Writing a book about J. Edgar Hoover for teenagers was a constant reminder of how the central issues in our lives can change and have changed. His life was defined by the battle between communism and anti-communism — all of his psychological need to divide the world into pure and impure, lawful and lawless, controlled and anarchic was pored into what he saw as the eternal battled between Democratic, Christian (or at least religious) America and the tyrannical, atheistic Soviet Union. Doubtless there are people who see the world in equally stark, binary, terms today — people in all nations — but the names of the sides have changed. For Hoover types the enemy is less athesism than Islam, for Islamic extremists, the enemy is not (or not mainly) capitalism but the supposedly Zionist ammoral West. Certainly it is not hard to see similarities in the language used by our extremists on both sides and the Cold War phrases of Hoover’s day, but they are not identical. The Gay Marriage and abortion debates both have strong echoes of the old Chirstian America V/ Communist USSR sides — but those are overtones, not the main arguments. And if we let those on both ends scream at each other — that leaves everyone else, most people — and that is where the shift in issues is most evident.
I suspect that for many young people who feel an urgent sense of cause, mission, need to fight against evil, the battleground is about ecology, the environment, not ideology. They may be more inclined to march about BP and the Gulf than war, racism, poverty — any of those 60’s battlefronts. Seeing that creates many challenges for the non-fiction writer — how do you make those old conflicts feel immediate and alive to readers who no longer feel that way? And, what kind of modern book, what subjects, what issues, could tap the idealism, conviction, outrage of modern teenagers? The more I worked on Hoover the more important, and difficult, I found these questions to be. We live in the shadow of our own pasts, yet we are writing for readers concerned with a different present and future. Finding a way to link them to our past, and to enter their modern concerns, is the challenge for many of us who write non-fiction for teenagers.