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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Age Question, Again

I am in the very last days of writing my book on J. Edgar Hoover, and this book keeps raising the question of how to write nonfiction for teenagers. Writing about Hoover — but really anyone in the 20th Century, especially the second half — means that a great deal of the adult and academic writing has to do with his private life. Was he homosexual? (as far as I can tell, no, but he would have been if were not so afraid of his own desires). Did the Mafia have photos of him in drag, or in compromising positions with boys (there is no evidence of this). The private life questions relate to the other major figures central to his story — JFK. MLK, LBJ — Hoover collected information about their affairs and that was a major source of his power. So to open the door to our own recent past means to deal directly with issues that certainly will raise red flags for some librarians, teachers, parents — thus potentially hurting the market for a book. But there is also my own question about what is significant, important, right, to share with my readers. The question is not just — will adults be upset — but also, what is informative for teenagers and what is abusive?

Of course I know that all the other media in their lives — music, TV, internet, YA novels, graphic novels — can be quite explicit. The questions about propriety that I’m asking have long been settled, or at least bypassed, in those other media. And from a developmental POV, questions of sexuality, identity, secrecy, group pressure, private and public life, adults who speak one morality and live another are all exactly right for at least older teenagers. So you could say there is a perfect fit between that Cold War era of secrets, lies, affairs and affairs revealed, and adolescent-as-Hamlet — as questioner of the King and Queen, of the ghosts of the past, of the deep currents of desire that can be distressingly Oedipul. There is that whole feminist canon about Ophelia — why not Hamlet –the teenager making sense of the sins and lies of adults? Finally, there is one area of YA nonfiction that has long explored related territory — the self help books about body changes, sexuality, desire.  And yet….I am aware that I am writing for teenagers about topics that have not been directly presented to them before.

I think beating behind my wrestling is the fact that the 20th century is not taught as frequently as any other period in American History, and so the confrontation with our own failings — Watergate, for example — is not as mapped out in YA. We all know that that era can be found and felt in Cormier — but not in Social Studies. As I write this I am realizing something — there is a strong link between the era of exposure that began in the 60s — the presidential and other affairs that began to become public — and the social network, facebook, gossip world we live in today. I am writing about the world-in-formation that my readers now inhabit. But the problem is we as a society, and our schools, have not made that bridge. So the problem is not just that I am taking teenagers into a new place, I am also leading their teachers and parents and librarians there — and that’s risky. But I also suspect that as we write more older YA nonfiction we will be doing that — taking our entire community of readers, teenagers and gatekeepers, to places they have not been — now that is exciting.


  1. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Hi Marc, it’s good to be reading about nonfiction again (I have been “offline” for a while with deadlines). Your point about propriety being bypassed by other media is an important one. Finding the middle ground between keeping kids interested while not being inappropriate will continue to be an issue. Granted, I write about ancient history, but the challenges of telling some of those stories are changing there too. For example, in my upcoming biography of Cleopatra (for younger YA), I felt it was important to talk about how her enemies used sexually-demeaning innuendo or name-calling to degrade her image. Kids “get” that because not only are they quick to use that language on each other, but on women in power they do not like. Still, I expect some adults will not like that I’ve addressed the issue at all, even though I have done so without actually using the offending words or, I believe, crossing that line. It will be interesting to see the response…

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    Yes, these questions come up at all ages — dealing with the past means dealing with real lives, which did not necessarily obey rules of age-appropriateness and pose challenges for us when we write about them for younger readers. I will say that in working with teachers I have found them generally open to dealing with difficult material — perhaps because in a classroom situation they can discuss it, give context, see reactions. They are not just giving a book to a child and expecting him or her to make sense of it alone.