Remember when you were a kid and your teachers would assign book reports, but you could never choose what you wanted to read? Somehow the new Goosebumps, Sweet Valley Twins, or in my case, the latest Thoroughbred book was never considered a valuable because it was missing a big old seal on the cover. “If it’s not a Newberry book, you can’t use it!” was echoed ad nauseum throughout my classrooms from second to sixth grade. My teachers decided early on that if the book hadn’t won an award, it wasn’t proper literature.

But what’s in an award? Would an award by any other name (ie Newberry) smell as sweet? For YA authors, a few would, and at the Dallas, Texas ALA Conference, YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) announced this year’s round of winners. Recipients of these awards quickly plaster their notable achievements on their novels for  the world to see that these are proper books. These are good books. Someone said so.

For readers, it’s a bit trickier. It’s unlikely unless you’re well versed in literary awards that when you pick up John Green’s Looking for Alaska and see a big shiny gold “P” that you say, “Oh  yes, the Printz Award. This must be real literature. Jolly good!” (isn’t everyone’s inner voice an old British man?) In reality we see so many various “awards” on books that without a little background knowledge, they become meaningless. Did I know when I read Ender’s Game that  Orson Scott Card had won a Nebula award for it and that made it a Big Deal in the sci-fi world? Nope. Did I still enjoy the book? Boy did I.

I don’t believe awards make the book better or worse. They do offer up recognition to authors from their peers, readers, and leaders in the book world for a job well done. However, next time you see a random award on the back of a book, maybe you’d like to know what it means. Below is a guide to help you know what each award means, some of WhatchYAreading’s favorite past winners, and this year’s current reigning champ.

The Michael J. Printz Award is for books that “exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature.” This is kind of the creme de la creme of young adult book awards. This is the big gold P seal on the front of a book.

2012 Winner: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.

2012 Honor Books (signified by the silver P) Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, The Returning by Christine Hinwood, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey,  and (my favorite) The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Our Favorite Past Winners:  2011: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi,  2009 Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, and  2006 Looking for Alaska by John Green

William C. Morris Debut Award honors a debut book by a first-time author writing for teens. It is designed to celebrate impressive up and coming new YA authors.

2012 Winner: Where Things Come Back  by John Corey Whaley.

2012 Finalists: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson,  Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard, Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Our Favorite Past Winners & Finalists:  2010 Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, 2009 Graceling by Kristin Cashore

The Margaret A. Edwards Award is specific to the author. It honors not only the author him/herself but a specific body of their work for its “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” I kind of think of this as the YA Lifetime Achievement award. It’s sponsored by the School Library Journal and recognizes work that helps “adolescents become aware of themselves and address questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.”

2012 Winner:  Susan Cooper for the Dark Rising Sequence, including: Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark Is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; and Silver on the Tree.

Notable Past Winners: Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lois Lowry, Orson Scott Card, and Sir Terry Pratchett.

YALSA’s Alex Awards are unique because they are awarded to adult books that have unique appeal to young adult audiences (the traditional 12-18, not the 20 somethings like us). I think these awards are particularly interesting, because it shows how vastly YA literature can be stretched and interpreted.

2012 Winners: Big Small Girl  by Rachel de Woskin, In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, The Lover’s Dictionary by David Leviathan, The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser, The Night Circus  by Erin Morganstern, Ready Player One  by Ernest Cline, Robocalypse: A Novel  by Daniel H. Wilson, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, The Scrabook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures, and The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo.

Our Favorite Past Winners: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroTime Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier,  and Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Hopefully next time you’re in a book store and wondering what those seals are all about, you’ll know what the awards represent. Then you can decide for yourself if you want to read proper, or improper, literature! At WhatchaYAReading, we’re mostly just concerned about good writing, a good plot, and more than anything else, a good story.

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