I am noticing more and more adaptations of adult books for young readers. Recently, I reviewed a history book about that was “adapted,” (that is, chopped and clipped). Yesterday I received a “young readers edition” of an adult novel that was “rewritten for a middle grade audience.”
This concerns me for two reasons. First, as we know, a “simpler” text—one with easier vocabulary and shorter sentences—can be harder to understand than a more complex text because the connections between thoughts and ideas have be been removed. Readers are left on their own to make these connections. Second, a simplified text does not provide a model or good writing or the enjoyment of stimulating reading. If we want children to read and write with increasing sophistication, we need to show them what well-crafted writing looks like. That means they need writing that is a cut above, not cut to the bone. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
I found Roger Sutton’s recent post on this matter reassuring. He wrote about trusting children “to read past difficulties.” I know this has worked for me big time. When I started a doctoral program, I didn’t know the academic vocabulary in language study—especially in syntax and semantics. My graduate advisor gave me this advice: Keep reading those difficult books and articles and eventually they will all make sense. Guess what folks? He was right, and I have the degree to prove it.
Now, if adult books are going to be adapted for a younger audience, we need to pay attention to this phenomenon because it’s more than just substituting shorter books for longer ones. There’s more going on here. Authors and publishers need to help us out by being forthcoming about these changes. Here are some basic questions I have every time I see the word adapted: Who adapted this book? Was it the author or someone else? Who is the new audience envisioned for the book? What changes were made to the material to make it more appropriate for this new audience? Why?
Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, a new young readers edition of her adult novel with the same title, provides us with a useful guide and starting point. Before you even begin the main text there is “A Note About the Young Readers Edition by Catherine Ryan Hyde.” Here the author provides us with some sense of historical context. She tells us that the setting of the book is the 1990s, before most readers were born (ok, certainly not me!). The novel is based on a true experience she had—which she details—of being helped by strangers who put their lives in danger and didn’t even wait for a thank-you. From that experience, she developed the idea of helping three people and then asking those three to pay it forward by helping three others. This is now a global movement involving many, many others.
Pay It Forward closes with “A Note About This Edition” in which the author tells readers that there was a 14-year gap between the original novel and this adaptation. This version is “more appropriate for young readers.” She also tells us that this new version has a more open ending and invites readers to write to her with their thoughts about what happened after the book closes.
While these notes provide more information about the process of adaptation than found in most books I have seen, I still have lingering questions. What makes this book more appropriate for young readers? Is it changes in wording? Is it sentence structure? Is it the addition of more background information? Was Hyde only referring to the ending? So while I applaud the two author’s notes for their candor, I am still wishing we had even more inside information about the process of adaptation. This would be very useful to teachers and students as they learn about the craft of writing and sharpen their reading skills.