Angie Beumer Johnson is a professor of English Language and Literatures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where she holds a joint appointment in the Teacher Education Department. She founded WORDBridge Now, LLC, to offer a live online community of authors, speakers, educators, and all committed to diversity and social justice. She enjoys researching, writing, and presenting with her students. Contact her at email@example.com.
Stefanie Wilcox is currently a secondary preservice English teacher at Wright State University. Teaching is her second career, and she can already see how her first career adds value and perspective to this new adventure. She enjoys reading, writing, and traveling with her husband and children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to all we can learn from YA nonfiction, the craft of award-winning authors offers readers moments to feel deeply as well as models for our own writing. As it can be hard to “see the forest for the trees,” here we shine a spotlight on snippets of YA nonfiction writers’ craft.
Lessons for Writers
One such book that deserves a close reading is Boston Globe-Horn Book nonfiction winner and National Book Award long-lister Paula Yoo’s From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement. (How is it possible that I–Angie–as a young teen at the time of Chin’s brutal murder by Ronald Ebens, a white man, had never heard of this tragedy and travesty of justice–one even that the White House had commemorated decades later?)
Yoo deftly draws the reader in with poetic style, juxtaposition and suspense. She shares a comment from Ebens regarding the outcome of the trial: “I told my wife that morning she might as well put a stamp on my ass ‘cause they were going to be sending me away,” and when the sentence was announced, he commented, “[Y]ou could have knocked me over with a feather” (Yoo, 2021, p. 62.) While the tone of the comments can’t be determined with certainty, the everyday colloquialisms reinforce the lightness of the sentence:
“Probation. Three thousand dollars.
That was it.
They were free…for now (Yoo, 2021, p. 62).
Yoo’s simple but highly effective use of short sentences, italics, and paragraph breaks pack a punch, particularly as juxtaposed against the longer sentences and seemingly light tone of Ebens’ words.
The remainder of the book details the suspenseful “for now”–reinforced by the ellipsis–and immerses the reader in the unspeakable heartache of Chin’s family and fianceé, and the battle for a sentence commensurate with the horrific beating resulting in his death.
Lessons for Life
My (Stefanie’s) 9th-grader recently came home from school with the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You; intrigued by the title, I felt compelled to read it. In this “not a history book” (Reynolds, 2020, p. 1), Jason Reynolds uses short, concise sentences to retell Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning in a way that engages YA readers.
Language is powerful, and choosing the right word or phrase draws the reader in. Reading Stamped felt like a one-on-one conversation with Jason Reynolds. Arriving at the Afterword of the book, Reynolds (2020) asks, “How do you feel? I mean, I hope after reading this not history book, you’re left with some answers” (p. 245). It took me a minute to realize that I had been reading a book and not personally conversing with the author.
As a teenager, I dreaded reading nonfiction because it was dry, boring, and overly academic. Reading YA nonfiction is the complete opposite experience. In the introduction of Stamped, Ibram Kendi describes Reynolds as “one of the most gifted writers of our time. I don’t know of anyone who would have been better at connecting the past to the present” (Reynolds, 2020, p. x). Both Yoo and Reynolds are conversational and write in a way that engages teens and young adults.
Many writers are stepping away from “Standard” English and using their natural voice to converse with their readers. Encouraging our students to use their voices in their writing celebrates diversity and invites inclusion.
The class I am student teaching in recently wrote about the theme of their unit text. We told the kids not to worry about grammar and just write. That authentic voice helped us gauge their understanding of the text and allowed us to have unique conversations with them about their ideas. Reynolds acknowledges the contributions that the youth of today are making and will make in the fight against social injustices “that [they] have not caused but surely have the potential to cure” (Reynolds, 2020, p. 252), and giving them a voice through their writing will help them examine solutions to today’s problems.
Intentionally choosing words to enhance meaning and being deliberate with punctuation and writing structure allows the authors of YA nonfiction to tell a story and take readers on a journey that enhances knowledge. The magic of YA nonfiction is that it engages readers while modeling how to write to draw readers into an authentic conversation.
Anschel’s Story: Determined to Survive, by Renate Frydman (Holocaust survivor account based on audiotapes of interviews from the author’s husband)
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World, by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice, Bryan Stevenson
The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege, by Brendan Kiely
Positive: Surviving My Bullies, Finding Hope, and Changing the World, by Paige Rawl with Ali Benjamin (memoir of bullying based on HIV status)
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Ji Li Jiang
Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition, by Katie Rain Hill
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitusne, by Pamela S. Turner, ilus. Gareth Hinds
Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen, by Arin Andrews
This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work, by Tiffany Jewell
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
Reynolds, J., & Kendi, I. X. (2020). Stamped: Racism, antiracism, and you: A remix of
the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning. Little, Brown
Books for Young Readers.
Yoo, P. (2021). From a whisper to a rallying cry: The killing of Vincent Chin and the trial
that galvanized the Asian American Movement. Norton Young Readers.