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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The YA NF Blur

I’ve been teaching a class on “The Glories of Nonfiction” at Rutgers this semester and, as I suspected, one of the main reactions from my graduate students — who range in age from their 20s on up — is “I didn’t know about these books,” “these are nothing like the nonfiction I knew about growing up,” and “I read these books as an adult and I like them.” That last comment overlaps with the fact that quite a number of libraries — for reasons good and bad — shelve YA NF in adult NF — interspersed on the same shelves. A teenger might like feeling respected in that way, and indeed enjoy direct access to “sexier,” in all senses of the word, books than are housed in YA or J. Though some teenagers may feel daunted, decide not to take the extra step to wander over to adult, and they lose the private ownership of their own shelf in their own section. That’s on the YA side, what about for adults?

In a recent class we talked about why adults might be reading YA NF. We all know that adults read YA fiction — so many do B&N has taken those paranormal romances out of YA entirely. And we could only wish for that degree of popularity. But I am not sure that is the direct link to YA NF reading. On the one hand, in the past decade or so, adult NF has included a subset of shorter books — think of the Brief Lives Penguin published, and, even shorter and more recent, Amazon singles. On the other, what might once been a barrier to adult interest in YA NF — books that were sacharine, that avoided controversy, that pandered, that used only limited vocabulary, that catered to a distracted reader needing shorts bits of information and neon, day-glow colors — hardly characterizes the best YA NF. So the adult does not feel s/he is in the wrong place. And of course our books are fully illustrated and carefully designed, while most adult NF is either not illustrated at all, or dumps images into the center of the book. So ours have more visual pleasure to offer.

The real question for me is whether the blur in adult library NF shelves may extend to ebooks. It may be that when NF leaves age 12ish — when it is no longer in color and no longer aimed for middle school — it will enter a digital category where adult and YA cross. There will of course be edges — a YA title on a hot singer that few adults read; an adult tome, or overly explicit adult book whose themes are really meant for adults — but I wonder if YA NF will blur into adult just as adult NF is blurring shorter and more engaging. Lets all keep watch and share what we see. Will we change how we write? Will adult books aim for more illustration? hmmm…..


  1. Having three teenagers of my own, I think it’s a great idea to shelve YA NF with adult NF books versus with the “baby” books. While browsing the shelves, I think my kids would prefer to be mingling with adults. The larger format books would become more accepted if they were considered an adult trim size. I also think YA NF could be marketed to colleges. For example, “Wheels of Change” has potential in a fashion design history curriculum. There are likely many other books that would be suitable as well.

  2. Amy Andrews says:

    Where get we get a list of the titles you taught in your “glories of nf” class?

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I will list soon

  4. I recently read Heiligman’s “Charles and Emma” and for the life of me couldn’t figure out why it was considered YA. The Darwins were adults for the period of their lives she chronicled. I would love to hear your ideas about why this book is considered YA.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    the age of the people in a book has nothing to do with whether a NF book is YA. My book on J, Edgar Hoover is almost entirely about his adult life, as are nearly all books about political figures, warriors, scientists — anyone who matters to a teenager because of what they did in the world, not because of their age. A book is YA as a matter of style, tone, approach, not subject. That actually is a difference from YA fiction, which is generally about teenagers. But it is true that an engaging tone in a concise, well-illustrated, text can appeal to adults as well — hence the blur.

  6. Thanks Mark. That’s very helpful. I’m just trying to understand the hallmarks of the genre on the nonfiction side.