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Nonfiction Matters
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Thought Experiments

Imagine there was a great new academic book on dinosaurs, and an enterprising author who wanted to come up with a version of it for younger readers. The author would face a series of choices. Very likely, none of the text could be used — the professor would surely have written for his peers using the shared language of experts in his field. Perhaps some of the illustrations might be useful in a kids book, but there is no guarantee that the professor would own the rights to those images. Thus to take an academic book, even on a popular topic like dinosaurs, and make it into one for our crowd would mean creating an entirely new book. 

But what of a middle case — lets say Walking With the Dinosaurs made a coffee table book to go with its TV series. Now the art would come from the show, and the language would be aimed at the adult general reader — 8th grade level. There I would say you run into a different problem: the book is so close to one aimed at kids, it becomes in a way harder to define what you need to change. And yet the first book was crafted to reach adult readers, so there is some difference. 

I picked these cases because they outline the issues that I believe come up when you use any existing adult book as your source. You have to dig out, find, what could be the kids’ book in a package that has completely different aims. And that is why I think the best path for the author (or editor) who is aiming to reach younger readers is to use the adult source not as a text to adjust, but as an entry to a set of experiences that need to be compeltely reimagined. You do not adapt an adult source, you mine it to give direction and stimulus to an entirely new kids book. 

What do you think? Examples, good and bad, of kids books that have some relationship to adult texts?


  1. Dan Allosso says:

    Wouldn’t it be a little difficult to convince an editor to go ahead with just another book about dinos, if you didn’t have something new and interesting to show? If there was a cool new discovery, that could be related to a younger audience, but why would you repackage a mainstream product that’s already a review of the known?

    Going back to history, if you had a new interpretation of the events of the Revolutionary War, like THE REAL REVOLUTION, you’d tell that story and refer to the work being done in academic history. I thought that worked well. So a new paradigm in the adult genre is presented to young readers, keeping them up to date with what’s current in the field. But it’s not particularly sugar-coated or dumbed down, is it? It’s just presented without technical jargon, and with illustrative examples or metaphors that resonate with the audience. The bigger question, I think, is: what’s relevant and important for these readers, what are they interested in, and why?

  2. wrigleyfield says:

    I really agree with your point that reimagining a book for children (using the adult book as a source of insight and ideas) is the way to go, rather than “adapting” an adult book for children.

    An analogy in academic publishing is that one can usually spot the books based on dissertations, because they are usually more boring than they need be. Few academics want to start the book arising from their dissertation research “from scratch” (although of course it isn’t really that, since they’ve been thinking about the topic for years), but it produces vastly better books.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    speaking as a person who wrote a very lengthy dissertation, and never turned it into a book, I know exactly what you mean. In the diss, more is more — you always want one more fact, citation, example. In a book, you need a compelling argument.

  4. marybk says:

    One value touched on in the suggest to mine an adult book is studying the structure rather than only the content. Titles of chapters and the flow of information offer useful information about what to include or, conversely, what to omit. And the index also is helpful to pick up items of interest to young people. But I agree–an adult book has to be reimagined. I love that word!

  5. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I think a great example of how a nonfiction book for adults can be reimagined for children is How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming. Lynne Cherry, who’s written more than 30 books about nature for children, read Gary Braash’s Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World, and apparently proposed working with him on a book for children, drawing from some of what he’d seen as he conducted interviews and took pictures around the world starting in 1999. The book is framed around the kinds of questions scientists ask, and give overviews of some of their interesting experiments. Often citizen scientists, including children, are shown gathering information. The featured experiments emphasize evidence we can see such as cherry blossoms, tree rings, monarch butterflies, and harlequin toads. The stunning photographs help keep things from getting too abstract. This book becomes as much about the scientific process, clearly explained, as the findings, and I think the attention to hope is another way they tried to make this valuable for a young audience.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Jeannine: thanks that does sound like a fine book and good example.

  7. Linda Zajac says:

    I just finished reading an academic book written by a scientist for other scientists. It was filled with an exhaustive amount of information and lots of charts to decipher. I fell asleep a few times while reading it. I can’t imagine too many adults would be interested in this book. The format was not a captivating story so it would be inappropriate to duplicate that format for kids. Also, aside from some decent photographs, there was little that could be used in a children’s book. To write science articles, I’ve also used books written by scientists that were meant for adults. These are more interesting to read and are often stories, but they contain far too much information. I believe it is best to get all the facts from whatever source and try to find the story you want to tell from those facts without letting the existing format of a book written for adults cloud your best judgement. For me, it’s easier to find a story from an academic book where no story exists versus an adult book that may have a story that works.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Linda: Yes, I see it the same way — you can mine the academic book, but it is harder to break away from the adult narrative nonfiction, even though you have to.