The Edwards Award: The Once and Future Thing

YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.

The Margaret A. Edwards Award has always been one of my favorite literary awards. It is YALSA’s version of a lifetime achievement award: it “honors an author, as well as a specific body of his or her work, for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature,” and in order to be sure that the author’s work has been significant and lasting, the committee can only consider books published at least five years prior to the year they meet. The list of winners is a who’s who of the titans of YA literature, so it is decidedly retrospective (we might call it the Last Big Thing). But in the spirit of this month’s theme and the symposium, I wanted to find out how often the Edwards Award was predictive of an author’s continued contribution to YA literature — their ability to also be the Next Big Thing.

To determine whether Edwards winners have continued to contribute significantly to YA lit, I chose to look at two things:

  1. How frequently they have published since winning, and
  2. How many times since their award year they were recognized by the Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) or Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA) committees.

There are many other ways I could have looked at significance, but considering the broad scope and usefulness of BBYA/BFYA, I think it is a pretty good measure that authors are doing something right.

So, on to the analysis. There have been 24 winners of the Edwards Award since its inception in 1988, and they roughly break down into three groups: winners who had essentially ceased writing YA literature at the time of their award; winners who continued to write but failed to continue to garner YALSA recognition; and winners who were truly both the Last Big Thing and the Next Big Thing.

The Edwards as Valedictory

Of the 24 Edwards winners, 10 wrote either one or no YA books after their award year:

  • S.E. Hinton
  • Lois Duncan
  • Cynthia Voigt
  • Judy Blume
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Paul Zindel
  • Lois Lowry
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Susan Cooper

The bulk of these writers have remained active, but not as YA authors: Blume, Hinton, Lowry, McCaffrey, Duncan, and Voigt have continued writing for other markets (McCaffrey for adults, and the others children’s). Voigt did write Elske, an additional volume in the Kingdom series (the rest of which was cited in her Edwards Award), which was selected by BBYA, but otherwise she has confined herself to children’s fiction. Duncan’s case is a tragic one: she had written YA prolifically and is the only Edwards Award winner to have been recognized for her entire body of work (as opposed to specifically named titles), but she essentially stopped writing YA (with the exception of one book) after her daughter was murdered the year before her Edwards win.

As for the others, L’Engle had all but retired when she was named, and Zindel died at the far too young age of 66 the year after his award. And of course Cooper and Pratchett won the last two awards. It is still to be seen if Cooper has more great YA novels in her, and Pratchett has just published Dodger this year, which may well get recognized. So it is possible that a few of these authors may still end up contributing further to YA literature.

Still Writing; No Love

The more perplexing group of Edwards winners is the six authors who have continued to write in the YA market without any recognition from BBYA/BFYA:

  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Robert Lipsyte
  • Nancy Garden
  • Francesca Lia Block
  • Orson Scott Card
  • Jim Murphy

Le Guin, of course, is an elder stateswoman of YA at 82 years old, but she has published a three-part YA series called Annals of the Western Shore, which has garnered nary a YALSA mention (although she has collected a PEN Award and a Nebula Award for the series).

On the end of this group is Orson Scott Card. It is difficult to get one’s head around Card’s massive bibliography, but considering the recency of his award (2008), his prolificacy, and his relative youth (he’s 61), it seems likely that he’ll be joining the group below at some point. Similarly, Murphy got BBYA recognition the same year as his Edwards Award and has two books out this year, which should be on the radar of the YALSA Nonfiction committee (Murphy is the only Edwards winner so far who only writes nonfiction, so he will not be getting on the reconfigured BFYA list any time soon).

But the other three are a puzzle — Block, Garden, and Lipsyte are all still alive and have continued to write YA fiction (Block at a Card-ian pace), but none have been able to crack BBYA even once.

The Once and Future Thing

Finally, we come to the reason for this whole post: the eight authors who were not only the Last Big Thing, but continued to be the Next Big Thing.

  • Richard Peck
  • Robert Cormier
  • M.E. Kerr
  • Walter Dean Myers
  • Gary Paulsen
  • Chris Crutcher
  • Jacqueline Woodson
  • Laurie Halse Anderson

I have to say, when I started this project, I did not expect that fully a third of the Edwards winners would have remained so viable, but there you have it.

The big winner here, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Walter Dean Myers. Already 57 years old when he won the award, he has seemingly done nothing but improve. Thirteen of his books have been featured on BBYA/BFYA lists since his Edwards award in 1994, including, of course, Monster, winner of the inaugural Printz Award.

Then there are Richard Peck and Robert Cormier, the second and third winners of the Edwards Award, who could do no wrong either before or after their award: Peck went on to place seven titles on BBYA lists, including the Newbery Honor Book A Long Way From Chicago, and the Newbery winner A Year Down Yonder; and Cormier, who passed away in 2000, published seven novels after his award — six of them made BBYA.

On the other hand, Kerr, Paulsen, and Crutcher seem to be fading a bit: Paulsen picked up five BBYA selections after his award in 1997 but none since 2004; Crutcher got BBYA nods for his next two books after the Edwards, but for none of the three since 2003; and Kerr also got a BBYA selection for her very next book after the prize but none since.

And then we have the kids: Jacqueline Woodson (age 49, Edwards winner in 2006) and Laurie Halse Anderson (age 50, Edwards 2009). In the brief years since their wins, Anderson has written two YA novels, both making BBYA/BFYA, and Woodson has written three, with one BBYA nod. Woodson also has a book out this year that is getting heavy praise, and the final volume of Anderson’s Seeds of America trilogy (the first two of which both made BBYA) is due out in early 2013. Barring tragedy, we should expect Woodson and Anderson to make BFYA list for years to come.

So what can we make of all of this? Well, for one thing, we can see that the Edwards Award is nothing like similar lifetime achievement awards in other fields (like the Academy Awards), where the winners are long past their primes and unlikely to achieve prominence again. Discounting BBYA for a second, nearly every writer who has won the award has continued to write books, for one audience or another, many of them highly praised. The fact that a full third of them have continued to win the praise of YALSA committees speaks volumes. So when the 2013 Edwards Award winner is announced, by all means go back and read or reread the books the committee cites, but be sure to keep your eyes on that author for future books as well.

— Mark Flowers, currently reading Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel