, Lois Duncan attended the press conference announcing the award, and heard that wonderful spontaneous and satisfied gasp from the audience when her name was called.

The Margaret A. Edwards Award honors a courageous librarian who brought young adult literature and library services to the attention of the library profession.  It provides national recognition to an author who speaks to young adults and who does so with lasting works. The 1992 recipient, Lois Duncan, certainly fits that profile. I hope ALAN members will join me in congratulating her on this well deserved honor.