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What Makes a Good Nonfiction Adaptation?

In 1998, news anchor Peter Jennings and producer Todd Brewster created The Century, a hefty pictorial history covering pivotal events from the twentieth century related by those who had witnessed them. A year later, in collaboration with young-adult author background explanations were added in deference to younger readers whose limited experiential backgrounds might prevent comprehension but to whom the topics could be of great interest. It was the beginning of a trend of adapting adult books for youngsters that continues today.

appel_pinstripe-prideThe best young readers’ editions of adult books are carefully reworked rather than dumbed down. That type of revision always involves cutting some of the content. And eliminating part of the content always alters the book in some way. For example, Marty Appel’s Pinstripe Pride: The Inside Story of the New York Yankees loses more than half of the six hundred and twenty pages, including the detailed baseball statistics and play-by-play accounts of a number of games, from the author’s original Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. The middle grade/young adult edition thus becomes an  overview of interest to Yankees fans rather than a comprehensive baseball book more suited for sports savants.

Outcasts United by Warren St. JohnAnother sports book for adults, Warren St. John’s Outcasts United, artfully blends two stories. One follows Luma Mufleh, a young immigrant from Jordan who is trying to find her place in the United States. Rootless, estranged from her family, and missing her home culture, Mufleh winds up in Clarkston, Georgia, a hub for refugees with limited resources but plenty of horrific memories from their past lives. After observing group after group of exuberant young boys playing pick-up soccer, she decides to form and coach an official team. The second thread of St. John’s adult book follows the boys on her teams and their successes and failures both on and off the field. The adapted version for young readers, also titled Outcasts United, focuses on this latter part of the narrative, which is undoubtedly of broader interest and relatability to kids. Mufleh’s personal battles, as well as her struggles with local prejudice, are moved to the sidelines for the young readers’ edition.

samuelsson_make it messyWhen adapting Marcus Samuelsson’s adult memoir Yes, Chef for young adults, Samuelsson and YA author Veronica Chambers made the decision to end the revised book — Make It Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life — with Samuelsson’s initial success as executive chef. The emphasis is on young Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and adopted by a Swedish couple, finding his own way and discovering his unique identity and culture. Samuelsson aspires to be a soccer star, but when he is cut from an elite team, he moves from an academic high school to a vocational one and begins taking classes in food preparation. He apprentices all over the globe, and, with incredible drive and an enviable work ethic, slowly realizes his ambition.

hillenbrand_unbrokenWhen Louis Zamperini learned that Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand’s gripping historical narrative of his path from troubled youth to Olympic contender to shipwrecked soldier to prisoner of war to youth counselor) was being prepared for young readers, he requested that his postwar, Christian life be emphasized. And so it is. In Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive, Hillenbrand eliminates some detail from Louis’s early life, his ordeal at sea, and his treatment in captivity but does not cut as heavily from the section on his “redemption,” thus stressing that section of the book. She additionally targets her new audience through an added interview with Zamperini composed of questions submitted by teenagers. Clearly an adaptation is more than an afterthought with scissors.

moore_discovering wes mooreSome successful adaptations change both voice and structure in their attempt to connect with a younger audience. In 2000 two young men took important steps that would change their lives. Both hailed from Baltimore, were about the same age, and grew up in the same neighborhood. One of them, a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins, was heading to Oxford University; the other was on his way to prison to serve a life sentence for murder. Both had the same name: Wes Moore. The first Moore’s adult book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates examines the circumstances that led to these different destinies. Over the course of several years, he visits “the other Wes Moore” in prison, and each of the three sections of the book (early life, teen years, and adulthood) begins with a conversation between the two men. Individual chapters show the influences that led to their respective fates. The adaptation for young readers, Discovering Wes Moore, pares the account down to an examination of just the author’s life: his anger over his father’s early death; his rebellion against authority; and, above all, his mother’s fierce determination that he would not fall victim to the impoverished conditions that surrounded him. Only at the conclusion of the book are readers introduced to “the other Wes Moore” and an important question: “How do you know which choices are the ‘right’ ones?”

rivera_closerAdaptors for young adult readers will often move information out of the main narrative and into extratextual sections. Mariano Rivera’s autobiography, The Closer, covers his rise from destitute fisherman in Panama to relief pitcher for the Yankees. The adult version repeatedly mentions his condemnation of steroid use and his deep Christian faith. When written adult-to-adult, these observations become conversations between equals, but when directed at young readers, they could easily be interpreted as didactic, with Rivera coming across as preachy. In The Closer: Young Readers Edition, the adaptors put these portions in appealing multi-page sidebars called “Notes from Mo,” allowing readers to see his points of view but not letting them overtake the narrative, which is tightly focused on Rivera’s rags-to-riches story.

pollan_omnivore's dilemmaThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan is a personal journey of one man exploring the food he eats. He creates four meals, each time taking adult readers from farm to table through one of the food chains: industrial, which concentrates on corn products and byproducts; organic, which produces food from a single source; industrial/organic, which includes a variety of imported foods sold in chain stores; and hunter-gatherer, which enables him to hunt and kill his own meat and scavenge local woods for fruit and vegetables. Although still written in the first person, Richie Chevat’s adaption for younger readers, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat, is less a personal journey and more a general examination of the sources of our food. He replaces Pollan’s sly humor with less sophisticated, broad jokes, particularly in subtitles such as “Corn Eaters ’R Us.” And, as in the Rivera autobiography, appealing sidebars extract nuggets of information without interrupting the narrative.

kamkwamba_boy-who-harnessed-the-wind_170x257In conjunction with their original counterparts, adapted books can also lead to multigenerational reading, allowing people of different ages and reading abilities to contribute to a discussion of the same basic story. Unbroken has sold over three million copies to both adults and older young adults; the adapted version widens the audience to younger teens. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, which details Kamkwamba’s attempts to bring electricity to his impoverished African community by building a rudimentary windmill, extends the reading community even further: there’s a version adapted for middle school, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition, and even a picture book of the same title, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Here, an entire family might be reading about an identical topic, with each member contributing to the conversation. This type of reading represents an initial foray into the adult literary community, a place today’s teenagers will inhabit in a few years.

There is no template for these adaptations, although they do share three features in common. First, they are all nonfiction. Beverly Horowitz, vice president and publisher at Delacorte Press, which publishes a lot of young readers’ editions, says that she has never believed it works to adapt fiction because “the thing about fiction is the specifics of the narrative voice, the structure, the characterization.”

meacham_thomas jefferson president and philosopherSecond, cutting material, such as the more technical information in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is not the same as expurgation. The closest any of the books came was Unbroken; Hillenbrand admits she eliminated an instance of animal cruelty she thought would upset younger readers, although she retained much of the savagery Zamperini endured while a POW. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher (adapted from his adult biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) doesn’t shy away from the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And Susan Campbell Bartoletti, adaptor of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, Volume 1, includes many examples where America as a country sanctioned flawed political and moral behavior.

Third, and most important, these books all reflect what noted author and historian Russell Freedman declares he strives for: a book that will be read willingly from beginning to end.

Good Nonfiction Adaptations

Pinstripe Pride: The Inside Story of the New York Yankees (Simon, 2015) by Marty Appel

Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (Delacorte, 2014) by Laura Hillenbrand

The Century for Young People (Doubleday, 1999) by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster; adapted by Jennifer Armstrong

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition (Dial, 2015) by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Dial, 2012) by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; illus. by Elizabeth Zunon

Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher (Crown, 2014) by Jon Meacham; adapted by Sarah L. Thomson

Discovering Wes Moore (Delacorte, 2012) by Wes Moore

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat (Dial, 2009) by Michael Pollan; adapted by Richie Chevat

The Closer: Young Readers Edition (Little, Brown, 2014) by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey and Sue Corbett

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Delacorte, 2012) by Warren St. John

Make It Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life (Delacorte, 2015) by Marcus Samuelsson with Veronica Chambers

The Untold History of the United States, Volume 1, 1898 – 1945 (Atheneum, 2014) by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick; adapted by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

About Betty Carter

Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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