Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The biographer as fan

by John

Back when I was an editor at Putnam Young Readers, I had the pleasure of helping National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Philbrick adapt his adult bestseller In the Heart of the Sea for young readers. It’s often tricky to translate adult work for a younger audience, but In the Heart of the Sea had a clear hook: One of the two main characters from In the Heart of the Sea was 13-year-old Cabin Boy Thomas Nickerson, to whom any young reader could relate.

However, after reading Nat’s review of Geoffrey Wolff’s The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review,  I realized there’s another key reason why his book translated so well for young readers: Nat’s a big fan of his material, and his personal feelings permeate the entire work. I love Nat’s idea that you can take a nonfiction topic and show what you think of the story, actively involving yourself rather than approaching it as a non-judgmental author/reporter. I also love his suggestions that a) you can work within the existing record, rather than having to dig up little new minutiae that don’t really add much to the basic plot, and b) that well-known stories are still worth telling, especially if you give them a personal slant.

This fan-boy narrative style is one that Russell Freedman and Elizabeth Partridge have used successfully in their nonfiction work for kids, and I wish I saw more of it out there. So to all you nonfiction writers, here’s a simple plea: Get off the sidelines and get into your books!

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