As executive director for YA nonfiction at the Lerner Publishing Group, Shaina Olmanson has never had so many options for what to publish. Teens see the troubling events shaping their lives. In response, they are turning to books that can help expand their knowledge so they can turn it into action.
“Oftentimes adults assume that kids are not interested in the world around them, but that is not my experience,” Olmanson says. “I see that young adults are very involved and are interacting with what is going on. They’re engaging in ways that feel more present and immediate than I remember being at that age.”
To satisfy young readers’ curiosity, Olmanson is rolling out 16–20 titles each year, half of which are geared toward school and library markets, while the other half are direct-to-consumer titles published by Lerner’s Zest imprint. The books play with format, engage new audiences, and reframe large and sometimes difficult ideas. They share one thing in common with a spate of new and forthcoming YA nonfiction from across the publishing industry: they take teen readers seriously.
With increased activism and social engagement, the content of YA titles is becoming more diverse as well. At Orca Book Publishers, editor Kirstie Hudson is publishing The Disability Experience: Working Toward Inclusion (Apr. 2021), a collection of profiles of disability rights activists by Hannalora Leavitt, an author with visual impairment. “The language around disabilities and how people talk about people with disabilities is evolving,” Hudson says. “Leavitt moves the conversation forward by discussing topics such as othering, inclusion, disability culture, rights, new technology, advocacy, and allies.”
With teenagers eager to express their own individuality, Hudson says the message of the book, which is to see people with disabilities as individuals, exemplifies the kind of appeal that social issues can have for readers.
The landscape of what’s possible
At Lerner, larger audiences mean that Olmanson can cover a broad array of topics in new ways. When Dogs Heal: Powerful Stories of People Living with HIV and the Dogs That Saved Them (Mar. 2021) is a volume of portraits and first-person accounts of people living with HIV/AIDS and their relationships with their support dogs. In No Way, They Were Gay? (Apr. 2021), Lee Wind shares primary-source documents with readers so that they can explore how history has reframed stories about leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt to mask the fact that they might be considered—or consider themselves to be—LGBTQ today.
“The best young adult titles appeal to adults, too,” Olmanson says. “A certain voice comes through in YA literature, because you’re not being talked down to. These are books that encourage curiosity and second-guessing.”
These books don’t take themselves too seriously, even as they are sharing serious messages. Lerner made a splash in 2013 with Meghan Doherty’s How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide, and that spirit continues today in books like the recently published How to Do It Now Because It’s Not Going Away: An Expert Guide to Getting Stuff Done by Leslie Josel.
The focus on readers’ social and emotional lives is the central topic for Magination Press, which is part of the American Psychological Association. “Magination has books on positive psychology or social psychology but not much on altruism for character development,” says editor Katie ten Hagen. So the publisher is adding titles like The Hero Handbook by Matt Langdon (Jan. 2021), which explores the attributes of heroes.
The book represents a shift in editorial process for Magination, with the author writing the hero-focused story first and the editorial team embedding psychology information into the text afterward. Ten Hagen says the approach uses storytelling to help readers develop character.
The press isn’t solely focused on emotions that are positive. Zero to 60 by Michael A. Tompkins (Nov.) is for teens who are angry. In the right settings, editor Kristine Enderle says, “anger is a normal emotion and an appropriate response to social injustice.” With Zero to 60, the press hopes to help teens who are having uncontrollable bouts of anger, and to accomplish that goal, the design of the book had to be just right. “We thought a cool design, straightforward and honest talk, and realistic dialogue would help teens trust the work and really dig into the book,” Enderle adds.
Adapting for new readers
At St. Martin’s Press, v-p and editorial director Monique Patterson says the expanding audience for YA nonfiction is changing how she acquires adult nonfiction titles. “When I am buying books now, I am thinking about a possible YA adaptation. In the past that didn’t happen quite as much, especially when it came to nonfiction, but the market continues to offer new opportunities.”
In September, the publisher’s Wednesday imprint released When They Call You a Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World, which was adapted by Benee Knauer from Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s memoir with coauthor Asha Bandele. In March, Wednesday will publish Jeff Chang and Dave “Davey D” Cook’s adaptation of their hip-hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
Patterson says that increased readership has made both adaptations possible and that the press is taking its cues from readers about what to publish. With cultural and justice-based themes, the books reflect her sense that “the younger generation is deeply interested and invested in what is going on in their world.” She adds, “It’s up to us to try and keep up with what they want.”
As editors come on board for adaptations, it helps that authors are increasingly interested in them as well. A few years ago, Delacorte senior v-p and publisher Beverly Horowitz approached Ta-Nehisi Coates about creating a YA adaptation of his memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Horowitz says she thought the book “would be important for young people. Here is Ta-Nehisi as a boy, dealing with a difficult father who had huge expectations. This edition would allow readers to see the growth of a man who has achieved so much—who started out as a slacker and then found his way.”
But Coates declined. A few years passed, and when Horowitz asked again, he changed his mind. The YA edition of the book will be published in January. “The world had changed and he was ready,” she says. “Perhaps it was timing and the activism of young people that made a difference.”
Those young people are a large audience today, and Horowitz says they are joined by adult readers, including teachers, librarians, parents, therapists, guidance counselors, and church groups.
With adaptations, publishers have opportunities to play with both layout and approach. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers editorial director Lisa Yoskowitz has experimented successfully with books like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds’s adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling Stamped from the Beginning. The book was fully rewritten by Reynolds and is something that the publisher calls “a remix” more than an adaptation.
But Yoskowitz is going a step further, seeking out authors who want their nonfiction books to be published for young adult audiences first. In 2017, she released Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman’s Fierce, which she says Raisman insisted on being for teens from the outset, instead of writing it for adults and having it adapted later. “She chose to write for the YA market,” Yoskowitz says. “She opted to speak to kids. She is taking them seriously.”
Yoskowitz found similar success with Marc Favreau’s Spies, which was another YA original and featured jacket quotes from career national security experts. The father of two avid nonfiction readers, Favreau wanted the book to be for teens from the start. “That’s pretty amazing for a YA book,” Yoskowitz says, “and shows such tremendous respect for the readers.”
Looking ahead, Yoskowitz wants to raise the voices of noncelebrity authors who have done important work that will resonate with teens. Journalist and activist George Johnson has written a memoir, We Are Not Broken (fall 2021), and Claire Sarnowski is writing an as-yet-untitled middle grade–YA crossover book slated for winter 2022, about befriending a Holocaust survivor and fighting to get Holocaust education mandated in classrooms.
Playing with format
YA nonfiction readers’ openness to different creative formats is of particular interest to Holiday House v-p and editor-in-chief Mary Cash, who is betting on two titles from overseas to reach teens in a different way. At the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, a pair of books from Casterman, the Franco-Belgian comics publisher, leapt out to her as illustrated takes on big subjects. This December, Holiday House will publish The History of the World in Comics by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, illustrated by Adrienne Barman. And in July, the publisher will follow up with The History of Art in Comics: Prehistory to the Renaissance by Marion Augustin, illustrated by Bruno Heitz.
Cash says the teen appeal was evident from the moment she picked up the books. “It seemed like the perfect way to discover you might in fact be quite interested in something that you had previously assumed was too boring, too esoteric, or too complicated.” It helps, she adds, that, “generally speaking, younger generations are more visually sophisticated than their elders. They’ve grown up with more—and a wider range of—visual stimulation than was available in years past. I think that they absorb information in pictures more easily than past generations.”
Most importantly, Cash says, the books’ survey format “is just right for young people finding out what possibilities there are in the world and which areas of interest might speak directly to them.”
Teen interest in issues of identity is having a creative impact on Workman Publishing’s list, which is generally focused on adults and young readers but will feature a YA-oriented title in March 2021. You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves grew out of editor Mary Ellen O’Neill’s desire to ensure that teenage girls have an anthology of poets whose work reflects their lives. She partnered with poet Diana Whitney to develop the book.
“Poetry can be shorthand for articulating, understanding, and dealing with everything from grief to joy, and the many colors in between,” O’Neill says. “At a time when attention spans are short, poetry can cut to the chase and offer relief, a laugh, a new insight in just a few lines. Diana and I also love the idea of readers coming to this book for solace from their own maelstrom of emotions, and then also finding a way of connecting, understanding, and feeling compassion for girls with emotions so different from their own.”
At Levine Querido, verse is an essential part of Eric Gansworth’s newly published memoir, Apple (Skin to the Core), along with pages that include photographs and paintings alongside the text. With its format, editor Nick Thomas says, “it pushes the boundaries of what a YA book can be.”
Thomas is looking for titles that continue to explore new ideas via format and expression, one of which is the YA adaptation of Anton Treur’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask (Apr. 2021). “The author provides close to 200 different questions and answers, all grouped into various sections, and readers can read linearly or tackle a particular one,” Thomas says.
Even subjects that seem tried-and-true can be transformed by a change in format. For In the Shadow of the Moon, out from Balzer + Bray in February 2021, author Amy Cherrix traveled to Europe for research and conducted numerous interviews to tell an often-overlooked story of the political underpinnings of the space race. She includes primary source documents and photos for readers to look at firsthand.
Without that effort, Balzer + Bray executive editor Kristin Rens says In the Shadow of the Moon would not be able to offer a new lens or come across with a voice that teens would want to read. For her, the end product has to have those qualities. “When narrative nonfiction is done truly well,” she says, “it can be every bit as exciting as the most page-turning suspense novels.” That lively narrative is more than just a matter of entertainment; it’s a matter of access for many teen readers, and one she hopes to continue to provide.
The growth to come
Amulet executive editor Anne Heltzel thinks there is still quite a bit of growth to come in YA nonfiction. In October, she published Out! by Miles McKenna, and the book serves as an example of the potential to play with format and reach different audiences. McKenna is trans and his book is a coming-out guide, but Heltzel says it is also meant to be read by cisgender teens and adults who want to be good allies.
McKenna is a well-known social media figure, and Heltzel says McKenna’s book shows how authors can use their celebrity to get readers to trust them to take on hard subjects. She notes that the innovations of books like Out! in terms of voice and structure will help YA nonfiction will go from being “a less frequently explored category to a more prominent one.” She adds, “I do think Gen Z is more invested in social issues and current events than previous generations. But will they want to own the books we publish, when so much information is available online for free, in real time?”
Heltzel thinks so, as long as publishers are willing and eager to meet readers’ demands. “There’s an element of pressure to make YA nonfiction an experience rather than simply a great read,” she says. “Books have to be bold, beautiful, entertaining, and collectible—pieces of art in their own right, which readers can flip through at random and return to again and again. They need to be visually stunning as well as immersive and educational. This has always been the case, but now more than ever."
For our coverage on the current expansion of middle grade nonfiction, click here.
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