March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJTeen Live! 2016: Nonfiction for Teens



The “Stranger than Fiction: NF 4 Teens” panel kicked off with each panelist introducing themselves and their latest or forthcoming work. Moderator Hannah Gomez dived right into the meaty questions, asking panelists Neal Bascomb (Sabotage), Reyna Grande (The Distance Between Us), Robert Hoge (Ugly), and Leonard S. Marcus (Comics Confidential) to describe the process of crafting their works. She then asked panelists Bridget Heos (Blood, Bullets, and Bones) and Sarah Miller (The Borden Murders) how they injected life into subjects often viewed as boring. Audience questions rounded out the event on a high note, with suggestions on how to motivate teens to seek out nonfiction.


The panelists all shared a similar fascination with how stories, and our responses to them, develop and change over time. Miller, whose work The Borden Murders pulls together a vast number of police reports, courtroom transcripts, interviews, floor plans, and more, asked the audience to consider how information becomes a part of our cultural imagination. When there is a wealth of primary source material available—a multitude of intersecting and conflicting accounts—how do we discern what is fact? How does the story develop, and how do we contribute to that development?

Marcus, when asked about his role as editor of Comics Confidential, said that editing comes down to making good choices, and crafting an interview is a “process of shaping and listening to the essence of what was said.” He compared an interview to a photo portrait: the necessary attention on how to portray the subject, what lighting is best for the overall vision, etc. This process recalled Miller’s account of sifting through the court transcripts of the Borden trial in order to reconstruct the moment and distill meaning. Heos noted how a surprising but important message came through in her research for Blood, Bullets, and Bones: the need for a justice system that helps victims, offenders, and those unjustly accused.

Heos distinguished a difference between textbooks and nonfiction titles: “Textbook writers can usually just scratch the surface, but nonfiction writers can really get into the story.” However, this freedom does present some challenges, as Bascomb, Grande, and Hoge noted when discussing their process of adapting their works for adults into text for teens. Bascomb wanted to give Sabotage a more novelistic view. He asked himself, “What is the narrative [of this history], what is the core story?” Grande emphasized the importance of not simplifying the complicated themes or events that the adult version of The Distance Between Us discussed. Grande revealed she actually added scenes. (The border crossing was extended from one chapter to three in order to truly impress upon readers what was at stake.) Hoge explained that he ended Ugly in his 14th year (the book for adults continues through his teenage and adult years) as a way to really open the conversation to readers who themselves would likely be around this age. Hoge remarked, “The beauty of kids, particularly when discussing appearance and disability, [is that] there is nothing to hide behind…you really [can] engage them on the topic.”


The discussion ended with the panelists all giving a bit of wisdom on how to engage teen readers with nonfiction: find topics that they are already passionate about and urge them to explore and to have an open mind. Bascomb hinted that it is all about how the work is packaged; facts and time lines are unlikely to get teens motivated, but real stories might. “History is about people…[how] Leif Tronstad goes from scientist to super spy,” he said. Grande noted that there are often many different kinds of readers for one book (those personally close to the topic, those somewhat familiar, and those learning for the first time). To find where a reader stands in relation to a subject is what Marcus called “the best bridge” to introducing teens to new nonfiction.

This panel and other SLJTeen Live! content can be accessed in our archive.

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Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.