Interview: Reflections on A Different Mirror

One year ago this month, the publishing company Seven Stories Press launched a new imprint, or division, called Triangle Square. The mission of Triangle Square is to publish books for young readers, and I’m proud that one of my books was among the very first books it released.

That book was A Different Mirror for Young People, my adaptation of Ronald Takaki’s important book A Different Mirror. Professor Takaki devoted his career to exploring the history and stories of the many different races, ethnic groups, and cultures that make up America. In A Different Mirror, he wove together the stories of Native Americans, African Americans, Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants from Russia, and many others, showing show how each group struggled to overcome the same barriers–and how each group contributed to the work in progress that is the United States. It was my great pleasure to create, from Professor Takaki’s words, a shorter, simpler version of his book so that young readers could discover the “hidden history” he presented.

On October 17, 2013, Triangle Square published this interview with me on its website, as part of its one-year celebration:

It is Triangle Square’s mission to combine social justice and good storytelling and share with a reading audience of young adults and children. With our Young People’s series, we have put important books about history, society, and science in the hands of young readers who will grow to shape our world.

But what is it like adapting these adult books, with what people often regard as adult ideas and themes, for a young audience? And what was it like working with the late-greats such as Ronald Takaki? We asked Rebecca Stefoff  to fill us in:

“The most challenging part of adapting texts for young readers is deciding what to take out and what to put in. Because the YA version is shorter than the parent book, I must cut some material. Cuts can range from a sentence to a whole chapter, but I have to be careful to preserve all of the key points, along with the evidence that supports them. And I also have to add new material at times, because young readers may not be equipped with the knowledge to understand a reference to, for example, “the Korean War” or “a totalitarian state.” So I slip in some brief, basic definitions or explanations. I do this both in the text itself and by adding a glossary to define important terms.

The most interesting part of adapting someone else’s work is preserving that writer’s voice. I can never lose sight of the fact that this is Zinn’s book, or Takaki’s book, not mine. Nor do I want to turn it into a dry, encyclopedia-style summary of facts. I try to keep the author’s individual style intact. I use the author’s original words whenever possible, and I keep the personal stories and ways of structuring sentences that give each author’s work a distinctive tone. My goal is for my adaptation to have the same unique “flavor” as the original.

With [adapting] Ron Takaki and A Different Mirror, there was an extra dimension: friendship. I first got to know Ron some years ago when I turned Stranger from a Different Shore, his history of Asians in America, into a series for young readers. I flew from Philadelphia, where I was then living, to California to meet him, and our collaboration was born. Over the years that followed I heard Ron speak to groups about his own work and the importance of ethnic studies, and I shared wonderful meals and conversations with him and his wife, Carol. Sadly, Ron passed away a few years before I wrote the YA version of A Different Mirror, but I know that he wanted very much for more of his work to become available to kids. Working on A Different Mirror was a tribute to not only an important historian but also a friend. At times I seemed to hear the echo of his gentle, distinctive voice as I read a particular line.

I’ve written many books of my own, and I love doing so, but adapting the work of these scholars, who have transformed whole fields of study and cast new light on the American experience, has been a personal and professional joy.”



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