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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

YANF and Voice

I keep learning from my students. Last week my Nonfiction class turned in essays on YA fiction and NF — similarities and differences. A couple of the papers pointed out something I had never previously considered — and is well worth out discussion: YA fiction was born in voice. Many books seek to capture the mindset of the reader — to be so inside his or her universe the book feels not just “realistic” in some measure of match to the reader’s external experience but almost the external expression of the reader’s inner mind. The typical, and ideal, response from the YA reader is: “that’s just like me.” Now that has changed a bit in the fantasy boom, but even in those books where “world building” takes pride of place over identification, there is a language and pace of YA writing that is crafted for a teenage reader. But none of the above is true in YA nonfiction.

We all aim to be engaging, to keep the reader in mind; many of us play with structure in an effort add pace and surprise, but the tone, the voice, is still that of authority. We may not be the teacher, the magisterial voiceover of a documentary, but we are also not aiming to be a teenager. We don’t take on that persona. Now you can say that we can’t or should’t — that would be fiction, or trying too hard — patronizing our readers. And that may very well be true. It may be that only memoir — text or graphic novel — or perhaps some version of pop star bio — can be NF in a YA voice. Now this is not true in middle grade or younger NF — where we have the whole subgenre of “grossology” NF which in voice, as well as neon/day glow graphics and design, seeks to be absolutely in the mind of the reader. And perhaps — please tell me if I am right — the American Girl books aim for a parallel connection to girls. But that effort ends in YA — which may be as it should be.

But I wonder — is there a way that we should/could experiment with a more YA voice? Or, is there a value in the voice of NF which we need to make a case for — we need to find a way to get teachers, librarians, to expose young people to the voice of NF. Or maybe I am framing this poorly — it is not that we need to change, but we need to be aware of this split in the voice of two different YA genres, and keep that in mind as we share our books with our readers. We may not be “in the mind” of the reader, rather we are expanding that mind — opening it to the world. How can we make the passage we are offering a strength, not a disadvantage?


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I think the voice of successful nonfiction YA writers is that of a mentor-inquirer. That is, someone who thinks about the world–past and present. It is someone who raises questions and seeks answers. The author shares what he/she found out as a result of researching. In addition, as a mentor, the author shares “how-to-do-it” advice and invites the reader to be an inquirer too. Authors who do this demystify the process of thinking and learning and inspire readers to be thinkers. I am always energized by authors who help me think and learn.