Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Crossover? Cross-Up? What Is Going On With the Adult-authors Writing NF for Younger Readers?

This morning brings the front page article in the New York Times about adult authors writing nonfiction for younger readers:

This is what Myra recently wrote about, and I find myself having so many mixed reactions to the article, and to the trend it describes. First, I think the headline is both false to the article itself and misleading in describing adult NF edited for younger readers: "To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify." Sometimes, yes, and the article gives instances of authors (doubtless with editors at their elbows) deciding which bits of sex, drugs, torture should be in or out. But the article also mentions that kids can take quite a lot, and the thrust of it is not about dumbing down or leaving out, but rather about this lively moment in which the formerly hard barriers between adult and non-adult first in fiction now in nonfiction are blurring.

The headline suggests that the blur is a way of infantilizing readers -- depriving them of moving "up" to real adult works while pandering to a limited view of what young people can handle. Sure that happens. And I hear beating behind this headline and all of the recent articles on whether it is good, bad, or indifferent that so many adults are reading YA fiction, a concern about markets. The adult publishing world is challenged, shrinking -- especially outside of genre areas such as romance and erotic novels -- while YA is booming. Many people: authors of adult fiction and NF, adult literary types fearing the loss of writing they treasure, those who in general fear, resist, or are critical of the influences of markets on taste, art, ideas, are alarmed at decline on one side and a rising wave on the other. Add in those who see young people mesmerized by digital devices and fear a loss of serious reading and thinking, and you get the Times headline.

From my seat as one who writes NF for middle grade and YA that, often enough, I think could be of interest to adults, this moment has both hazards and possibilities. The threat is that adult authors who have market power and media reputations, who have been given large advances so that they can devote years to their books, or can hire squadrons of research assistants, will overshadow us. I do fear that the craft of writing for our readers which we have honed may be easy to ignore as against the fame of an adult author -- perhaps this is what picture book authors felt when everyone from Hollywood stars to TV comedians began publishing picture books. On the other hand I see real potential in this opening up, this recognition, of NF. The key line in the Times piece came from the astute Bev Horowitz -- a wise and experienced editor and publisher at Random House: "Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover."

Cross-over, cross-up, cross-down, what will it be? The good news is that NF is attracting attention, and the field is expanding. Buckle up for a faster, wilder, ride. 


  1. Marc, you beat me to it! I had to wait until the school bus left the stop to finish the article and then rush over to my computer up here in New Hampshire. The good news? There's an article about young adult nonfiction on the front page of The New York Times. The bad news? The focus on adult authors as crossovers, and the crazy headline with the words "simplify" and "sanitize" in it. The best writers for children and young adults just don't think in those terms. They write to their intended audience with the utmost respect for the audience and what it can handle, and the utmost respect for the content. It's about how to match the content and the reader in a beautiful and intricate dance of content, structure, and style. There is nothing simple about it. I'm glad Myra's piece here came out first. But there is so much more for The New York Times to tackle if they want to educate the general public on the field of nonfiction books for children. This is another example of a well-intentioned article about nonfiction for young people written by someone who does not know enough about this field. Can we as the Uncommon Corps write a response in a letter to the editor about this?

  2. I am also thinking about the high school teachers with whom I work, who are reluctant to use young adult nonfiction in the classroom because they think it is too simple and that students should be reading books and texts written exclusively for adults. There are two ways to think about the consequences of the simplified versions -- some kids read the adult version and some read the simplified. But the reality is, I'd rather have all the kids reading a well-written young adult nonfiction book by a young adult nonfiction author, and then juxtapose that text with other texts -- other secondary sources, short video and audio clips, primary sources. I worry that a headline like this in the Times just turns away more high school teachers of science and social studies reluctant to embrace young adult nonfiction as part of the curriculum, because this affirms their fears: it's dumbed down.

  3. What a surprise to open up today's New York Times and find an article about nonfiction for children. The topic--adult nonfiction adapted for children--is a crucial one. Like Marc and Mary Ann, I think it is essential that authors consider their audience. We do not want to give children material that is inappropriate or harmful to them. That is why in my original post I mentioned the Trinity of Discourse--author, reader, and message. When an author or adapter prepares material for children, it is essential that they consider their audience. That is why I prefer excellent nonfiction written for children. These authors know that children need background information. They incorporate it. They know who they are writing for. They reveal their thinking and encourage children to think too. I think we need to examine what happens to style and substance when books are adapted. Adapting an adult book so that it is readable for children or YAs is not the same as writing a book expressly for them.

  4. i wrote a Letter to the Ed, not sure what will become of it, but the key point is this: what makes a work of NF be for K-12 is not what it leaves out, but, rather, how it handles the twin challenges of context and engagement. Sanitizing and simplifying (which, in any case, were not the focus of the article) have nothing to do with it.

  5. While I haven't read the NYT article, I'm tempted to think this push is because of money and Common Core. Librarians (like myself), teachers, and schools are making a mad dash for non-fiction to meet the needs of the new requirements. I wish the adaptation was because the author wants to reach a new audience, but my pessimistic side says it's a money grab.