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Books of the Year 2016: Three authors speak to adapting their adult titles for young readers

jael richardson the stone throwerWhen Katherine Ashenburg pitched a middle-grade adaptation of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (Vintage Canada), her popular 2007 non-fiction title for adults, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to make it much shorter, I’m going to take out all the biggest words, and all the historical allusions that won’t mean anything to a kid, take out the sex, and that would be it,’” says Ashenburg.  “Boy, was I wrong.”

Instead, All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean (which published with Annick Press in October) involved a complete rewrite, months of additional research to make it more multicultural in scope, and the expert guidance of veteran kidlit editor Barbara Pulling. “I had to do a ton of research for all the multicultural parts of it, which hadn’t existed in the original book, and learn a whole new way of writing,” says Ashenburg, who followed her editor’s suggestions to adopt a more relaxed, jocular voice, write in “bursts” of informative text, and eschew narrative conventions like connective transitions between concepts.

irenas childrenFor B.C. author Tilar J. Mazzeo, knowing that she would be writing a young readers’ version of Irena’s Children (Gallery Books) – her biography of Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis during the Second World War – while she was in the midst of working on the more detailed title for adults actually made the process easier, as did the curiosity of her stepchildren. “In some ways it was just part of what we talked about as a family,” says Mazzeo. “I was writing in one register but then talking about it in another register already, so in my mind they were always two separate stories.”

There are marked differences between writing for adults and writing for kids, but the best books for young readers walk a fine line between being accessible and informative. Mazzeo, who was assisted by author Mary Cronk Farrell in crafting the adaptation, played up the more kid-friendly aspects of Sendler’s story (such as the dog that helped in her rescue efforts) while omitting the fact that part of Sendler’s motivation for sneaking into the Jewish ghetto was to meet with her lover (both of them were already married to other people).

Deciding what to keep and what to let go of can be the most difficult part of the adaptation process, as Jael Richardson discovered while writing The Stone Thrower (Groundwood Books), the picture book based on her 2012 memoir, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s
Lessons, a Father’s Life (Dundurn). “It was really hard because I thought that the spectacular part of my dad’s story happened during college, but it doesn’t really make sense unless you cover where he’s from and why that was so fantastic,” says Richardson.

From Katherine Ashenburg's The Dirt on Getting Clean

From Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Getting Clean

Unable to fit both narratives into the limited word count a picture book affords, the author chose to focus on her father’s early years, which still gave her room to discuss concepts such as segregation, poverty, and racism in age-appropriate language. While Richardson found the process challenging, writing the two books helped the author realize where her literary passion lies, and where she’d like to focus her attention in the future: YA. “I learned how much I care about identity politics and helping young people find books that help them in that stage,” she says.

While Richardson is game to write for young readers again, Ashenburg has no plans for a kidlit follow up, though she acknowledges that after writing a book aimed at her 10-year-old grandson’s demographic, her writing is perhaps less formal now than it used to be. Mazzeo is unsure if her current project, a biography of Eliza Hamilton (wife of Alexander and co-founder of the first orphanage in New York City), will be a good fit for a young readers’ edition, but is certainly open to the idea of putting out another kids’ book. “I found it a really refreshingly direct way of writing,” says Mazzeo. “I’d love to do that again in the future.”