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 history.unc.edu/newsevents/unc-ph-d-scott-nelson-wins-three-major-book-prizes 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.