One of the great treasures for an author of YA nonfiction is an engaged teenager who is willing to read and comment on your manuscript. Sidenote here — any and all of you who work in schools or school libraries, you probably have a teen reading group, but they read published books or about-to-be-released galleys, and almost entirely fiction (all the more because of the indefensible shift of BBYA to Fest Fiction). If you can ask around to find any teenagers who want to read NF as it is being crafted, I guarantee you your kids can get works-in-progress from the very best YA NF writers. Well I hit the jackpot with my Hoover book. A sixteen year old read two complete versions of the ms. and sent me the most detailed comments. I’ve had that before, but this weekend came the kicker. His mom sent me a paper he had written about the Cold War as an end of year assignment — and now I could see, on the page, how he had assimilated and further explored what he had read in my ms.
Beautiful — this may be the most gratifying part of writing NF — that we not only create characters and stories that resonate with readers, but we can actually get them to view and re-view the past, the present, and thus the future in new ways. We can give them insights that lead them to completely recast how they think about America, its challenges, its enemies, its goals. My about to be 11 year old son warned me the other day that his friends’ eyes glaze over the minute the see the world “slavery” in a book: they have been reading the same information in the same presentations for years. We just heard from the Middle School Language Arts teacher that they are having the same problem from some kids with The Holocaust — again too much of the same information in the same or similar presentations. Here are two of the most profound human tragedies — that students have already been inured to. Surely mixed in with their numbed responses is the depth of pain there to be felt if you allow yourself in. The students are shutting off from deep feeling. But we are too. We make the past dull, safe, boring, familiar — a stamped out lesson carefully matched to scope, sequence, state standards — as dull as possible.
The student who read my ms. and then wrote his own paper knew next to nothing about the Cold War, or Marxism, or HUAC at the beginning. But that very freshness made him an excited explorer — this was all new to him, and so he could make it his own, he could open his own eyes, explore the world, see things afresh. That is what we trade NF authors must do — follow our own lights, explore new areas, and give young people the chance to discover people, events, ideas that are not covered in their textbooks, that are not chewed to a cud, that are news to them. We need to use our interests as flashlights illuminating corners of the past they would otherwise never see. Because when we do, and teenagers read our books, their eyes open wide. I have the proof — the whole arc, from the ms. he read, to his notes, to the paper he wrote.
A great experience all around — and one that could take place over over and over again: lets make a great exchange matching YA readers and YA authors, sharing ideas-in-formation.