I’m not a huge YA non-fiction reader, despite really enjoying adult non-fiction. I’m not sure why that is, but after this last year on committee reading and talking about non-fiction, I’ve been thinking a lot more about YA non-fiction. During one of our meetings, I brought up the topic of YA adaptations of adult non-fiction titles, and a number of people didn’t know that it was a thing that happened. In light of that, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of non-fiction titles that began as adult books but then were rewritten and adapted for YA audiences.
Not every adult non-fiction title gets a YA adaptation, and in fact, I don’t think it’s a particularly big phenomenon. The books that seem to be adapted tend to be ones with high YA interest, gauged either through them being read or assigned in school, through them featuring primarily teen or younger main characters, or they’re books teens have been picking up and talking about all their own. Part of me wonders if sometimes adaptations happen when the title isn’t working for adults and there’s a decision to repackage and remarket for younger readers instead. Sometimes, the books that adapted for younger readers are surprising choices and other times, they’re natural fits. The sports adaptations to me are pretty obvious choices, especially for popular athletes, and the historical or cultural adaptations seem natural, too.
It’s interesting, too, to think about the adult non-fiction teens love that was never reworked as a YA non-fiction (say, for example, Dave Pelzner books, Alexandra Robbins books, or titles like Ophelia Speaks or Queen Bees and Wanna Bes, which have good appeal and readership to teens) against those which have.
YA adaptations of adult non-fiction are interesting. Sometimes, they present the material in a way that’s stronger and more engaging than the adult version of the novels. Other times, they’re 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. It is entirely dependent upon the writer and his or her ability to write for the YA audience or work with someone who is comfortable in doing so themselves, as not all adaptations are written by the original author.
One example standing out to me is I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. The book came out at the end of last year, written by Malala and Christina Lamb. Malala’s voice really comes through in the book, but it’s also clear she’s not a writer herself. The story told was important, but the book never fully engaged me because it wasn’t consistent nor fluid in execution. The narrative thread was weak, and that’s one of the most important elements of non-fiction: it was much more of a straight sharing of events that happened, rather than a working through of events that happened tied either to a bigger point or event (think about the best memoirs you’ve read — they aren’t timelines of events but a story around a grander theme or idea).
Coming this summer is a YA adaptation of the story. It’s written by Malala, but in the young reader edition, Patricia McCormick will be co-authoring. Knowing McCormick has written fiction tackling many of the things that have been a part of Malala’s life in her country, it seems not only a natural choice but suggests that perhaps the adaptation will be a stronger, more compelling read (at least to me!). Thinking about McCormick’s Sold especially, I suspect she’ll be a really smart and solid writer able to help Malala’s writing come across stronger, but it’ll make her voice ring even louder.
Here’s a look at a pile of other YA adaptations of adult non-fiction books. All descriptions are from WorldCat. As always, this is not comprehensive, so if there are other titles I should know about, I’d love to hear in the comments so they can be added.
Chew On This by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson: A behind-the-scenes look at the fast food industry. Adapted from Fast Food Nation.
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario: When Enrique was five, his mother, too poor to feed her children, left Honduras to work in the United States. The move allowed her to send money back home so Enrique could eat better and go to school past the third grade. She promised she would return quickly, but she struggled in America. Without her, he became lonely and troubled. After eleven years, he decided he would go find her. He set off alone, with little more than a slip of paper bearing his mother’s North Carolina telephone number. Without money, he made the dangerous trek up the length of Mexico, clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains. He and other migrants, many of them children, are hunted like animals. To evade bandits and authorities, they must jump onto and off the moving boxcars they call the Train of Death. It is an epic journey, one thousands of children make each year to find their mothers in the United States. Adapted from Enrique’s Journey.
Outcasts United by Warren St. John: American-educated Jordanian Luma Mufleh founds a youth soccer team comprised of children from Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkan states, and elsewhere in the refugee settlement town of Clarkston, Georgia, bringing the children together to discover their common bonds as they adjust to life in a new homeland. Adapted from Outcasts United.
Bloody Times by James Swanson: On the morning of April 2, 1865, Jefferson Davis received a telegram from General Robert E. Lee. There is no more time–the Yankees are coming, it warned. That night Davis fled Richmond, setting off an intense manhunt for the Confederate president. Two weeks later, President Lincoln was assassinated, and the nation was convinced that Davis was involved in the conspiracy that led to the crime. Lincoln’s murder, autopsy, and White House funeral transfixed the nation. His final journey began when soldiers placed his corpse aboard a special train that would carry him home to Springfield, Illinois. It was the most magnificent funeral pageant in American history. Adapted from Bloody Crimes.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson: Recounts the escape of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, and follows the intensive twelve-day search for him and his accomplices. Adapted from Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder: Traces the efforts of Dr. Paul Farmer to transform healthcare on a global scale, documenting his visits to some of the world’s most impoverished regions and the unconventional methods that enabled him to improve and save lives. Adapted from Mountains Beyond Mountains.
Lincoln’s Last Days by Bill O’Reilly with Dwight John Zimmerman: Describes the events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the hunt to track down John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. Adapted from Killing Lincoln.
What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio: A photographic collection exploring what the world eats featuring portraits of twenty-five families from twenty-one countries surrounded by a week’s worth of food. Adapted from Hungry Planet.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan: What’s for dinner?’ seemed like a simple question -until journalist and supermarket detective Michael Pollan delved behind the scenes. From fast food and big organic to small farms and old-fashioned hunting and gathering, this young readers’ adaptation of Pollan’s famous food-chain exploration encourages kids to consider the personal and global health implications of their food choices. Adapted from The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Discovering Wes Moore by Wes Moore: The author, a Rhodes scholar and combat veteran, analyzes factors that influenced him as well as another man of the same name and from the same neighborhood who was drawn into a life of drugs and crime and ended up serving life in prison, focusing on the influence of relatives, mentors, and social expectations that could have led either of them on different paths. Adapted from The Other Wes Moore: Two Names, One Fate.
The Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ New World by Nathaniel Philbrick: After a journey across the Atlantic, the Mayflower’s passengers were saved from destruction with the help of the natives of the Plymouth region. For fifty years, peace was maintained as Pilgrims and Natives worked together. But that trust was broken with the next generation of leaders, and conflict erupted that nearly wiped out English and natives alike. Adapted from Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.
The Warrior’s Heart by Eric Greitens: Shares the author’s adventures as a young man that led him to a life of service as both a humanitarian and a Navy SEAL. Adapted from The Heart and the Fist.
Believe by Eric LeGrand: In this uplifting memoir, now adapted for young readers, Eric LeGrand tells the amazing story of how he rebuilds his life, continues his college education, and pursues a career in sports broadcasting following the injury that paralyzed him from the neck down. His belief in a grand plan and his hope for the future make him a model for anyone who has experienced tragedy or faced obstacles. Adapted from Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life.
Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers and Michael French: A true story behind the immortal photograph that has come to symbolize the courage and indomitable will of America. Adapted from Flags of Our Fathers.
Hope Solo: My Story by Hope Solo: Hope Solo, Olympic gold medalist and goalie for the US women’s national soccer team, tells the exciting insider details of her life on and off the field, in her own words. Adapted from Solo: A Memoir of Hope.