Thursday, October 09, 2014

There Is Nothing Wrong With Writing Nonfiction Books For Children

So, today's critical response essay is in response to an article in The New York Times that talks about writing non fiction for children: To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify.

I read the title, cringed, read the article. While there are some good things in the article (notably quotes from librarians and authors and publishing folk I know and respect), there are some things that left me frustrated enough that I vented a bit on Twitter (thank you, friends, for indulging!) and wanted to round up here, the problems I have with the article.

In a nutshell, my response:

There is nothing wrong, and actually much right, with writing age-appropriate nonfiction books for children and teens. When and how subject matter is introduced and discussed is, well, the reason fifth graders aren't sent to university classes (unless they're Doogie Howser, of course.)

The long version:

1. What is right for an eight year old, a ten year old, a twelve year old, a fourteen year old, is different. It is not sanitizing, simplifying, nor dumbing down to recognize that a ten year old is not a thirty year old; and they learn and process things differently. It is actually respecting the audience to recognize that in writing and presenting information.

2. Common Core is driving the increased use and purchasing of nonfiction in schools and public libraries.

3. Schools are increasing their purchasing of nonfiction at a time when the resources to do so have been reduced. Funding for books is decreased; and professional librarians, who evaluate and find books, have reduced hours, increased responsibilities, or have been eliminated all together.

4. Like any author, an adult nonfiction author may or may not be someone who can also write for teens and children.

5. If an author has spent time -- meaning years and years -- researching, interviewing, and writing an adult nonfiction book, I think it's not a stretch to say that author now has knowledge and expertise in that area. Why not have them use that knowledge and research to write another book on that topic, only now for a different audience?

6. "Young readers" and "teens" are two different age groups. In the article, the new books mentioned are specifically for the age group "under thirteen." Of the five individual titles mentioned, the intended new audiences are given as ages 12 and up; ages 10 and up; 5th to 9th grade; ages 10 and up; and ages 8 to 12. While some of these do veer into the younger teen audience, for the most part, this is children: under 13.

7. If nonfiction is being purchased to support education, which means texts to use for class, well, let's just say that I wouldn't want to be the teacher assigning a roomful of students multiple books of the lengths given in the article: specifically 759, 750, 877 pages. And even though most of these books are talked about for the under 13s, because of the size and educational needs, I can easily the "younger" versions being used in teen classroom settings. Because time. Those readers who want more can always seek out the other books.

8. The quotes from Angela Frederick and Chris Shoemaker are spot on. Why teen librarians are being asked for quotes about self-selected teen reading in an article about materials for the under thirteen set, I'm not sure. I would have liked to hear from school librarians and children's librarians, given the target age and that the audience is beyond public libraries. (Again, respect to Angela and Chris and their quotes.)

9. Blanket statements or assumptions about the differences between the books an author writes for a teen audience, an under thirteen audience, and an adult audience serve no one. Talk about the individual books. For example, I've read both books that Michael Capuzzo wrote on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, one for adults, one for teens. The teen version (Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916) simply streamlined the book, removing some historical explanations and details not really needed to get to the heart of the story, and also included a wealth of photographs, illustrations, and maps not found in the original. (Seriously, I will always be Team Show Me The Photo of Anne Boleyn's Jewelry Don't Just Describe It).

10. And a yay to Steve Sheinkin, also quoted, who writes a lot of original work for children and teens. And yes, kids and teens love nonfiction, and yay to publishers for creating the books kids want and libraries buying them, because they can be hard to find in bookstores.

11. I refer again to point 5: what's wrong when an author with the research writes a second book on the same subject? Nothing, I say. Review the individual titles and let us know: is this book good on its own? Is it good compared to what else is out there for that age group? Don't just assume that the younger edition is not needed, dumbed down, and a quick way to squeeze out sales. I'd argue that it can be harder to get a point across in fewer words. That said, with the reduction of resources in schools, yes, it's easier for schools to purchase a "known brand" -- a book by a well reviewed author. But that is equally about budget cuts and the schools not having the professional staff to search out the breadth and depth of other titles.

12. Another point about cost. And time. If an author already has the research done, the book they will write will be published quicker than the new-to-the-subject author. And that means a quicker turnaround time for publishing a book that is needed by a school who wants books to support the Common Core. And they want the books now, not four years from now.

13. In case you're missing it: Common Core, Common Core, Common Core. Budgets, budgets, budgets. School librarians, school librarians, school librarians.

14. If loving photos, illustrations, maps, etc in a nonfiction book mean you don't respect me as a nonfiction reader, so be it. Perhaps the adult nonfiction should include more of those resources instead of sending us who like those visuals to the younger books that have them.

15. By the end of this article, I had tremendous, over the top respect for Laura Hillenbrand, who obviously respects her readers, her subject matter, and the new readers. Who sees a need for readers and wants to meet it.

16. Given the way books are challenged in schools, and given how school boards and states are trying to control book content, for authors and publishers to be aware of how to present materials for age groups is responsible, not sanitizing. Wanting to have children's books instead of adult nonfiction in an elementary school library is responsible.

So, what are your thoughts?

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


marjorie said...

Great post! I missed your Twitter rants (I'm still not sure I GET the utility of Twitter, but that's another post) so I'm glad to have read this.

I totally agree. What struck me about the Alter piece was how little she seemed to trust authors. While writing for kids and teenagers may be a somewhat diff skill from writing for adults, it's strange that she approached the piece with the notion that it's impossible to write smart, nuanced NF for younger readers. Odd place to come from. As you said, authors who've lived and breathed this material for ages may be REALLY EXCELLENT at conveying it in more and less streamlined ways.

I read both versions -- YA and adult -- of Neal Bascombe's book about the capture of Eichmann. The YA version was BETTER. Significantly. Tighter, more suspenseful. It actually felt more disciplined.

There were also two books by two different authors about Prohibition that I'm too lazy to look up right now -- I read them back to back, one YA and one adult. Ah, the adult one was called Jews and Booze (the title was the best thing about it) and it was about (duh) the role of Jews on both sides of the movement, and the YA version was more generally about Prohibition, but it dealt with religious figures' role as part of the narrative. Again, the YA version was better -- more streamlined, more engagingly written, less wanky, clearer.

Debbie Reese said...

My response to that article was how clearly it reflects who the author(s) images the audience for the sanitized books to be: white, mid-upper class. That abstract image of kids who live lives were untouched by violence or oppression in the present and past and who, indeed, benefit from past violence and oppression. The 1%, in other words.

Jennie said...

1. Minor point-- Angela is now a K-4 public school librarian.

2. I think the other point the article failed to mention is that young reader editions offer some other benefits--

a chance to correct any errors that may have slipped into the adult version (O'Reilley's Killing Lincoln is a fantastic young reader's version of his adult book, which had several factual errors that don't appear in the kid's version.)

They're also more tightly edited (Before it was discredited, I couldn't get through the overblown writing of 3 Cups of Tea, but I liked the YR version).

AND, they add in context that many adult readers have that young reader's don't. I mean, an adult book can just say "Berlin Wall" or 'modem" or "9/11" or "Challenger" because the adult reader knows what that is. A younger reader won't.

3. The thing that really, really, really bugged me is that the authors that were interviewed didn't seem to be working with a co-author. Many young reader versions have a coauthor who knows something about children's books. (For instance, Patricia McCormick is working on the YR version of I am Malala) Where were their voices? They're critical in making a YR version that's worth reading and celebrating.

Liz B said...

Jennie, so much for me trying not to be too wordy! Yes, I concentrated on Angela's pull quote and frankly I assume 2 things: they either only asked her about teen readers (despite the age she works with now/ workplace) or she said more about children readers & school reading and they omitted it. So I quickly (and not clearly) concentrated on it as "teen librarian" rather than "librarian talking only about self selected teen reading."

Unknown said...

Great post. Love to see this discussion out there in public. I, too wrote a response to the Times piece you can read here:

Jennie said...

Liz-- I just always forget that she changed jobs!

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I love that you wrote this. One of the hugest things I wanted as a kid was nonfiction at my level (I was a good reader, but the thousand-page tomes intimidated me), and there was so little of it out there. I have to think that at some point, people are going to realize there's a serious market for kids' and YA nonfiction, and suddenly there will be tons of awesome kids' nonfiction. At least that is what I am choosing to believe because that would be really great.

Liz B said...

Marjorie, part of me was thinking over 700 pages? Really? When does it change from a crafted work of nonfiction to "oh I have to include it all." And I've recommended YA/kids NF to people who just want a general understanding of a topic: some people just want that 250 pages.

Debbie, I saw some of that commentary on twitter but I'm not sure if anyone has done an indepth post.

Jennie, along with correcting errors, an editor on a listserv conversation about this also pointed out that the younger edition may instead address one part/story of an adult book, and that source material for photos etc may not have been earlier available.

Liz B said...

Vicki, thank you -- that means a lot coming from you! and thanks for the link to your post. I was so quick in getting this up I didn't round up other peoples responses, so thanks for including it.

Jennie, thanks for the reminder!

Jenny, I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who saw this within the context, overall, of what children's/YA NF is or is not. There's something interesting out there -- that the assumption is that younger = dumbed down, rather than streamlined or presenting information in a different way.