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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Is the Difference Between Adult NF and NF For Younger Readers?

Earlier this year in his response to my article in the Horn Book issue on Nonfiction, Jim Murphy suggested that I was eager to be read and taken seriously by adults and reviewers in journals aimed at adult readers. I don’t think that was my motivation, but there is an interesting question for us to consider — what makes a NF book one for adults, and what makes it one for younger readers? In my collection, Exploding the Myths: The Truth About Teenagers and Reading, I tackled a version of this question — how adult is young adult? But that was about fiction. I made the case that YA novels could deal with any subject, use any vocabulary, be as direct as adult books — especially “older YA,” books aimed at 14-up — but that there was still a matter of tone. The adult book would tend to look back, with the weight of adult experience somewhere in the voice of the book, if nowhere else, while the YA book would be somehow more immediate, more the direct expression of a lived experience. What about nonfiction?
I think it is this — one brand of adult NF does something that will rarely take place in YA NF: the author spends years doing original research and adds something to our knowledge that no one knew before — think of the new biography of Malcolm X based on many files and sources no one had previously consulted, or the book that seeks to explain Area 51 as a testing ground not for captured UFOs but Cold War weapons, based on interviews with aging people who worked there. The advantage of such books is that the author really can be Star Trek — boldly to go where no one has gone before. As I wrote in the Horn Book — we do this too, sometimes, in books for young readers, but we never have the time or resources to spend years in the quest. The down side of such books is often that the information can feel dumped, unprocessed — the very fact that the author has found startling new information is enough to make a book, the page by page writing, the very standard layout, the minimal design can be ignored. Readers are eager to know, to learn — or at least to hear the author interviewed on NPR, or 60 Minutes, to get the gist of it, and then perhaps buy the book to sit on the shelves to dip into on odd evenings or lazy summer afternoons.
Of course our books must feature a great deal of thought about our readers — we have to craft what we say, how we present our ideas and information, and select images to help tell the story. So, in a sense, we are like the YA novels that need to be closer to the direct voice of the teenager. But there is a second kind of adult NF –these books do not claim to be the result of extensive archival research, but rather to “read like a story,” or, to present a surprising or engaging twist on the past –the “i didn’t know that” single product books, the key year in history books, etc. Both of these are closer to what we do. Probably the main difference is that the adult books are written with more presumed knowledge — the writer assumes the reader already knows something, which can be modified — and that we have more and better art. This territory of adult NF and some of our YA NF does blur together — those adult writers are concerned to connect with a reader, in the same way that we are, some adult readers like to have context filled in, the way we do.

So just as some YA paranormal and romance novels are being featured for adults in chain stores, I could see some YA NF being mixed in with reader-oriented adult NF. What do you think? What is the difference beteween adult and YA NF? Voice? Content? Context? Design? Assumed knowledge? Tell us.


  1. Katie M. says:

    I think you hit a home run with this post. Not only do you succinctly lay out the differences in fiction (please, people, quit talking about content…it’s voice!), you make a great argument for the dissimilarities in NF and YANF. I think it is truly about assumed knowledge. Several of the best sellers that have teen companions expect a knowledge of time and space that need not be explained. Making NF accessible to teens may mean weeding some of that out, without ever dumbing down the content. Well done!

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Several years ago I discovered that YA nonfiction was shelved in the adult section of my local public library. “Oh, so that’s where they put it,” I remember thinking. No wonder I can never find so much nonfiction there. Anything over 100 pages seemed to go into the adult section, but that was only true for NF, not fiction. And, similarly, I see the same categorizing of longer NF in elementary school. While it seems quite appropriate for children to read lengthy novels, it seems odd to some (not me!) for them to read longer NF.

    So what’s the difference between adult and YA nonfiction? One big difference for me is that YA authors take the time to assist young readers in understanding how nonfiction works. I am currently reading Penny Colman’s ELIZABETH CADY STANTON AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY: A FRIENDSHIP THAT CANGED THE WORLD and I was impressed that she took the time to explain to readers that could have started the book with their initial meeting, but chose instead to start with their early upbringing. These are choices that help readers understand the construction of historical writing. Nonfiction for YAs can be “considerate” of the young reader.

  3. Such good questions you pose. From my perspective as a writer of high school science for magazines, the focus of an article is the high school chemistry concept. Even if the topic is wildly exciting, if there is no concept to convey, there is no article. I get questions like these recent ones:
    “Based on the information you have collected so far, what would be the best chemistry concept that could be highlighted in your article?” and this one…
    “Whichever of these two topics you decide to choose, if there is a good chemistry concept behind it, then it’s yours.”
    Adult NF may or may not take into account curriculum. If it does, it’s generally not the primary reason for existing. I believe the primary goal of YA NF is to educate and adult NF is to tell a story. Although both can do either.

  4. Adult nonfiction is apparently afraid of using too many pictures.

    I’m reading Moby-Duck right now, and the text is *crying out* for some photographs – I got frustrated trying to visualize some of Hohn’s descriptions, went googling, and found the website for the book – with pages of glorious maps and photographs. Why wasn’t this data in the book? Too expensive, but an accessory website wasn’t so costly? It wouldn’t look as academic with color photos? They’re afraid of looking too much like a magazine? I dunno, but I do know that I really love the glorious graphics in YA nonfiction.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    thank you

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    it is cheapter to put images on a website than in a book — no printing cost, don’t need to use good paper (to get an image to “pop” on the page you need paper that is more expensive than paper that only features print), and if your site is only linking to images you may not have to pay permissions fees, which you do in print.