Retrofitting Adult Nonfiction Retrofitted for YA Readers

In Children's, News by Dennis Abrams

Thomas Jefferson

The NYT writes “slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions” of best-selling nonfiction has become a hit with YA readers.

By Dennis Abrams

Writing in The New York Times, Alexandra Alter lays it out:

“Inspired by the booming market for young adult novels, a growing number of biographers are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers. Prominent nonfiction writers like [Laura] Hillenbrand, Jon Meacham and Rick Atkinson are now grappling with how to handle unsettling or controversial material in their books as they try to win over this impressionable new audience.”

And as she says, these “slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions” of best-selling nonfiction titles are rapidly becoming a sizable niche market for publishers.

So of course, the bandwagon is quickly being leapt upon. Consider these:

Jon Meacham has published his first children’s book, Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher (Crown Books for Young Readers), a 336 page version of his 759-page biography of Thomas Jefferson, targeted at readers ten and above.

Atheneum Books for Young Readers will publish, starting in December, a four-volume version of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “controversial and revisionist (to say the least) 750-page book The Untold History of the United States, meant for fifth to ninth grade readers.

And in November, best-selling author Mark Kurlansky will release an edition of his 2012 biography of Clarence Birdseye, Frozen in Time: Clarence Birdseye’s Outrageous Idea About Frozen Food for ages 10 and up.

But of course transforming an adult warts and all biography into something suitable for a younger audience can be somewhat problematic. Alter quoted Jon Meacham, who said that he had a lengthy debate with his publisher over just how to handle Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. “For a fifth or sixth grade reader, how do you explain an illicit relationship between master and slave, and be honest, but not send them screaming? It’s hard enough to do it for grown-ups.”

Rick Atkinson had similar difficulties writing D Day, a recent title “carved out” of his 877 page history of World II, The Guns at Last Night when it came to the more explicit descriptions of the injured and dead on the beaches of Normandy. “Sure, it loses some of its impact,” Atkinson told the Times about his book. “But that was the point.”

Even so, despite the growing market for these titles, Alter writes that some teachers and literacy experts are uncertain as to whether these children’s editions of adult titles are required or even a good idea. After all, before this, young readers interested in a top could just read the adult version.

“A well-rounded teen who reads on a high level would probably to well to read the adult version of these books,” Angela Frederick a public school librarian in Nashville, told the paper.

In fact, some librarians are giving young readers the adult version of the book if they feel that the adaptation is “oversimplifying things.” “If they’re cutting out controversy and assuming that teens aren’t able to absorb some of these bigger ideas, we go back to the adult version,” Chris Shoemaker, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, told the Times.

But of course, profits are always the driving force, and as alter points out, “young readers editions of popular titles offer publishers and writers a way to squeeze out more sales and extend their brands.” An example: Eric Schlosser’s Chew on This, the kid’s version of his bestselling Fast Food Nation has, to date, sold more than 300,000 copies.

And there’s another potential group of readers for these books: “adults who have embraced children’s fiction and may be too intimidated or busy to read a 900-page nonfiction tome.” As Beverly Horowitz, vice president and publisher of Delacorte Press told the Times, “Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.