I admit, I'm self-absorbed. Whenever I see the letters YA, I think someone's talking about me. And why not? They are my initials, after all. But since you're not as wrapped up in me as I am, you're probably aware that, at least in writing circles, YA stands for Young Adult. Specifically, young adult books.
The genre isn't new. In 1802, Sarah Trimmer founded The Guardian of Education, a children's literature periodical in which she listed "books for children" (readers under fourteen), and "books for young persons" (those between fourteen and twenty-one). Two hundred years later these definitions are often still used.
The books Mrs. Trimmer dealt with were novels that appealed to young people though written for and marketed to adults. Many of these now are beloved classics, such as The Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi, and Kidnapped. Later, twentieth century teens thrilled to Anne of Green Gables, The Yearling, and Johnny Tremain.
It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that the modern classification of YA fiction originated. In these novels, the protagonist is usually an adolescent, the subject matter is consistent with the character's age and experience, and the story often deals with the problems and challenges of youth. In 1957, the American Library Association established a division specifically to address the needs of young readers. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has developed and grown into its purpose, that of promoting reading and supporting literacy among young adults through a variety of library services.
Among other endeavors, YALSA administers a number of awards, most of which are named for people you've probably never heard of. First, the Alex Awards, in honor of Margaret Alexander Edwards, a YA specialist at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. (In case you're wondering, she was called "Alex" by those near and dear to her.) An annual Alex goes to ten novels written for an adult market but which also appeal to teens.
Alex has another award named after her as well. This one, sponsored by the School Library Journal and sensibly named the Margaret A. Edwards Award, honors a YA author and a specific body of his or her work that has been popular over time. The award was created to recognize how a particular work has helped adolescent self-awareness.
Beginning in 2009, YALSA will present the William C. Morris YA Debut Novel Award. Morris was a strong advocate for marketing books for children and young adults and was beloved in the library profession for his enthusiasm for promoting YA literature.
And then there's the Michael L. Printz Award. Mike was a school librarian at Topeka West High School whose passion was finding the right book for the right student, and who initiated an author-in-residence program at his high school. The award bearing his name is presented to the author of a YA book that exemplifies literary excellence.
YALSA works with libraries across the country in a number of other ways to provide materials and services to young adults, seeking to meet both the educational and recreational needs of teenagers. They offer various grants and awards to librarians as well as authors; and in their Booklist magazine, they deliver over 8,000 recommended-only reviews of books, audiobooks, references sources, video and DVD titles yearly.
Whether or not we're still involved in the world of YA, we who grew up with our nose in a book and our mind continually caught up in another world have a great appreciation for the adults who made that life possible. Kudos to Sarah, Alex, William, Mike, YALSA and all the rest who understand the needs – and the potential – of young readers, and who work to support and encourage each new YA generation. Yeah! Signed, y.a.