on kidlit nonfiction, that incendiary nyt article, and “dumbing down”

There is an interesting conversation that went on last week on the child_lit listserv about this NY Times article on the trend of adult nonfiction authors rewriting their titles for young audiences. I was going to reply there, but the conversation has sort of gone dead, and everyone on that listserv dislikes me anyway, so instead I will write an essay about it. Of course, this is in fact not a new trend at all, but the Times could get more clicks if they claimed it was and also if their headline was “Hey, If You Hate YA Because You Think It Means Everyone Is Getting Stupider, Click Here and We Will Let you Complain About That,” so that’s what they made their headline. Long story short, because I don’t really like summarizing things, the article was about when publishers and authors take a best-selling nonfiction book for adult readers and adapt it into something suitable for younger readers. Surprisingly for a piece of writing about a topic in which the journalist has no expertise and doesn’t care, this one actually doesn’t use “YA” as a catchall to mean “anything for people who can’t vote that is longer than 32 pages and in a smaller trim size,” so my Bingo card for the Journalists Who Know Nothing About YA Except That It’s Trendy Refusing To Consult Experts Before Writing Articles Game is not full. So that’s awesome. Anyway.

There are interesting things going on here for sure, and I can see plenty of sides to it. Having been a kid when the book Chinese Cinderella (Adeline Yen Mah) enjoyed some success and was a trendy thing to read, especially after A Child Called It, I remember reading it and then finding another book by the same author, titled Falling Leaves. Given that as early as I can remember, I read books like a script supervisor and thought often about what my moves would be when I was a publisher, you can imagine my surprise when this book was the exact same as the book I had just read.

At the time, I thought the author had pulled one over on the publishers, that she had gotten away with some sort of trick, that she had cheated me and her editors. Now, of course, I know that they were the same on purpose, and I had read the version for young readers AND the version for adults. Now, it’s been probably 15 years since this happened, but I don’t remember a lot of difference in the maturity of content or the language. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was so shocked because it felt like I was reading the exact same sentences over again. And I’m still of the opinion that it’s silly for a small school library (though not a public library) like mine to have both books, even if I can’t decide which one I would weed if I could. So, unlike the Times implies, this is not a remotely new concept. Mah’s books actually came out within five months of each other, so they were manufactured from the start to be companion pieces aimed at two different audiences, much like Radhika Sanghani’s new novel Virgin is being simultaneously published with two covers in order to catch twice the market. Publishers make choices that have to do with making money. None of us are shocked, I mean really.

So if you are someone who doesn’t like to think about the fact that capitalism is a thing that is real, I can see how you could be annoyed by this. I also see how it can seem silly to rewrite a book that is doing well, just to get teenagers to read it. The difference is the reason I think it’s silly. Most commenters on the article are mad because they buy in to the “YA=Twilight=silly=not complex=problematic patriarchal assumptions=everyone should read what I think is worthwhile=I am Ruth Graham” thing, so they are whining about how teens should just read the adult version. I agree to a certain extent, because a teen who is a good reader should be perfectly capable of reading a book for an adult if s/he wishes to, but I also know that teens who already feel like the world hates them, teens who already feel like there is no space for them, teens who just want something that is theirs, are not going to go browsing in the adult section for a good read. So if a differently packaged edition that is then put in their section of the bookstore or library is available, that’s awesome. Then again, plenty of libraries already do buy multiple copies of crossover books and shelve some in YA and some in adult for this precise reason. Though journalists and Internet trolls like to forget, librarians actually have firsthand experience and master’s-level training in reading and browsing habits, so we kind of know what the fuck we’re doing as far as cataloging and buying and displaying, and publishers know that we know.

Sanghani's two covers

Sanghani’s two covers

There’s also this dumbing down argument, which is ridiculously oversimplified and not helped by the fact that the article focused on writers of adult books who stepped into YA or middle grade nonfiction because it’s trendy, not because they know anything about children’s literature, and so of course they tend to be the types of people who are like, “Oh, children are delicate, innocent fairies,” not the “children are humans with less life experience and sometimes have different interests and different developmental stages that they are at, and that affects the way they approach reading” types (the latter is the type of person I prefer to be around, because the latter is less of an asshole, generally). For one thing, objecting to a YA version of an adult book is very different from objecting to a MG adaptation. A more advanced reader of YA who is not a reluctant reader or below grade level probably needs less convincing to read an adult book. A struggling YA reader may very well need a book that doesn’t insult his or her maturity but does define some more words and give more context to something. An 8- to 12-year-old child is likely not to give a shit about books for adults (for good reason; everyone should give less of a shit about books for adults until they stop mostly being about white dudes with daddy issues bemoaning the nondeath of the patriarchy) and also does have less of a vocabulary and a facility with all types of literature. It shouldn’t even be about content, because I really think there is plenty of heavy shit a kid reader can handle if it’s written about tactfully, but formatting and length should be thought about. Also, in some cases, I think these adaptations come out of realizing that a book should have been deemed YA or MG all along, because maybe it’s a subject more likely to resonate with a different audience than the one it was originally written or acquired for.

Again, this is about how people need to think of children as humans with less experience who are still learning how books can be and how you do different kinds of reading, not children as humans that are cute and precious. Precious is gross. I read my first Holocaust memoir in first grade, and I got it at a Scholastic Book Fair. It mentioned Dr. Mengele, it mentioned gassing people, and it mentioned death marches, and I did not need counseling or grow up to be a sociopath, because it was written appropriately for someone my age. And because I asked my mom questions after I read it, because heavy content books for children should prompt discussion, not hand wringing and censorship.

Here are some more interesting (and fair) things this article could have been:

  • An exploration of the trend of writers for adults (fiction and nonfiction) moving to YA or middle grade, looking at what their motivations are and what the financial implications are
  • Looking at the world of kidlit nonfiction and comparing adapted younger versions to experienced writers of nonfiction that was always for younger readers
  • Talking about what it means to be “appropriate” or “leveled” or “complex” or “dumb” in children’s literature

But it wasn’t.

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