Let’s hear it for young readers editions by Alicia Abdul
It wasn’t until a decade ago that I truly dove headfirst in to middle grade and young adult nonfiction because I felt stuck in fiction. But I can tell you that I haven’t looked back since. In part, a thirst for knowledge that’s different from watching a documentary, plus engaging with events and people IRL when fiction can be just so, well, fictional.
Aside from the myriad of topics already covered in nonfiction for middle grade and young adults, there’s a subsection emerging that isn’t celebrated nearly enough: the Young Readers Edition. Designed as a way to capture this already captivated market and kids’ curiosity, authors who typically write for adults are finding another audience by revamping their books. Done well, the young readers edition feels like stealing and reading your sister’s diary. They’re accessing information that until recently was “reserved” for adults. But because history repeats itself, people are endlessly fascinating, and science is by far the coolest, why shouldn’t kids be able to read it too?
I focus more on reading to recommend to my students as a high school librarian that I don’t spend nearly as much time reading the adult stuff mostly because my output is greater reading books they’re reading. But I was curious at just how different (or similar) these versions were. I started with I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and most recently Ibtihaj Muhammad’s Proud, reading the the adult and young readers version back to back. In both instances they are biographies of tremendous individuals and in both cases, their young readers editions proved to be rich in storytelling with the right facts to share who they are while avoiding some of the layered and nuanced relationships or history that are highlighted in their adult counterparts. The messages in both remained the same as is the underlying purpose in most biographies: inspiration.
So why did this subgenre start? Well, why should stories be tucked away until adulthood if the topics are relevant? Plus, kids want what adults have: why do they get to obsess over Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and we can’t? It’s also an offshoot of what graphic novels have always done, too. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson celebrated its twentieth year and last year a graphic novel adaptation was published. Monster. The Giver. Anne of Green Gables. And the list goes on. I often tell my students that reading epic fantasy is not my first choice in part because I can’t visualize all that the authors build into their worlds, but when I came across the graphic novel of The Hobbit, I finally got what everyone else had been loving about the book. Young readers editions are the same. It’s about accessibility, plain and simple.
Recently, YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction Award Committee for 2019 named The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, her young readers edition to her adult biography My Beloved World as a finalist. They’re having their moment. Though I’ll admit James L. Swanson’s been doing this seamlessly for a while now (and he does it so well).
Let’s encourage publishers to take a look at their adult bestsellers and reach out to those authors to reboot the books by adapting them for a younger audience with the guiding hand of authors who already write for that audience if that is the difficulty. No one is saying it’s easy: knowing what to keep and what to discard must be difficult especially when trying to hold on to the essence of the story. Yet it doesn’t hurt to try and it provides more avenues for our kids to learn about topics otherwise inaccessible to them be it where it’s shelved in a library or word choice.
Alicia Abdul is a high school librarian in Albany, New York who currently sits on the Best Fiction for Young Adults blogging team after her 2019 William C. Morris Award Committee assignment. She maintains a professional blog Readers Be Advised on WordPress and can be found on Twitter @ReadersBAdvised and Instagram ReadersBeAdvised.