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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Missing Side of YA NF

The other day I saw this YALSA content analysis of Printz winners: The article reviewed the commonalities of the award winners and honorees. My accurate but somewhat peevish reaction to the essay was that it missed the most obvious trend — Printz winners are nearly always fiction, and, not only that, nearly always novels. When we created the award we explicitly opened the door to anthologies, to graphic novels, to plays, to nonfiction. But with just the more rare exceptions, committees have relentlessly selected single author novels. One objection to my grouching has often been that there are not that many YA NF books published (there certainly have been plenty of YA poetry anthologies, though that genre is fading). Last night in class my student pointing out something I had never considered — which showed my own blindness.

There are NF biographies and history books that can easily claim to be for 12-14, and even a bit older. So the objection that there is no YA NF is wrong. But my student asked why there is no YA NF on science — genetics, medicine, ecology? Think of Ship Breaker — why couldn’t there be NF on half-men, and ecological disaster, and the actual beachfronts where ships are broken down today? The obvious answer is that there are series books, or For and Against books on many related topics: Global Warming; Recombinant DNA, Destructive Weather (those go down to pre-school age), Super Viruses, etc. And there are textbooks. But why are there no trade books? Neither the simple step of a YA Henrietta Lacks book to something more personal and innovative — a scientists in the field book for teenagers.

Or take the Watson-v human on Jeopardy story. I am certain it is already in Time for Kids and similar middle grade magazines. How far a step would it be to go from there to a book on AI, gaming, humans — the real science of Enders Game? AFter the contest I heard one of the human contestants on NPR explain — accurately if somewhat peevishly — that the machine won because, as a machine, it could buzz that 1/8 of second faster than a human. An IBM scientist agreed, but — accurately if somewhat peevishly — said that Jeopardy is a game, any advantage a player can have within the rules it should take, and surely humanJeopardy champs have their own honed skills at button pressing. Gaming — what is strategy, what is tactics, what is a sign of intelligence — a perfect chapter in a YA NF book on Watson, Gaming, Science, and AI. But the genre simply does not exist.



  1. I have been lamenting the fact that there is a hole in “readable” nonfiction since I made the move from a middle school library to a high school library last year. There are lots of boys in my school who want nonfiction, but finding books on interesting topics that weren’t written for adults or younger children is very difficult.

  2. Stefanie Halliday says:

    I agree that this is a huge issue. I have been given an unprecedented chance to fill my media center with high interest materals–more money than my budget has seen in a long time. My principal and I both firmly believe in the value of non-fiction, and I have students who demand it. But, I am hard pressed to come up with awesome science trade titles. If you look at the list of trade books “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12,” published by NSTA the bulk of the titles are really elementary level works. I’m not being critical of the list–it’s wonderful (and can be found at: but they can’t list books that aren’t out there!

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    There is very, very, little science in trade books for those high school ages and that is a pity.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I could not agree more.

  5. I do think there is outstanding YA science being published — most recently Sally Walker’s WRITTEN IN BONE and FROZEN SECRETS, and Suzanne Jurmain’s THE SECRET OF THE YELLOW DEATH. I write for the “Scientists in the Field” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and within that series I see a distinct trend of using language and addressing topics that move into YA territory, even though these books are generally considered to be for upper elementary and middle school students.

    Clearly, however, there is not enough YA science being published. One side of this problem is probably economic. I once pitched a YA science book to an editor, imagining 200 pages of full color photos and high-school-level text. I was told it wouldn’t fly because the book would be expensive to produce and would only sell to libraries, whereas a shorter nonfiction book for a younger audience could also be sold in bookstores, aquariums, etc. By comparison, history and biography that use black and white images are cheaper to produce. Novels without images are even less expensive.

    Probably the most basic barriers to more and better science books at every level is simply the fact that the gatekeepers of children’s literature (authors, agents, editors, and librarians) are far more likely to have academic backgrounds in literature or history than in science. As for the complaint about the lack of nonfiction YA on subjects like AI…just as there is a bias in children’s literature toward novels, there is a bias among science writers toward biology. (And I am as guilty of that as anyone.) I think that nowhere is there a bigger gap between importance to society and what we offer children to read than in the area of engineering.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I mentioned the Scientists in the Field series, and I should have cited Sally and Suzanne, thanks. But the gaps is real.

    I have often thought that engineering is the big gap in our educational system, and it is, too oftened, gendered. A woman whose husband is an engineer who loves reading manuals may well be a librarian who eagerly offers novels to teenagers. The teenager who would love to read version of those same manuals is called a science geek, a nerd with a plastic pocket protecter. That may be changing as increasingly librarianship is about information systems, which involves infomatics, social infomatics, the architecture of information flows.

    I am not sure, though, that you are right about the gap in science writers, as there are plenty of people writing popular adult work about both physicial and software engineering. I just think those writers have not been invited, charmed, sold on writing for the teenagers they were not so long ago. What could be more interesting to a large subset of teenagers than, say, AI, gaming and war, hacking and Wikileaks, social networking and social change, cyberwar — all of which we treat in fiction far before we explore in fact.

  7. I agree that in adult science writing there are many strong works that cover physical science and computing. My comment about the biology bias was directed toward children’s science writing.

  8. Freely acknowledging bias, I agree that there should be more science books for the YA audience. In addition to the reasons Pam states, here are a couple more to think about. First, by the time high school students are juniors or seniors, teachers may be expecting them to use books published for adults. Sadly, at the same time, we read education surveys that inform us that the reading level of these same students is below grade level, especially in science content areas. So, it’s fair to say that Scientists in the Field books do cross a “new” YA threshold.

    That said, frankly, I don’t see that teachers are being made aware of the science books that have been published. And they are out there, I assure you. Budget cuts have removed review journals, especially Science Books & Films, NSTA review journals, and Appraisal from many public libraries, let alone school library, bookshelves. Without access to these kinds of materials, it becomes increasingly more difficult for teachers to tap in to what’s new. Too, Marc, the issue of teaching to the test and to the curriculum, a la the concerns you’ve raised in earlier posts with social studies and trade books, definitely holds true with trade books and the science curriculum.

    Interesting to see that SLJ’s Battle of the Books had no science books this year, despite Montgomery, Burns, and Jermain all having had excellent, riveting books come out. Any of them would have stood well in a battle. I’ve been a literature consultant and a bookseller for more years than I’ve been an author. Honestly, I find that many novels have begun to bore me. So many are similarly themed. It’s the recent nonfiction books, of all genre, that command my attention these days.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    Sally: thanks for joining in. While I agree that many read below grade level and that books we may see as middle grade can certainly be read and used in high school, it is also important to remember the many, many lively minds in schools. A survey shows a trend, but that leaves millions, truly millions, of smart, engaged kids eager to use their minds and ready to be challenged. I see that every time I visit a school.

    The gap between the potential interest in science (leaving aside biology for the moment) and the trade books we publish is wide, and it is a perfect illustration of the fact that school librarians and teachers are not functioning as a team. Instead each is fighting her own battle for survival. I just learned today that one of ALA criteria in evaluating a graduate library school program is whether it teaches future librarians that they will need to be “assertive” in showing their skills and sharing their knowledge. We in turn need to show those empowered librarians that one thing they can assert is the value of trade nonfiction — and then, in turn, we need to create those books. I am never defeated by what is — it just gives us a chance to build a bridge to what can be.

  10. I wonder, too, whether how we teach science in middle and high school impacts the ways in which teachers consider science texts. As my colleague and I are at work on our book about using trade books (texts of all genres, modalities, etc.) in the content areas, it is much easier to discuss using trade books in social studies with teachers because so much of that work remains print based. Science teachers share with us the significance of starting with the hands-on science, in making science visible through experiments and activities first and foremost. If the notion of using text is secondary, I think it’s easier to just accept a textbook so that one can focus on getting the right resources and dedicating the time (with often just 40 minutes a day) for the hands-on work, as the texts are secondary in a way they aren’t in history/social studies (although obviously, not all primary sources are texts and many artifacts are used as well in history). The reality of the ubiquitous high school text book is that NO ONE is reading it. Thus, I think many high school students would struggle to read a Scientists in the Field book cover-to-cover for a science class, because there is a culture of non-reading, of skipping through the columns to find the right answer to the questions at the end of the chapter. High schools are also still very traditional, maintaining disciplinary barriers that don’t exist in the real world…works like Sally’s Written in Bone allow for teams of teachers to build meaningful curriculum in a multi- and interdisciplinary context, making connections between past and present, using and understanding cultural norms of the past and cutting edge science of the present all at once. The single-title, non-series, science nonfiction young adult nonfiction is still a rarity and desperately needed for curricular purposes as well as the personal reading lives of teens. The elementary and middle school teachers in my nonfiction class are always stunned at what’s available to them…but I very rarely have a high school teachers in my class, so we don’t even have that conversation.

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    Very interesting. Though I wonder if the lab-based, hands-on, non-print bias applies in quite the same way to areas of potential reading interest for teenagers such as AI. Sure kids learning programming are mainly at their keyboards trying things out. But kids who are interested in the many aspects of knowledge and information engineering — as tools, as vision of the future, as dire fear of the future — may not necessarily be taking tech classes. On the other hand, I am not sure where these interests fit in the science curriculum, much as they could. It is striking, too,how of the string theory comes up in YA fiction (Going Bovine, Golden Compass just as starting places) but there is really no YA trade book on physics — not since Hawking’s Brief History of Time and that was not really YA and such an outlier it has nothing to do with what others write and publish.

  12. Mary Ann, I would LOVE to read your book when it comes out!

  13. I heartily second Pam’s comment about Mary Ann’s book. Can you give us a hint when it may be published? It is one I would DEFINITELY want to booktalk to “my” bookstore’s teachers and librarians!

  14. Thanks for your kind words! We’re still in the very early drafting stages, with a complete manuscript due July 2012, so most likely late fall of 2012 or early 2013, which of course seems like ages from now. This bridge, from trade book to classroom life, from the world of libraries and reviewers to the world of teachers and more importantly kids, is my favorite bridge to construct/strengthen/redesign, and I think it takes this cross-pollination to make it happen: authors, book sellers, librarians, publishers, teachers, university folks, and ideally, children and young adults. We preach to the choir, rather than dialogue with one another.

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    Mary Ann said: “I wonder, too, whether how we teach science in middle and high school impacts the ways in which teachers consider science texts. ”

    I think this is true all along the spectrum of non-fiction books. Yes, Social Studies/History get a little bit of play, but in general, the great trade NF books are the ones that challenge assumptions and make kids think, while teachers are being pushed more and more to “teach to the test,” etc, and act as if science, language, history, etc. are just a series of facts that can be memorized.

    In that context, look at a different example that’s near to my heart: language and linguistics.

    As far as I can tell, all the grammar that kids are taught these days is centuries old falsehoods about not splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Meanwhile, I could list off at least a dozen (if not many more) adult books on the real world of language and linguistics that would be totally accessible to teens. But what is being imparting in those books is descriptive linguistics–the idea that language is a living breathing thing that can’t be summed up in 10 or 15 pithy “rules”–which just isn’t what teachers have time or incentive to teach.

  16. Amy Jackson says:

    As Pamela said, there have been quite a few good YA NF science books published. There are young reader editions of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And it’s been pretty widely publicized that the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is currently adapting her book for young readers (though I imagine it isn’t a “simple step” as you say above). It’s mentioned on her website here: where it says, “The Immortal Life is being translated into more than 25 languages and adapted into a young reader edition. It is also being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.”

  17. Similar to what Mary Ann said above, I’ve heard middle/high school librarians talk about the fact that they rarely interact with the science teachers in their buildings. When the science teachers never come into the library looking for books and never assign projects that require their students to turn to the library, how can the librarian justify spending part of her budget on science books? Publishers need to see science books selling well or connect those books to some sort of a trend (i.e. environmentalism, interest in CSI/forensic science) before they will take the risk to publish more science-themed YA nonfiction.

  18. Ironically, it is the high school students set to embark upon college and careers that need YA NF science books the most. They are the scientists of tomorrow. As one scientist I spoke with said, “They are going to inherit a holy mess.” It’s also not helping science literacy to skimp on this age bracket. From what I heard at a science conference, science literacy is pretty darn low. YA is a relatively new genre and YA NF even newer, so I suspect the idea hasn’t caught fire yet and a crummy economy hasn’t been much of an accelerant. I agree wholeheartedly that the lack of YA science is no fault of the writers who know full well how to boost up the word count or bring it down.

  19. Marc Aronson says:

    I did not know about all of these — though three examples (one, admittedly that I thought was needed) of adult best-sellers turned YA does not seem like “quite a few” to me. Still, glad to hear that at least this much cross-fertilization is taking place.

  20. Marc Aronson says:

    Speaking as an author, not a publisher, I disagree. It is up to us to blaze trails, to build bridges to readers not to wait to walk across paths spelled out by others. When J.K. Rowling started out, many said fantasy would not sell. Her books opened a path for others. We need to see what would engage young people — and as our books make space and build readerships, librarians and teachers can join in.

  21. An excellent conversation and seeds have been planted. Pointing out another YA book with a strong science component–Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma.

  22. This is a fascinating discussion for me, and something I had never considered. I write science books for adults (thus far), and it occurs to me that I could and should turn them into YA (jr high and high school levels) titles. The writing is already easy enough for that level, but the books are too long and involved. I would love some input on how I might go about contacting an appropriate publisher. I don’t think my literary agent would do something like this, though I could ask her. As an example of what I have in mind, I published INSIDE THE OUTBREAKS: THE ELITE DISEASE DETECTIVES OF THE EPIDEMIC INTELLIGENCE SERVICE in 2010 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. See for a good deal of information on it. I should think that this would make an excellent introduction to epidemiology and infectious diseases as a YA title. But I have no idea how to go about finding a publisher.

  23. Marc Aronson says:

    I would love to see writers like you writing science for our readers, but I am not entirely sure where you should start. HMH, though, is not a bad place. You might ask your adult editor if s/he has had contact with the YA or kids staff. There are some agents within kids books who are strong on nonfiction, but I’m not sure if you want to split your books.

  24. Christine Williamson says:

    I love the idea of tying a NF book more directly with the fiction that is so popular. For instance, Neal Shusterma’n’s Unwind and Unwholly would be great NF explorations of transplant trechnology, stem cell technology, growing organs, and the social, policical and moral dilemnas they pose. Hunger Games has a cookbook. What about a book that explores the perils of reality TV and child combatants. I know there are books already on these topics, but not tied in directly to fiction works that address these topics. It really is about marketing the same information in a different way.

  25. Hey you! This is a terrible hole in the market. Long, long ago, when I was in sixth grade I loved physics. I thought it was brilliant and awesome, and I asked my teacher for more reading to do on the subject, but all she gave me was the 12th grade physics textbook, which was unreadable. Eventually I found the pop-science section in the library, but my ardor had already cooled. It would have been great to actually have fun readable books on these topics. I might have ended up an engineer or a physicist.
    Instead, I’m a Linguist, and I’m pretty annoyed at how little accessible and readable information there is on descriptive language studies (shout out to Mark Flowers above). I’ve been thinking about trying to write a book that’s both advanced and accessible that explains language. Something like “The Martian Scientist’s Guide to the English Language” and include the alien perspective, and cartoons. Are there any good places to go for advice on writing and publishing nonfiction for teens?