Sunday, June 8, 2014

Style Matters

When I read a nonfiction book, I have high expectations. I not only want to learn something, I want the language to be interesting. Appeals to the senses are a plus. So are original comparisons and interesting, varied sentences. The style of writing and the information should be a treat for the mind.

So what happens when a book written by a well-respected author for an adult audience is “adapted” for children? What changes are made? Why? Although these questions merit considerable thought and study, I am in the midst of thinking about this right now as I am reading Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher by Jon Meacham. This book is based on his adult book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and was adapted by Sarah L. Thomson. His name appears on the cover; hers only appears on the title page in small print.

So here’s the question I want to think about: What does adapted mean? On the positive side, it means that additional information is provided about the historical context so that young readers develop a sense of time and place. This is helpful.

But, what about the writing? Booklist calls Meacham’s writing “rich prose style,” and The New York Times Book Review referred to his writing as “nuanced and persuasive.” Let’s see what happens to this writing when it is adapted. Here are the first two or three sentences from both the adult and children’s book:

                  Adult Book                                                                Children’s Book
“He was the kind of man people noticed. An imposing, prosperous, well-liked farmer known for his feats of strength and his capacity for endurance in the wilderness, Peter Jefferson had amassed large tracts of land and scores of slaves in and around what became Albermarle County, Virginia. “
“Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, was the kind of man people noticed. He was an excellent rider and hunter, well-off and well-liked, known for his feats of strength. He owned large plots of land and many slaves.”

The adult book builds interest from the beginning by making the readers wait until the second sentence to find out who we are reading about. Both sentences vary in length. There’s lots of description—“imposing,” “prosperous,” and “well-liked.”

The children’s book identifies the subject of the paragraph from the start. “Imposing” and “prosperous” are dropped. “Well-off” is substituted for “prosperous.” The phrase “amassed large tracts of land and scores of scores of slaves” is changed to “owned large plots of land and many slaves.”

Granted that this is a tiny sample, but I think it reflects what’s going on. That is, the lively prose has become less lively. Even more important, research tells us that simplifying a text does not always make it easier to understand. In fact, by taking out the markers of complex relationships between words and phrases, text becomes harder to understand. This may seem contradictory to our common sense understanding, but it’s true.


  1. Great example -- all too often turning adult books into material for younger readers means making short, dull, declarative sentences -- the sentences pass whatever quantitative measurement test the publisher requires but lose all style, voice, spirit -- juice. Thus they become harder to read.

  2. Myra: You gave a perfect example of the mentality of the school market when they write what they think of as "kid friendly" material. They stick to itemizing the facts in simple, declarative sentences, using ordinary language. If you assume that children are intelligent human beings, this writing is an insult. It's like screaming at deaf people, assuming that they are incapable of making judgments and inferences.Children are sponges for language and absorb the more powerful words from context. When writing for children, I never overestimate their prior knowledge or underestimate their intelligence.

    Nonfiction literature, whether for children or for adults, is about ideas--concepts that are decorated with facts. It is these concepts that provide the conceptual framework, easily observed in narrative nonfiction, that makes the difference between a book that keeps you turning pages and one that makes you want to fall asleep.

    I loved Jon Meacham's book, although I thought it would have been better if it had been cut a bit. But then, I still think like a child, which is why I write for them.