Of all the horrors Louis Zamperini endured during World War II — a plane crash into the Pacific, 47 days stranded at sea, two years in a prisoner-of-war camp — the one experience that truly haunted him was when a Japanese guard tortured and killed an injured duck.
The episode, recounted in Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller “Unbroken,” also traumatized many readers, Ms. Hillenbrand said. So when she was writing a new edition aimed at young adults, she left that scene out.
“I know that if I were 12 and reading it, that would upset me,” Ms. Hillenbrand said.
Inspired by the booming market for young adult novels, a growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers. Prominent nonfiction writers like Ms. Hillenbrand, Jon Meacham and Rick Atkinson are now grappling with how to handle unsettling or controversial material in their books as they try to win over this impressionable new audience.
And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.
Publishers are unleashing a flood of these books. Mr. Meacham recently published his first children’s book, a version of his 759-page biography of Thomas Jefferson tailored to readers 10 and older. Atheneum Books for Young Readers will publish a photo-heavy four volume version of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s controversial and revisionist 750-page book, “The Untold History of the United States,” aimed at fifth to ninth graders. Next month, Mark Kurlansky, who has published illustrated children’s editions of his best-selling nonfiction books “Cod” and “Salt,” is releasing a 10-and-up version of his 2012 biography of Clarence Birdseye, the frozen food pioneer.
It can be hard to maintain the drama and nuance of historical narratives while targeting the under-13 crowd. Mr. Meacham said he had a lengthy debate with his publisher over how to describe Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. “For a fifth or sixth grader, how do you explain an illicit relationship between master and slave, and be honest, but not send them screaming?” said Mr. Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. “It’s hard enough to do it for grown-ups.”
“D Day,” a recent children’s title carved out of “The Guns at Last Light,” Mr. Atkinson’s 877-page history of World War II, omits explicit descriptions of the carnage on the Normandy beaches. “Sure, it lost some of its impact,” Mr. Atkinson said of the book, recast for 8 to 12-year-olds. “But that was the point.”
Despite such hurdles, more of these titles are coming next year, including young readers’ editions of “The Boys in the Boat,” Daniel James Brown’s No. 1 best seller about an American rowing team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon’s lengthy, wrenching study of how families cope with children who suffer from disabilities like deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia; and “Quiet,” Susan Cain’s best-selling study of introverts. (While the adult version of “Quiet” focused on challenges introverts face at work and as parents, the children’s edition will feature advice for introverts on how to handle school and extracurricular activities.)
Still, some educators and literacy experts question whether dedicated children’s editions of best-selling adult titles are really necessary, or even a good idea. Before such books existed, avid young readers would often just pick up the adult version, and many still do.
“A well-rounded teen who reads on a high level would probably do well to read the adult version of these books,” said Angela Frederick, a public school librarian in Nashville.
Some librarians continue to push the adult version of a book even when a children’s edition is available, if the adaptation oversimplifies things. “If they’re cutting out controversy and assuming that teens aren’t able to absorb some of these bigger ideas, we go back to the adult version,” said Chris Shoemaker, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association.
In migrating into children’s publishing, nonfiction authors are following blockbuster novelists like James Patterson, John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen and David Baldacci, who have already made the jump into the children’s book market with original novels. They are also following the money: While the publishing industry overall remains in a slump, sales of children’s books have exploded, driven in part by adult readers who devour series like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games.”
Revenue from children’s and young adult books jumped 30 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year. Meanwhile, adult fiction and nonfiction sales dipped nearly 4 percent, according the Association of American Publishers. The number of new children’s and young adult titles has surged, to nearly 12,000 in 2013, up from 5,944 a decade ago, according to Bowker, which tracks releases. But until fairly recently, trade publishers focused on fiction and largely overlooked the market for nonfiction books aimed at young adults, ceding subjects like history, science and biography to textbook publishers.
“You used to go to the nonfiction children’s section in a bookstore and often they just had dinosaur books and potty books,” said Beverly Horowitz, vice president and publisher of Delacorte Press.
Nonfiction books for kids now take on a wider range of topics and literary forms, with memoirs, self-help, narratives, and portraits of complex contemporary figures like the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for her activism on education for girls.
“Not everybody wants to read about vampires and dystopia,” said Steve Sheinkin, who has written original children’s books about the Civil War and the atomic bomb. “Some kids want to read about World War II or spies, and that was an underserved area for young readers.”
Young readers editions of popular titles offer publishers and writers a way to squeeze out more sales and extend their brands. One of the earliest breakout books in this category, “Chew on This,” a kids’ version of Eric Schlosser’s best-seller “Fast Food Nation,” has sold more than 300,000 copies.
Publishers have another potential audience in mind for these books: adults who have embraced children’s fiction and may be too intimidated or busy to read a 900-page nonfiction tome. “Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover,” Ms. Horowitz said.
A book like Ms. Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” which is written in straightforward prose and tells the dramatic story of Mr. Zamperini’s repeated escapes from death during World War II, seems like a story that both adults and teenage readers could readily digest. Since its publication, in 2010, the book has sold nearly four million copies.
Ms. Hillenbrand said she often hears from teenagers and children as young as 10 who read and liked it. “Some kids dive right into the adult edition,” she said.
But she still saw a need for a dedicated children’s book two years ago after hearing regularly from teachers, librarians and parents who wanted a simpler version of the story. While many authors who publish young readers editions team up with children’s book authors who act as ghostwriters, Ms. Hillenbrand spent about a year writing the young adult version of “Unbroken” herself, cutting the story in half.
Mr. Zamperini, who died in July at age 97, didn’t live to see the children’s version of “Unbroken,” which comes out next month. But he helped shape it. Ms. Hillenbrand solicited around 200 questions from teenagers and posed 40 or so to Mr. Zamperini during an interview that lasted about two hours. The questions ranged from how to deal with bullying at school to how to survive a shark attack.
She also asked teachers and librarians how to handle the darker chapters from Mr. Zamperini’s life. With a few exceptions, she kept most of the violence, but edited down the torture scenes and cut the occasional profanity.
“The biggest question I had was: How do you deal with really tough material like someone getting beaten up in a P.O.W. camp?” she said. “They all said, leave it in, the kids are ready for this.”
I’ve read this article several times and am still on the fence. Would be interested in how everybody else feels.