There are two big challenges in writing NF for readers who are not yet adults: context and engagement. Both of these hurdles have recently risen to new heights. On the one hand the ubiquity of the Now — spread by technology, reinforced by extremely well-funded popular culture, expertly crafted to play to the eternal self-preoccupation of the young. Young people know who did well on some reality TV show last night and not why Eleanor Roosevelt should matter to them. Monica will say it was ever thus, and perhaps to some degree that is so. But speaking broadly, in the past, whatever their limitations, schools had an idea that there was a Western European culture and an American History that mattered. Yes it was limited, white, Christian, etc. (which is no doubt why extremists keep trying to grab hold of education and return to what they recall of this older framework), but it was some check against the ubiquity of the now. We adults have lost that faith that a past, some past, some history and culture, really matters. So we half smile as kids descend into their devices. That leaves it to poor trade NF books to swim against the tide.
We cannot assume our readers already know much, hence the challenge of context. We cannot assume that they care, hence the challenge of engagement. The problem is that no book can do everything. If a book stops to make sure readers “get” every word and phrase, it becomes a textbook, no matter its other excellences. Sure it is possible that our distracted readers will give up rather than Google a word or use some form of online or print dictionary. But we cannot be daunted by that. We have to have some trust that what we write is so compelling that, should the absolutely right word be not entirely common, the reader will seek it out. In reverse, though, we cannot assume that our readers, feeling an inner need to learn about whatever corner of history, science, or math has caught our attention, will forgive us our tresspasses, lower the sound on their devices (off may be too much), and read on, even after a dry patch.
Context and Engagement are the challenges, but, friends, I believe we can let them loom too large. Nonfiction authors are the elders, we are the passers-on of wisdom — not only as story but also as thought, as example, as hard-won-truth. We are needed — we are memory, we are light, we are the truth of science and the clarity of math. We are the mental nutrition young people need even if they don’t know they need it. We cannot be everything to everyone. We can just tell a truth as well as we can, as directly, with as much flourish as our keyboards allow, with opinions made transparent through back matter citations, with passion, with voice, with the uncertainty that any quest for knowledge brings. That is the gift we bring to the young — they need us even if they don’t know it. So be of good courage fellow NF writers, don’t make our twin challenges into our twin curses. Face down the hurdles with trust in the truths you are passing on.