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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Should YA NF Look Like?

Trims and Design

Linda’s questions in the comment box made me think we should spend a bit of time on layout, design, illustration, and NF for teenagers. 
Background: As you all surely know, the traditional standard for kids NF was similar to that which is still used in adult: the rectangle. Text rectangle facing black and white photo rectangle with caption — which might be a quarter page, half page, or even full page — or, as again is still the case in adult, all of the art might be gathered in the middle of the book. By the way gathering art in one place saves money in more ways than is obvious — not only are the individual pages easier to design, but the art is placed between the 32 page signatures — the groups of pages as they come from the printer. The Eyewitness book heralded the end of the era of the rectangle because they were designed by full spread, not individual page. Art used the full open two pages, and indeed was so central, and used in such unexpected and innovative ways, that text was reduced to captions. Art, full color art, on clear white space, destroyed the rectangle.
        The Eyewitness books were not, however, a model for books that needed more text than you can fit into captions. Publishers turned to the sidebar printed over an image as a way to keep the old rectangle within what looked more like a fully designed approach. That quickly became the textbook. In a way the lineal descendant of Eyewitness is the Ology books, which are moving into nonfiction — design makes things possible that are way beyond the old rectangle. But Ology or Eyewitness is again not a YA format. 
     From Betsy’s Lennon to Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts designers have used surprinting in interesting new ways — the art escapes from its box to become part of the basic layout of the spread. Words appear over and through art — the designer understands that art is not just an item to study, it is the visual field you experience. I like to treat art in NF as a book within a book — I want the browsing reader who to be able to get my basic narrative just by skipping from one picture and caption to another — I want to hook the reader’s eyes, then seduce him or her to read the text. So in the book on the history of Sugar my wife and I wrote, we created a gallery of sugar work, showing the steps in the harvesting and milling of sugar in many times, places, and visual formats — a kind of filmstrip at the hear  of the book.
    Still, I think Linda is right that there could be a very sophisticated YA NF in novel sized trim, with, say, line art — a kind of teenage Wimpy Kid style — where the art does not need real estate, it just requires atunement and taste. That could make a very neat YA NF. I just have not seen it yet.


  1. Naomi Mellendorf says:

    My colleagues and I spend enormous quantities of time looking for nonfiction that will appeal to high school students. They enjoy reading narrative nonfiction, biographies, and memoirs immensely, but these items are almost without exception, written and published for adults. Some of these adult titles have become profoundly successful crossovers to young adult readers, but it’s always a bit hit and miss to find that next title that will knock ’em dead. There’s a place for YA NF and I would snap it up in a minute for my students! If I could find it…

    Naomi Mellendorf, Librarian
    Maine South High School
    Park Ridge, Illinois

  2. Naomi:
    Tell us more — which adult titles are especially popular? why? help us to get an image of what your teenagers like reading.

  3. Almi A Refugee says:

    Being a refugee once is more than most people can consider but Almi and her family did it twice and if things hadn’t worked out it could have happened again. There are so many refugees world-wide and increasing daily. This book could perhaps be an inspiration and encouragement to those who find themselves in a refugee status. It could also perhaps inspire readers that no matter how bad their circumstances, with faith and courage, you can survive and win through against all odds in the end. This biography of a refugee family could be interesting for school children to enjoy reading. It’s found in Google under title: Almi A Refugee.
    Best Regards Tiiu Kleyn

  4. Mary Losure says:

    Did you (Marc) get an answer from Naomi? I’d very much like to hear examples of adult narrative non-fiction that appeals to young readers.

  5. no I didn’t. I often hear people mention adventure memoirs, such as Into the Wild. but she did not send a list.