Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Adaptations of Adult Nonfiction Books

Back in the 1980s when I became a children's librarian, I had a negative perception of books written for adults that had then been adapted for children.  I can't remember any actual titles but I recall thinking they were probably all hatchet jobs.  I'm happy to say that's no longer the case.  A number of fine adaptations of nonfiction have been published in the past few decades, mostly aimed at middle schoolers.

This morning I compiled a Pinterest Board that I called, in my usual imaginative way, "YA Nonfiction Books Adapted from Adult Nonfiction." (http://pinterest.com/kodean/ya-nonfiction-books-adapted-from-adult-nonfiction/)  Right now it has 15 books that I've read and enjoyed, plus a Spanish version of a book I read in English.  In only one case have I read both the adult and the teen version: Mayflower and The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World, both by Nathaniel Philbrick and both excellent.

Many of the books made it onto bestseller lists in their adult version, typically ones on historical subjects like James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, which kept the same title for young people, and James L. Swanson's Manhunt, published for young people as Chasing Lincoln's Killer.

Most of the books on my Pinterest board were published in the 2000s, but two of my favorites came out in the 1990s.  I often recommend Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals for teen book clubs or classrooms.  Beals was one of the Little Rock Nine who helped change the world in 1957, and her story never feels old or less moving.

Nor has Michael Collins' story in Flying to the Moon, based in part on his Carrying the Fire, lost its drama.  He describes being the astronaut who piloted the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first moon walk.  He was the first person alone on the dark side of the moon.  Like Beals, he's a fine writer with a gripping tale to tell.  

 Two recent adaptations speak to the lives of very different young Hispanic men.  In They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth (available in Spanish as well as English), Daniel Hernandez recounts his role in helping save Representative Gabby Giffords's life in 2011.  Of Mexican descent, Hernandez writes about his upbringing and his determination to succeed, discounting his label as a "hero" and focusing on what matters most to him. 

Enrique's Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario, based on her adult book and Pulitzer Prize winning L.A. Times articles, is the devastating account of a Honduran teenager who rides on train tops through Guatemala and Mexico trying to reach his mother in the U.S.  Time and time again, he's sent back to Honduras or Guatemala by immigration police.  More than once he's robbed and beaten by gangs.  He finally reunites with his mother, who's struggling as an illegal immigrant, but it's far from the fairy tale ending Enrique had hoped for.

 Many of the adult nonfiction on my Pinterest board presumably sells mostly to men or as gifts for men, and may especially appeal to your male students.  If you do a Read Across the School book in high school, consider using both versions of one of these books, offering stronger readers and adults the more challenging one.  The two versions overlap enough to provide plenty to discuss.  Warriors Don't Cry, They Call Me a Hero, and Enrique's Journey focus on young people and offer a lot that students can relate to.   

Make a display of adapted nonfiction books, add them to summer reading lists, and make sure students and teachers know how good they are. And read a few yourself, if you haven't already, to  see how much adaptations have changed.


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