`Books for the Beast' will honor librarian devoted to young adults

Programs for teen readers funded by Alexander trust

October 17, 1999|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For 60 years, the name of Margaret Alexander Edwards has inspired librarians working with young adults.

During three decades at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Baltimore librarian became a legendary figure for her efforts to awaken in teen-agers a passion for reading.

Now, more than 10 years after her death in 1988, this "patron saint" of young-adult librarians continues to influence the reading lives of teens through a trust fund established in her will to support programs that promote reading for pleasure among young adults.

"The trust perpetuates her belief that if you can establish a love of reading in young adults, it will develop their interests in ways that will allow them to soar," said Anna A. Curry, a trustee for the fund and retired executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"She believed that somewhere inside most young people was a spark waiting to be ignited, and if you were smart enough and sensitive enough you could fan that spark and it would light up," said Curry, who started her library career working for Edwards.

Edwards had told Curry that she wanted to establish a trust so that the work she had started would continue. And it has. Every month, the fund's trustees gather to review proposals, interview applicants and make awards.

"Margaret Alexander Edwards was one of the major trendsetters in the library world and her work is taught as a part of library history," said Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services for the Pratt. "Anyone who cares about books and reading for this age group knows the name of Margaret Alexander Edwards."

When 150 librarians and teachers gather with several dozen teen-agers at Roland Park Country School on Saturday to discuss the best new books for young adults, they will do so in the name of Edwards.

The fifth "Books for the Beast" conference will honor the librarian who welcomed and nurtured as readers the teen "beasts" that so many adults wanted to banish from the "fair garden" which was the library.

It was the Edwards trust that gave the conference its start, providing funding for the first event in 1991. The conferences are self-supporting now, but the trust paid the expenses of a school group traveling from Lisbon Falls, Maine.

"I think Margaret Alexander Edwards would be very pleased at people spending time discussing books with teen-agers," said Taylor, who is chairwoman of the planning committee for the event. "This will be a day to commemorate her life's work and to keep doing the work she felt so strongly about."

Now valued at $1.1 million, the trust has supported other projects: a book discussion group for public housing residents; graduate training for school librarians and teachers who work with young adults; storytelling sessions to help dyslexic young people learn to love books. In the first decade, $196,000 was disbursed, with an average award of $3,392.

"We've given to some incredible projects," said Julian L. Lapides, Edwards' attorney and friend who administers the trust.

During her lifetime, Edwards' untiring efforts won her the devotion and respect of many young-adult librarians who completed rigorous training under her tutelage.

"She was the most remarkable woman I ever met," said Sara Siebert, who first met Edwards as a library patron, worked with her for nearly 20 years, and succeeded her as coordinator of work with young adults for the Pratt.

She is also remembered through the American Library Association, which each year presents the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement to a writer of young adult literature. It also confers "Alex" awards in her honor on 10 adult books that have appeal for young adults.

One of a group of women from the 1930s who spearheaded efforts to make the library a hospitable place for teens, she took her love of reading into schools through creative talks on books.

She also took it to the streets in the 1940s in what may have been the start of the city's bookmobile urban outreach program -- a wagon pulled by a horse named Berry.

"It was a swaybacked red wagon, the kind Baltimore's [a-rabs] have used for generations to hawk fruit and vegetables," she wrote in a 1957 news article in The Sun. "The horse that pulled it through the hot, crowded streets was a little swaybacked too. But instead of vegetables and fruits, the wagon carried books. The sign atop the wagon read: `The Pratt Library's Book Wagon -- Borrow Books Here.' "

Edwards was married -- late in life -- to famed City College Principal Philip H. Edwards, and they shared a 40-acre farm in Harford County. At her retirement in 1962, she received from co-workers a bull and bales of hay -- appropriate gifts for a woman one associate described as a "rough and ready" native Texan.

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