In February, Algonquin Young Readers will publish Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices, a scrapbook-style book that gives teen readers the chance to see how 30 fellow teens are coming of age. Created by former CNN and Washington Post reporter Masuma Ahuja, the book is the result of many hours of careful curation. As veteran editor Elise Howard points out, it is also the kind of book that only exists because of substantial changes in the publishing industry as a whole.
“The trade young adult nonfiction marketplace didn’t really exist until a few years ago,” Howard says. “It was entirely institutional and leaned fairly dry.”
That began to change at a fortuitous moment for Howard. In 2009, states came together to develop the Common Core Standards Initiative, which created new educational requirements. With traditional approaches to education beginning to change, she and other editors across the trade saw an opening to explore new subject matter for YA nonfiction.
“While the whole Common Core conversation has shifted a million times since then,” Howard says, “it seems like there’s a bigger YA nonfiction universe that’s here to stay.”
Just as the industry was beginning to respond to the changes created by the Common Core, Howard joined Algonquin as the founding editor of Algonquin Young Readers, following 15 years at HarperCollins. Her charge was to extend the publisher’s mission, “Books for a well-read life,” to teens. The imprint’s first list debuted in 2013, right when another development was yet again transforming the landscape of YA nonfiction publishing.
“Kids became in charge of their own technology and in charge of their own access to the world,” Howard says. In so doing, they shattered long-held myths about teens being apathetic and self-centered, showing adults that, instead, they are curious about big issues and faraway places. Through their interest and participation in the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, climate change activism, and political protests, teens have also shown that these attributes are deeply and commonly held.
The rise of teen engagement—and adults’ awareness of it—has fundamentally changed what Howard can publish and how she publishes. At Algonquin, as at many publishers, #OwnVoices authorship is a priority and subject matter is more expansive. But structural elements have changed, too. Trim sizes, layouts, and covers are all different than they were when the imprint was launched.
Howard laughs at the traditional design of some books that had two-column layouts. “Who wants to read that?” she asks. “What 14-year-old is interested in that?”
All of those changes are reflected in Girlhood, which features teens from India and Germany to Vanuatu and Mongolia. “You’re seeing how a girl in Haiti is like you and not like you, how a girl in Germany is like you and not like you,” Howard says. In the process, the book addresses a core interest of teens: satisfying their curiosity about the world at large.
Along with Girlhood, Algonquin’s small list of eight to 10 titles per year includes books on subjects of great importance to teens. Michael Long’s Kids on the March (Mar. 2021) is geared toward younger teenagers; it recounts 15 stories of young people’s involvement in significant protests throughout history. A forthcoming title by Tracey Baptiste, African Icons: Ten People Who Built a Continent, shares the stories of 10 individuals from Africa who have had an outsize impact on history.
For Howard, all of the changes that have forged the new landscape of YA nonfiction publishing help her to satisfy a larger goal of publishing “books for a well-read life” in ways that are unexpected and powerful. “It’s about being passionate,” she says. “We’re building something new with a format and a subject matter that is going to be exciting.”