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Stuff for the Teen Age, Biblio File

How did YA Become YA?


“Why is it called YA anyway? And who decided what was YA and what wasn’t?”

Not too long ago, during an author panel on Young Adult literature at the most recent Teen Author Festival, YA author Scott Westerfeld asked, “Why is it called YA anyway? And who decided what was YA and what wasn’t?” The answer of course is: librarians. More specifically you can thank New York Public Library librarians. Not only did they pioneer library services to teens, an NYPL librarian popularized the term “young adult.” However, before we get to all that we have to start at the beginning and it all starts with a young, passionate, pioneering children’s librarian named Anne Carroll Moore.

anne carroll moore
Anne Carroll Moore in 1941

In 1906,  Anne Carroll Moore became the Director of Work with Children for The New York Public Library. As she was busy revolutionizing services to children and children’s rooms all over the city, she knew that there had to be a way to keep children, who weren’t quite adults yet, coming to the public library and not let all her hard work for children be for naught. It’s for these reasons, in 1914 that she hired Mabel Williams, a young librarian from Somerville, Massachusetts. Mabel was working as a reference librarian and collaborating with local high schools and Anne wanted her to do the same thing, only on a much bigger scale, at NYPL. Mabel began working with schools and inviting classes into branches and finally in 1919 she was appointed to Supervisor of Work with Schools and her groundbreaking work with young people (aka teens) began. Her official title (“Supervisor of Work with Schools and Young People”) wouldn't happen until 1948.

After the bookatlk
School visit to a branch ca. 1920s

Mabel had her work cut out for her. To say that not everyone at NYPL was enthusiastic to have adolescents in their library branches would be an understatement. Some librarians were resistant to change and the idea of noisy, chaotic young people in their libraries. Mabel, however, stood firm against the “old ladies,” (Campbell, 8) as she called the older library staff, and strove forward in her mission to serve the teens of New York City. She started by going out and recruiting other enthusiastic librarians, like herself,  who understood her vision: that it wasn’t just about easing the transition from the children’s room to the adult room but doing actual distinctive work with teens and giving them the same equal space and services that children were getting through the children’s rooms. Mabel and her hand-picked staff weren’t just creating library services to teens but revolutionizing what was considered “young people’s” literature as well.

Books for Young People
Girls at the Aguilar Branch looking at "Books for Young People,"  1938

Back in 1919, there wasn’t any literature being specifically written for teens. In order to create “browsing” collections for teens in the branches, Mabel and her staff would comb through books in the children’s and adults sections of the libraries for books they thought would interest teens and meet their reading needs for both schoolwork and free time. They would meet regularly and talk about what they were reading and bringing into the schools with them to booktalk as well as what their young patrons were reading. Eventually they would create lists and in 1929 the first annual “NYPL Books for Young People” list was published. Eventually it would be called “Books for the Teen Age.” Currently, it's the blog “Stuff for the Teen Age”  and the recent list,  “Best Books for Teens.”  Created annually, the list was sent out all over the country to schools and libraries trying to decide what to buy for their own brand new browsing collections for teens. It was ostensibly the beginning of what is now YA literature. It’s interesting to note that Mabel wasn’t too bothered by censorship at the time, just particular about what she put in the collections, saying, “I didn’t screen out anything, but I didn’t put in certain things; I think I was more particular in the beginning; then, when I got to know the young people and some of the teachers, I limbered up a little. I was always trying to feel what teachers’ reactions to books were.”  (Campbell, 18)

margaret scoggin
Margaret Scoggin at Nathan Straus Library, 1941

One of those new, enthusiastic young librarians for young people was Margaret Scoggin. Margaret started as an outreach librarian but soon became the head of the new Nathan Straus branch, an innovative library just for teens that opened in 1941 and was located in the West 40s. Opened to help keep kids off the streets, Williams recalled “They had wonderful programs there… it got to be sort of a hangout, with those young people…” (Campbell, 21) One of Margaret’s keen interests was the selection of books for teens. She started a radio program of teen book reviews and from 1933 to 1946 she wrote a column for Library Journal called “Books for Older Boys and Girls.” In 1944, she changed the title to “Books for Young Adults” and thus began the phrase “young adult literature” (so thanks Margaret!). While YA literature wouldn’t really emerge as a genre until the 1970s, in 1953 Margaret would predict, “…authors are experimenting. Their task is to bring the ‘junior novel’ closer to the good adult novel in style, characterization and human understanding. More power to them.”  (Campbell, 22) One can only imagine how excited she’d be by the golden age of YA literature we are having now.


Another librarian we can thank is the charismatic and out spoken Baltimore librarian, Margaret A. Edwards. With her book, The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts (1969) (Guess what is the fair garden and who are the swarm of beasts?”), Ms. Edwards advocated tirelessly for teens and YA librarians.  She believed that YA librarians were special people who needed to be specially trained and she believed that teens deserved a place at the library where their needs were met and they were treated with respect, “I get awfully tired of adults who treat young people as dirt (and) …complain about the lack of respect they receive from the young. Respect is a reciprocal action… you give it you get it.”  (Campbell, 41) She also advocated to publishers for YA literature that was more than “sugar puff” stories that were superficial, full of stock representations of adolescence, writing that was inconsistent or without real character development. She wanted books that helped teens become aware of themselves and address their questions about their roles and importance in relationships, society and the world (Campbell, 47). This passionate belief that a book for teens could be so much more led the Young Adult Library Association or YALSA  to establish the the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 1988, which honors an author, as well as a specific body of his or her work, for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. Some past winners include: Judy Blume (1996), Walter Dean Myers (1994), Laurie Halse Anderson (2009) and Sharon Draper (2015).

I'll Give You the Sun
Michael  L . Printz Award Winner 2015

Another YALSA award that changed the YA literature landscape forever is the Michael L. Printz Award. Established in 2000, it annually honors the best books written for teens, based entirely on their literary merit. Named for a school librarian from Kansas who was passionate about books and reading, it made publishers sit up and take notice and go actively looking for truly life changing  YA books and 15 years later we are getting books that perhaps even the infamously, finicky Margaret Edwards would approve of. The current 2015  winner is I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. 

So let’s hear it for all those library pioneers who worked tirelessly for teens and helped in the creation of the YA literature genre. A genre that helps teens become who they are and who they are meant to be. 

So in answer to your question Scott: Librarians. Pioneering, innovative, passionate, headstrong, tenacious librarians. 

Further Resources


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This was a lovely article!

This was a lovely article! Thank you for sharing the history of this genre. As a voracious young adult reader who happens to write the genre too, it's good to know where we came from.

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