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Adventures in Grown Up Reads for Young Adults

Editor’s note: This post was also featured on our parent site, Publishing Trends.

When someone says “YA” the assumption is he or she is referring to YA fiction. It might be time to retire that assumption. There’s a new(ish) YA in town: young adult nonfiction adaptations. This is a genre of young adult books adapted from books written for an adult audience. We’re certainly not the first to notice this phenomenon, The New York Times, The Awl, and Stacked Books have all covered it. But the question remains, why is this happening? And further, is it necessary?

Repackaging existing book material for the younger set isn’t a new idea. Young readers’ editions of various books have existed for some time. Very often, biographies and memoirs of inspirational athletes, celebrities, or historical figureheads are adapted for the younger set, including but not limited to I am Malala by new Nobel Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai which was republished as a YA edition this August. One imagines that retooling material for children is a somewhat easy line to walk, insofar as it’s simpler to know what’s inappropriate for a 9 year old as opposed to a 39 year old. The line between adult and young adult is presumably more difficult.

Therein lies the potential issue with these adaptations. All of them deal with fascinating material, but sometimes the quest to make these histories “appropriate” for a younger age removes their poignancy. Several of the books that have received the YA nonfiction treatment have some deeply unpleasant material in the adult version, from torture in Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand to the fast food atrocities in Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

Unbroken is keeping the same title for the YA version, which will publish November 11th, but it won’t have all of the same grisly details as its adult counterpart. The New York Times interviewed Hillebrand about the YA publication of her book and Hillebrand said she wanted to leave out scenes that she thought would “upset” non-adult readers.

Fast Food Nation was repackaged for a younger audience and retitled as Chew on This when it published in 2007. Matt Buchanan from The Awl read Chew on This and describes it as “stripped of all its horror.” There seems to be an underlying struggle to get the spirit of the original right in the YA version.

But are these rewrites worth it? Are they actually grabbing the attention of a younger audience? Librarian Kelly Jensen of Stacked Books feels it’s a mixed bag. In her thorough February round up of books that got the YA nonfiction adaptation treatment, she indicates sometimes they’re made more engaging by presenting the material in a new way, and other times, not so much. Jensen says the unsuccessful ones can be “weaker because of how the adaptation was presented — too much information was cut or the writing itself is taken to a level that doesn’t engage the reader.”

Alexandra Alter’s New York Times article echoes a similar thought, stating that many educators question the necessity of this dilution of material and that many librarians direct interested young adults to the original version of the book. The horrors of World War II depicted in Unbroken might be one place that makes sense to dilute the violence, but others just don’t seem necessary to reformat.

One such title is Mark Kurlansky’s biography on Clarence Birdseye, Birdseye, or Frozen in Time as it will be called in its young adult iteration. I confess I have not read Birdseye but having read a few reviews of it, I cannot imagine why the story of the brilliant man who revolutionized the frozen food industry needs to be distilled for a younger audience. The reviews don’t hint at any nefarious proclivities preferred by Birdseye, or that it was an overwhelmingly boring read. What I read made it seem like Kurlansky did an admirable job telling Birdseye’s story. Why do we not trust young adults to glean that from the “adult” version of this book?

The focus on republishing might not be simply to get young adults to read nonfiction. As many articles have noted in the past few months, the number of adults reading YA is significant. Perhaps publishers are hoping to cash in on an adult market for their repurposed nonfiction as well.  Kurlansky’s Birdseye is 288 pages while Frozen in Time has a page count of 178 pages, with a set of an 8 page color photo spread. Unbroken’s YA version boasts a 100 black and white photos and is 153 pages shorter than its adult version. Sure, it might not look as impressive on a bookshelf, but it’s a reasonable way to get a lot of the same information more quickly and easily – no matter the age of the reader.

Or could it just be another moneymaking opportunity? Perhaps publishers are looking for a brand extension and it’s an easy way to put out another book with little to no investment. Or maybe it’s an attempt to get these books adopted into classrooms in light of the new Common Core Standards.

Regardless of whether the adult nonfiction-into-YA-nonfiction treatment is necessary or why it’s happening, it is an expanding area of publishing. This increase in retrofitting existing books to make them appropriate (however that appropriateness is defined) for a young adult audience is bound to add more to the genre while simultaneously bringing it more attention.

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