Where are the teens in teen book awards?

Photo: Miler Lagos, Book Igloo

Earlier this week the American Library Association announced their 2013 Youth Media awards, sparking immediate discourse on Twitter and listserv about the winners and honorees.  Being Australian leads to some unfamiliarity with these American titles, however I found myself reading the thoughts of many American librarians.  Their arguments were scarily familiar– the notion of literary quality versus teen appeal.

Is the priority in these awards to recognise the best writer?  Awards committees have an established list of guidelines in which to follow – it makes sense that a title’s literary qualities are more easily quantifiable.  A writing award should go to the best writer.  Good writing elevates young adult literature. However, in arguing for the best piece of literature, we sometimes eliminate books that resonate more strongly with teen readers.

Many librarians expressed dismay that some of the awarded titles would gather dust on their bookshelves despite vigorous booktalking and elaborate displays. Which begs the question – is the concept of quality made null and void if there is no hunger for what is being awarded?

Many readers read books that are the equivalent of Fruit Loops while growing up, yet will move onto works of literary genius.  Some readers like to dally in each end of the reading pool, some like the deep end, some do laps churning through everything.  Teens know what quality is.  They just prefer it when quality is also enjoyable to read.

It is nigh on impossible to sell a book to a teen if it doesn’t sell itself.  Quality or not, there needs to be a plot or a concept that ignites a spark.  Quality isn’t a selling point to a teen and this is something we need to remember as adults.  We might be over paranormal or dystopia, they aren’t.  We might choose to reference  Ferris Bueller in order to spark their interest, they probably haven’t heard of it.  At some point, we need to divest ourselves from the equation.

While teens are represented in the title of an award, they should also be a part of the award criteria.  Young adult literature is for teens.  That should count for something.  While we have a vested interest in cultivating taste, and having teens read about social injustice and inclusivity – sometimes teens just want to read what they want to read.

While quality is important, so is the teen reader’s engagement with reading. There are many authors who achieve this, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, or Markus Zusak’s The Messenger.  I am cautious of award winning books that have an “issue” clearly stated in the blurb.  Good writing for teens isn’t about an issue, it’s about living, loving and surviving.  It’s about bravery, and yearning, and sacrifice.  It’s about growing and changing, not learning.  It’s about feelings, emotions and the every day difficulties of ping ponging between who you are and who you want to be.  It’s these books, without social agenda, that connect.  It’s these books that fulfill teenage readers.

Quality in youth literature should represent exceptional writing, emotional awareness and a representation of a young person’s experience through an authentic gaze.  Some people will read this and believe I am a proponent of dumbing down teen’s reading.  This is not true.

Every year the Centre for Youth Literature hosts the Inky Awards, a teen’s choice award.  Teens have a strong voice in the longlist of ten Australian and International titles, and are primarily responsible for the shortlist and the ultimate winner.  The adults who oversee the teen judging panel usually approach the task assuming the teens will choose along popularity, quality-lite books.  They come away knowing they are wrong, and reevaluate their thoughts on teen readers and their perceptiveness.  Previous Inky winners, as decided by teens, have included John Green, James Roy, Simmone Howell, Jenny Downham and Lucy Christopher.    Teens have taste, and quality ones at that, so why is teen appeal so often dismissed as popularity?

Why are adults deciding what is quality teen literature?  Where are all the judging panels that have teens sitting alongside librarians or teachers?  Often awards from teens are separated from the big awards.  Where is the teen representation for the Printz, The Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year or Prime Minister’s Literary Awards?  If awards are for teen literature, shouldn’t the audience be represented?


Adele Walsh is the Program Coordinator for the Centre for Youth Literature promoting ways and means to encourage young people to read for pleasure. Adele is an avid YA reader and advocate, and a successful YA blogger (Persnickety Snark). She has previously worked as a teacher in Australia, and Japan.




  1. Jennie says:

    Well, the ALA has teen awards that are awarded solely by teens (Teen’s Choice)or with significant teen input (Best Fiction for Young Adults brings teens in to address the committee about the books under consideration and has them provide formal feedback throughout the year). Almost ever other award that don’t directly involve the teens still seriously take teen appeal into account as part of their charge. Only the Printz doesn’t. Just like the Nobel and Pulitzer and other adult literary awards don’t take reader appeal into account.

    And just because a book is a Printz doesn’t mean it doesn’t have reader appeal. As you say, teens do have taste. In Darkness already circed fairly well in my system before winning. Two books you mentioned– Looking for Alaska and I am the Messenger are Printz winners or honors. You also mentioned Lucy Christopher–another Printz honor author. Many other Printz winners and honors are also wildly popular– Terry Prachett’s won a few, Disreputable History of Frankie Landua-Banks, Book Thief, Abundance of Katherines, American Born Chinese, Airborn, Fat Kid Rules the World, The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things, House of the Scorpion, Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging, Monster, Speak…

    And, if a teen ever wanted to be on the Printz committee, they could try. The only criteria is that they can do the work, come to the meetings, and that they’re a member of ALA and YALSA, which anyone is welcome to join.

    But, I must quibble that it’s impossible to sell a book to a teen if the book doesn’t sell itself. I mean, In Darkness doesn’t sell itself, but if you hand it to someone and say “Teen is trapped in the rubble after the Haitian earthquake. As days go by without getting rescued, without food or water, he starts a revolutionary leader. Is he really there? Or is it a dehydrated hallucination?” It’ll go out. White Bicycle (published by a small Canadian press, most haven’t heard of this and the cover isn’t helping) can also be sold with “Girl with Asperger’s takes a job babysitting in Southern France in order to prove to herself and her mother that she can make it on her own.”

  2. Caitlin says:

    Hey Adele,

    I really liked your point about librarians having to divest their concept of “taste” or “literary worth” from promoting reading to Teens. I’m only a few years out of my teens. The last thing any teen wants is some overbearing librarian silently judging their reading choices!

    Pretty much every other action teens take in their lives is criticised by adults. As library professionals, I think we should carefully consider how concepts like “taste” are applied to books for teens. Whose taste is acceptable? How has “taste” been weilded historically?

    I also can’t help but question your stance on books that deal with “issues” for teens. Teens face racism, sexism and other forms of opression. Teens deal with bullying and other difficult life experiences.

    I remember reading “Looking for Alibrandi” and finding it very comforting, yet also confronting to read a book about a girl dealing with similar Issues to me but in different social circumstances. It really helped to open my eyes, and I’m thankful that the book was about “issues”.

    Your closing remarks about how adults have a monopoly on deciding the best Teen books, I think is a place for librarians to begin an advocacy campaign. Perhaps ALIA could follow the ALA’s lead and begin a Teen’s choice book award?

Leave a comment

Comments may be reviewed before being published.

Please read our blog guidelines before you reply.

Will not be published