The Page Turner

National Book Award Judge Reflects on a Golden Age for Young Adult Literature
by Liam Farrell | Photo by John T. Consoli

Deborah Taylor ’73, M.L.S. ’74 remembers racing with her classmates from Western High in Baltimore to the local library so they could pass around a copy of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Amidst the tumult of the 1960s, it was one of many books that gave Taylor a way to understand herself and society.

An adjunct lecturer in UMD’s College of Information Studies, Taylor spent decades linking adolescents to literature as a librarian and administrator for the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and judge for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, Newbery Medal and, most recently, the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

She spoke to Terp about diversifying reading lists, what readers of all ages can take from books written for teens, and how to find your young reader’s next page-turner.

Are you encouraged by the diversity of young adult books available today?

There’s certainly some improvement over the years when I had so few books to work with. And I think there’s a deeper understanding of the books that we had accepted as pretty safe. Like with the controversy around “Little House” books, very few people talked about how native kids, kids of color would feel with seeing some of those passages. How do you think the kids of today feel about those books, and how do you think white kids see their contemporaries of different backgrounds if they’re fed a steady diet of books that demean or marginalize? Literary merit is not handed down like a stone tablet. We decide.

What do you look for in a book when you are a judge?

I always look for someone who either tells a really simple story very well, or someone who is telling me a story I’ve never heard before. And I also look for people who are able to capture a voice and make me feel that story is being told just to me. That could translate for a young person because, of course, at that age there needs to be an intimacy, they need to feel that they are being brought in and welcomed.

What can readers of all ages learn from young adult books?

We always want to revisit that part of our lives where we were in that learning mode, that discovery mode. It does show that triumph, that hopefulness. You have this chasm between the books that people really enjoy and the books that people say are literary. When someone is able to do both, you just stand up and applaud.

What advice do you have for parents looking to get their kids into reading?

Do they love dogs? Do they love animals? Are they intrigued by flowers? See what gives them joy and what makes them curious or makes them stare at something for a long period of time. You match the text to that.

Reader’s Choices

Deborah Taylor, a sought-after judge in the young adult book world, always has recommendations at the ready. Feel free to browse a few the next time you head to a library or bookstore:

“A Single Shard”


The first Korean American author to win the Newbery, Park writes about a kid in medieval Korea who wants to buck societal expectations and be a potter. “It speaks to everyday life,” she says.

“Bud, Not Buddy”


A young African American boy sets out to find his father during the Great Depression. “It’s a hero’s journey,” Taylor says.

“The Hate U Give”


Caught between her poor neighborhood and her prep school, an African American teenager finds her world is thrown into disarray after she witnesses a friend die in a police shooting. “It is a great example of a book that was written very specifically about one community and spoke to all young people,” she says.

“The Adventures of Captain Underpants”


Taylor says, “I’m a big fan of kids reading things that give them laughter and joy.”


Susan Riley

Wonderful article about a terrific, insightful librarian and professor on an important issue in youth literature.

Floyd Cooper

Deb Taylor is Always Righteous!

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