ALAN v25n1 - THE LIBRARY CONNECTION- Margaret Alexander Edwards: Still Reaching Out to Young Adult Librarians

Volume 25, Number 1
Fall 1997


Betty Carter, Editor
Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas

Margaret Alexander Edwards: Still Reaching Out to Young Adult Librarians

In her forward to the 1994 reprint edition of The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, Patty Campbell refers to Margaret Edwards as the patron saint of young adult (YA) librarianship. It's an apt description for a woman who, through her indomitable will, defined YA librarians, and, by example, outlined their service and outreach roles.

Edwards' accomplishments fill the pages of early library history. Today they serve as models for introducing young adults to books and reading. She brought booktalks to Baltimore's public school students, expanding the calendar from a mere ten visits a year to a full program that reached young adults in all of the city's high schools and in many junior highs as well. When school was not in session, Edwards still met teenagers on their home territories. For three years she rode around the city on a converted vegetable cart, bringing books to patrons unable or unwilling to enter their local libraries during the summer months. And, after developing a reading base among teenagers, she broadened it through book fairs, annual events where young adult librarians set up subject-specific book booths and hawked titles to high school seniors.

Through such services Edwards carried her programs to young adults. In turn, teenagers also came to Edwards. They came looking for book suggestions; they came to discuss the books they had read; and they came to express their own opinions in the library's monthly publication devoted to YA book reviewing, You're the Critic.

Stressing focused programs, meaningful outreach services, and youth participation, Margaret Edwards moved young adult librarians from their inconspicuous location behind Enoch Pratt's Popular Library, which kept "teenagers away from the front desk where the adults were served" (Edwards, 1994, p. 11 ), to a front-line model for service. She gave short shrift to the theory that "people who come to the library know what they want, that if they need help they will ask for it, and that they resent the librarian who approaches them" ( p. 18 ). Instead, Edwards believed most adolescents didn't know what they wanted and it was the librarian's responsibility to help them discover and enjoy recreational reading. The only way a librarian could help these patrons was to read and read widely. She tolerated no substitutes for this behavior.

To insure such wide reading, Edwards instituted a rigorous training program for assistants that prepared them to become respected readers' advisors: they read at least 300 books, discussed each with her, and examined ways to interest readers in them. This belief in the power of books and in teenagers' natural inquisitiveness drove Edwards. She shares her convictions in The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts:

My assistants and I believed that we should attempt through books to take each individual, whatever his reading level, and develop his full potential as a reader, widening his interests and deepening his understanding until he came to know that he was a member of one race--of human race--and a citizen of one planet--the earth. This was a big undertaking and required highly developed professional skill. It would have been impossible to have implemented our goals by simply shelving books in order and letting young people browse around. It required on the part of the assistants a very rich reading background, sincere likingb for teenagers, energy, dedication, and mastery of the art of ineteresting young people in reading. They [young adult library assistants] had to become real people with hearts open to experience aand minds capable of absorbing it. ( p. 68 )

In a fitting tribute, authors, books, and their collective influence on young adults honor Edwards today. The Margaret A. Edwards Award, sponsored by School Library Journal and administered through the Young Adult Library Services Association ( YALSA ) of the American Library Association (ALA), annually recognizes an author, and his or her selected works, that over time have made an outstanding contribution to YA literature. The roll call of winners is impressive: S. E. Hinton, Richard Peck, Robert Cormier, Lois Duncan, M. E. Kerr, Walter Dean Myers, Cynthia Voigt, Judy Blume, and Gary Paulsen. These recipients, who truly provide many windows through which modern teenagers can see their world, represent what Margaret Edwards was about. Deborah Taylor, immediate past-president of YALSA, pointed out in a July, 1997 , telephone interview: "If 'Alex' were alive today she would embrace these authors." Nonetheless, this annual recognition of those who write directly for a young adult audience does not mirror precisely who Edwards was.

Reflecting both the teenagers she served and the times in which she worked, Margaret Edwards championed adult books for young adults. She worked with older adolescents and visited high schools, which during her tenure at Enoch Pratt were typically configured as grades ten through twelve. Then, as well as today, much of what these older students read was adult fare. Edwards believed that as teenagers moved toward adulthood, their reading should progress from juvenile to adult offerings: "The librarian should know his readers and books well enough to be able to introduce readable, appealing adult titles at the propitious time and see that the young reader gradually moves into adult reading with all the enthusiasm he once had for teenage stories" (Edwards, 1994, p. 63 ).

Edwards was not alone in her commitment to adult books for young adults. Winifred B. Jackson, chair of the 1948 Booklist Committee for ALA, a historical precursor to today's Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) Committee, shares comments from Jane Roos, then president of the Young People's Reading Roundtable: "It seems to me that the easier part of the work [book selection for young adults] is selecting titles from the juvenile lists. We need to select from the adult books for our readers, those that are beyond the children's reading level" (Jackson, 1948, p. 5. ) Many in the profession held to this tenet. By 1964, 80% of the books in the New York Public Library's annual recommended reading list, Books for the Teen Age, came from adult houses.

As a member of Jackson's 1948 committee, Edwards concurred that selection should concentrate on adult books. One reason for this focus was Edwards' fear that some librarians might not order adult titles, especially those with elements of controversy, without tacit approval from ALA. She wrote, "the high school librarians of Baltimore are listing such titles as Gentleman's Agreement and Chequer Board without dissent from anyone.... In these days when our very existence is threatened by narrow mental outlooks it seems to me it is high time to cease withholding valuable novels from people because of a frank sex passage or two that after all have little new to tell them" (Jackson, 1948, pp. 5-6 ). Edwards' influence must have swayed the committee, for, as Jackson states in her recommendations to the ALA, "forward-looking librarians in small towns and high school libraries need the sanction of A. L. A. for such books as Chequer Board and Gentleman's Agreement. It should be the function of the Booklist Committee to point the way" ( p. 6 ).

Margaret Edwards worked during a time (1933 - 1962) when literature written and published for adolescents was characterized by the works of Rosamond DuJardin and Henry Gregor Felsen. Their books typically acted as reading placeholders for youngsters who had left the children's room and not yet found their way to adult collections. Although many librarians vilified such works, Edwards did not. On the one hand she vigorously defended Felsen's Two on the Town, an adolescent novel about a young couple that "had to get married," while on the other she still defined such works as more useful than literary. She outlines those uses: "to teach the apathetic the love of reading; to satisfy some of the adolescent's emotional and psychological needs; to throw light on the problems of adolescence; to explore the teenager's relationship to his community; and to lead him to adult reading" (Edwards, 1994, p. 58 ).

Before she died in 1988, Edwards established a trust that would "be used to experiment with ways of effectively promoting the reading of young adults and of inspiring young adult librarians to realize the importance of reading and to perfect themselves as readers' advisors" (Edwards, 1994, p. xxiii ). To date, the trust has funded several local projects as well as ALA's 1994 reprint of The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts. This compilation of Edwards' practices and philosophy forms the solid foundation for modern YA librarianship. In addition, the trust has twice conferred recognition grants on fifty libraries with outstanding programs for young adults and sponsored two publications detailing that work, the first and second editions of Excellence in Library Service to Young Adults: The Nation's Top Programs (Chelton, 1974 and 1977 ).

More recently, the trustees awarded YALSA a $25,000 grant for a five- year project that will highlight the role of adult books in young adults' reading lives, making it again "possible to expand programs bringing young adults and their literature together in a way that is consonant with Edwards' pioneering interests" (Taylor, 1997 ).

Truly a reflection of who Margaret Alexander Edwards was and what she stood for, this grant will be used to present a series of lectures at ALA's annual conferences from 1998 to 2002. Authorities in YA literature, including scholars, publishers, editors, authors, and librarians, will focus on issues concerning the place of adult books in young adult literature. They will cover topics ranging from selection to writing to publishing to marketing to readers' advisory. Each year the lecture will be reprinted in The Journal of Youth Services in Libraries and in 2002 the five-year series of essays will be compiled as a single publication on the place and use of adult books with young adults. Deborah Taylor sums up the project in ALA's June, 1997 press release: "The librarians who work with today's young adults know that many of them prefer to read books written for adults, yet publishers of adult books and bookstores don't aggressively market to teens. This grant gives YALSA the opportunity to reexamine and revitalize the use of adult books with teenagers."

Beyond knowing how to use books, Margaret Edwards was about books: about reading books, about recommending books, about discussing books. And so will be a YALSA ad-hoc committee formed to create an annual "Top Ten" list of recommended adult books for young adults. For the next five years, this annual list will be announced in concert with the lecture series. Michael Cart, current YALSA president, spoke of the importance of both the list and the program: "At a time when young adult literature is in jeopardy, the Edwards grant is truly significant not only in recognizing the importance of adult literature for young adults, but also by elevating its stature as a viable body of literature" (Cart, 1997 ).

In an inspired partnership, YALSA will work with Booklist, ALA's official review journal, to create the "Top Ten" list. Bill Ott, editor and publisher of Booklist, shares his enthusiasm: "We're excited with the opportunity to work with YALSA in this new project that will increase the visibility and importance of using adult books with young adults" (Ott, 1997). And YALSA is equally excited to tap into Booklist's solid reputation for highlighting adult books for young adults. Ott reminds us of that reputation: "Booklist's commitment to adult books for young adults extends back more than forty years and has been a crucial part of the magazine's makeup throughout that time" (Ott, 1997 ). He's right.

Starting with Barbara Duree's tenure as Young People's Books Editor in 1953, the Booklist YA editors, like Edwards and Jackson and Roos mentioned above, have made cross-recommendations of adult titles a priority. Since Booklist has access to most of the adult books published, and because they have an in-house staff of young adult reviewers, they can readily examine these offerings for YA appeal. And they do. Every issue recommends adult books suitable for young adults by noting titles with general YA interest, a limited teenage audience, or particular curriculum value. In addition, those books more appropriate for mature young adults are also cited. Each year, Booklist's Editors' Choices of Adult Books for Young Adults provides the best all-around recognition of such titles. (For the 1996 list, see )

Stephanie Zvirin, YA Books Editor at Booklist, serves as the committee laison between YALSA and Booklist. She brings to this appointment more than twenty years of evaluating adult books for young adults. For its part, YALSA seats practitioners, educators, and readers' advisors at the selection table. These individuals work directly with young adults and their parents and teachers; each holds a special interest in this unique area of young adult literature. Deborah Taylor, with book selection experience on the Best Books for Young Adults Committee, the Coretta Scott King Award Jury, and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Committee, chairs YALSA's ad-hoc committee. The committee members are Susan Farber, Jack Forman, David Mowery, Pam Spencer, and me.

At present, all committee members are talking with their colleagues and searching review journals for book suggestions, reading widely, and recommending favorites to others. If Margaret Edwards were here today, I bet she would be in the thick of things: cajoling this committee, evaluating their books, and passionately defending the best of what the profession can offer its teenage readers. Why? Edwards tells us quite clearly:

What can books do for these young people? Their most important contribution is to sup[plement experience, to intensify their lives. Howevr long these young people may live, most of them will know few months or years that are filled with meaning. They experience few passionate love affairs, few victories, few overwhelming griefs, few moments of insight and inspiration. Without books, they can live their and die naively innocent of so much experience. But the young person who reads can live a thousand years and a thousand lives. Ina few hours, at any time, he can add to his meager experience another whole lifetime condensed to its meaningful moments, with all the dull, uneventful days left out. (Edwards, 1994, p. 57 )

Librarians today work in different circumstances and with different tools than did Margaret Edwards. Contemporary YA literature offers its intended audience thousands of sophisticated and mature books. But adult works still have a special niche in the reading lives of teenagers. As librarians we must search out the best from each publishing venue and be sure these books get to the young adults we serve. Despite the decades that separate our work from Edwards', the responsibility of bringing books and young adults together remains an indispensable obligation. That's the tradition Margaret Edwards instituted. It's up to us to continue it.

Note: The first lecture concerning adult books for young adults was held during ALA's annual conference in Washington, D. C., June 25 - July 2, 1997. For further information, contact the YALSA office at 800-545-2433, ext. 4390, or send an email message to


Cart, Michael. Telephone interview with Betty Carter, 21 July 1997.

Chelton, Mary Kay. Excellence in Library Service to Young Adults: The Nation's Top Programs. American Library Association, 1994.

_____. Excellence in Library Service to Young Adults: The Nation's Top Programs, 2nd. edition. American Library Association, 1997.

Edwards, Margaret A. The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts. American Library Association, 1994.

Jackson, Winifred B. "Selecting Adult Books for Young Adults," Top of the News. December, 1948, pp. 5-6, 31.

Ott, Bill. Telephone interview with Betty Carter, 21 July 1997.

Taylor, Deborah. Telephone interview with Betty Carter, 21 July 1997.

"YALSA Receives $25,000 Grant from the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust," Press Release. American Library Association, 1997.