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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Of Adult Nonfiction and Our Nonfiction

Can Adult Nonfiction Translate into Good Nonfiction For Younger Readers?

I have been thinking about this question ever since I began editing books for middle graders more than twenty years ago. I have always been drawn to the depth of knowledge that academic authors have, as the narrative skill of adult trade writers. And, from the first Land and People books I edited in the 1980s, I tried to figure out ways to tap that field of adult authors, while crafting true children’s books. The issue came up for me last year with some force when I was introduced to Scott Reynolds Nelson. He had written Steel Driving Man about his effort to find the real John Henry, and we discussed the idea of creating a parallel book for younger readers on the same theme. But what should that book be?

The obvious answer is shorter and more heavily illustrated. And, too often, that is how adult books get adapted into books for K-12, someone is hired to cut them, add some illustrations, and perhaps define some terms, add some sidebars, and adjust the vocabulary. But neither Scott nor I wanted that. We wanted to create something entirely new, a book conceived from the start as a way to communicate with younger readers that while it covered the same journey as the adult book, was in no way related to that original text. In other words, the commonality was Scott and his research, not his account. It is not overstating the case too much to say we had to not merely ignore but destroy the adult book to find the younger one. That is, we had to break the spell of the table of contents, the seeming inevitability of the structure as he had crafted it, to figure out how to communicate his story to our readers. I tried writing one version in third person, and was pretty happy with it, before I realized that it really had to be in first person. We experimented with different beginnings, and thus dramatic turning points — all of this before the flow of the art changed the pacing again.

Working with Scott was a real treat for me, because I could learn from him historian to historian, while getting to use my experience and training as an author for younger readers. So I am working on more books like Ain’t Nothing But a Man, where I team up with an adult scholar. I think this may be a promising opportunity for other writers — where we can bring our experience in communicating with young people, and the scholar can contribute his or her new insights. But all parties have to accept that they are not adapting an existing book, but rather creating an entirely new one. That, I believe, is the key to bringing adult writers to younger readers.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I like this idea, but wonder if you have general guidelines in mind for what this new book should be, or just that it should be different?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Jeannine: that varies by the subjects and the intended readers. The guideline is to create a new work that speaks directly to whatever age/grade readers are best suited to the subject/approach.

  3. I have been giving a lot of thought to how nonfiction can be better designed for high school libraries. (see my blog at Now that we have online databases to fill the role that used to be served by series like Opposing Viewpoints, my feeling is that for young adults the best choice in nonfiction will be narrative (also known as creative) nonfiction–Something with a plot, characters–something with a format like a fiction book. Does your adaption for young adults follow this idea, or did you choose to present the info in another way?

  4. Marc Aronson says:


    I see two ways nonfiction can go, either, as you say, towards that adult “narrative” approach, or towards a more open expression of the author’s own stake, own passion, in writing the book. As you point out, the distant even dual POV approach can be found online — so the author must show his or her face in a book. More on this Wednesday

  5. Dan Allosso says:

    Jeannine Atkins sat in last night on a seminar I’ve been taking on biography, and mentioned this thread. I’m writing a YA bio of a 19th century radical, and I’m wondering how it might fit into the world of YA nonfiction. It’s narrative, filled with conflict, quite dramatic — and also true. Looking around on the web, I’m seeing ideas like ”

  6. Dan Allosso again says:

    truncated:…I suspect quote marks are illegal… I was wondering if you’ve noticed particular styles matching themes? My thought is that a story about a rebel, for example, might be particularly suited to an edgier narrative style? Is there a particular organization around these outside voices (presses, publications, reviewers), or do they come from all sources?

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Dan you question sounds interesting but I am not sure I understand it. Please email me via my website and then I will post here for everyone to see.

  8. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Marc, Thanks again for posing this interesting question, which had already been under discussion in a graduate seminar I visited two days ago at UMass. The professor admires your work and seemed well acquainted with the challenges of writing for the young. They’d looked at one book rewritten for teens and many found it more chopped than revised in the way you suggest here. I wrote more about this afternoon on my blog:

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    Everyone: Go read Jeannine’s blog, listed above, it has some wonderful suggestions and thoughts about biography and younger readers. I think I will say more about this question of adult — younger in another blog, it is a rich topic.

  10. Dan Allosso says:

    Actually, the seminar has been looking at academic and popular biography, and in our final meeting on Tuesday we talked about bio for younger readers. I suspect there’s a wide variation, especially between works for young readers and works for young adults. Personally, I think teen readers crave something with more bite than they get from most histories. I may be barking up the wrong tree, but I think acknowledging teens as sophisticated readers means letting them not only see complexity and shades of gray, but feel the passions people felt over their struggles. I suspect this will continue to be a fringe activity; but in the longer run, things fall apart. The center cannot hold.