What a complete honor to host Daniel James Brown today! His completely engrossing and inspiring and New York Times Bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat, has rowed its way into millions of hearts, mine included. A few weeks ago, he sent me an email and that’s when I learned about the middle grade version of this powerful story. So of course, I asked if he’d be a guest on Friend Friday and, classy guy that he is, he said yes.
When my publisher first brought up the idea of issuing a young readers’ edition of The Boys in the Boat, my initial reaction was deep concern. How well—I wondered—would a nonfiction book aimed squarely at adults translate into language suitable for ten-year-olds? How interested would young readers be in events that took place eighty years ago? How high would the expectations be for an adaptation of a book that has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list? Did I really want to mess with success?
As I pondered it more deeply, though, I began to warm up to the idea. After all, though the audiences at my author events for the adult edition were initially a markedly older crowd, I had begun lately to notice more and more kids showing up at those events, clutching copies of the book and asking for autographs. Something in the story seemed to be getting through to them.
I started to ask kids at those events why they found the story interesting, what parts they liked best. I asked them who their favorite characters were. I asked if they would recommend it to their friends. And slowly I began to understand: As much as anything, The Boys in the Boat is a story about growing up. Centered on the real life story of young Joe Rantz, it’s about finding your place in the world. It’s about confronting and navigating unexpected obstacles for the first time. It’s about overcoming family troubles. It’s about trying to find what you are good at, where you fit in, and how you feel about the opposite sex. It’s about having an audacious goal and being afraid you won’t be able to achieve it. It’s about working incredibly hard at something, when other people might not understand why it is important to you. It’s about feeling alone in the world even in the middle of a crowd.
So, heartened by these realizations, and working with my collaborator—an experienced YA author, far more expert than I at finding language appropriate for young reader—he and I set out to craft a book that would work for kids as young as ten. We simplified some language. We cut out discursive discussions of the finer points of rowing and boat building. We tightened the focus on Joe and his relationships with his family, his coaches, his crewmates, and the love of his life, Joyce Simdars. We strove to maintain the sense of excitement surrounding the crew races that carry the narrative forward to the gold medal race at the climax of the story. We cut back on discussions of the politics and economic forces at work in the era. At the same time, though, we retained enough of the historical context—the Great Depression, the Dustbowl, the rise of the Nazis in Germany—to inform the story with the deeper meaning that adult readers find so compelling. We wanted to make sure that there was enough there for teachers to use the book in the classroom to launch discussions of those larger topics.
In the end, I hope and believe we came up with a book that will simultaneously entertain and educate younger readers. In particular I hope that they will see in the story elements of their own lives—the things they are wrestling with as they begin to move towards adulthood—and that they will be inspired enough by the story to go for the gold in whatever they attempt in life.
Daniel James Brown grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA. He taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical editor. He now writes narrative nonfiction books full time. Daniel’s primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life. The adult edition of his most recent book—The Boys in the Boat—has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and it has now been adapted for young readers.
Daniel lives in the country outside of Seattle, Washington with his wife, two daughters, and an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens, and honeybees. When he is not writing, he is likely to be birding, gardening, reading, or chasing bears away from the beehives.
Learn more about Daniel and his books at www.DanielJamesBrown.com