Writer in Residence

Adapting an Adult Book Into a Book for Young Readers

By Suzanne Methot

I know that young people are reading my 2019 book, because they’ve written me e-mails and messaged me on various social media platforms to tell me where they got it (thank you, libraries) and who they’re planning to pass it on to (hello, cousins and friends). I’m not surprised that young people are reading a fairly thick adult book on a very complex topic, because I started writing the book after working with Indigenous elementary students in the Toronto District School Board. The students and families I was working with in the 2000s and 2010s were dealing with the same impacts of intergenerational trauma that I had experienced when I was in school in the 1970s and 1980s. I left my work as a teacher so that I could write the book we all needed.

I knew Legacy had to be an adult book. I needed space to make connections across generations, societies, and systems. I needed paragraphs and long chapters so that I could raise something in one chapter and then return to it later, in another chapter, to create deeper understanding in a new context. I knew some young people would read it – when I was nine years old, I was reading through my mother’s bookcase (everything from Halfbreed to Helter Skelter) – but I also knew that a lot of young people would not be attracted to it. I knew some adult readers wouldn’t be interested, either. The only solution was to write an adaptation for young readers that adult readers would enjoy too.

I had never adapted a book before, but my writer side (aka Creative Weirdo) and my teacher side (aka The Lesson Planner) worked together to make it happen.

When you’re adapting an adult book for young people, the first thing to do is cut. To start Killing the Wittigo, I took each chapter of Legacy and took out all the stuff that was just too complex for a person with less experience on the planet. I didn’t censor anything – every theme that’s in Legacy is in Wittigo – but I did take out things that were too deep down the rabbit hole of trauma theory. I also took out cultural teachings that I knew young Indigenous people would have likely (and unlike my generation) already have been exposed to in school. Re-enactments were out, and so were the Seven Sacred Teachings. The medicine wheel stayed in, and so did childhood sexual abuse.

The second thing to do is add new material. If this adaptation was going to speak to young Indigenous people (and the people who know and work with them), then it had to reflect the actual lived experiences of young Indigenous people. That meant I had to add in themes that I didn’t cover in Legacy, such as social media (and how it relates to lateral violence) and colonial markers of identity (and how that relates to the control that defines complex trauma).

Then we get to the third step, which is keeping what’s already there but changing it to match the reading level and the audience. I made a huge list of every theme that appears in Legacy and was going to stay in Wittigo, and I rewrote it all with a nod to vocabulary and tone. I made it accessible but I didn’t water it down. I also had to take a look at the overarching story, and how I needed to change it. The story that joins the chapters in Legacy is mine, because I used examples from my own life and from my family’s life to illustrate some of the themes. But young readers need to see themselves in a book – so writing Wittigo meant using the voices and experiences of young people to create the overarching story and the examples that illustrate major themes. Young readers don’t want to hear about the life of an oldster like me. They want to hear from their peers.

Including the stories of young people in Killing the Wittigo meant I had to use a different process than I would normally use if I were writing a freelance article on a public figure. When I write profiles, everything is on the record and they don’t get to see what I write before it appears in print. That would not have been an ethical approach to this book – and it definitely would not have been trauma informed. So I transcribed each conversation, used what I wanted, and then gave the young people I spoke with some time to examine each quotation and each longer story that would appear in the book. One young person had no changes at all, and another person wanted to delete one quotation, which was fine with me. I wanted them to have the power to determine how their words would be used to communicate the topic and the theme to other young people. Another young person was worried about offending her family, worried about seeming too negative about the community or her school, and was also looking back on a conversation from a year before. They had really grown in that time and just could not stomach a few of the things they said a year before – so we went back and forth via e-mail and text and we made changes that worked for us both.

The fourth and final step in adapting an adult book into a book for young readers is deciding on format. It was a huge consideration, and it’s the thing I spent the most time perfecting (except for new content and responding to the comments of my expert readers). I didn’t want to use the spiral I used in Legacy, where things built from chapter to chapter, because I didn’t want young readers to have to read the book in a prescribed order. I wrote everything in chunks, so readers could open the book anywhere and have that information make complete sense. This approach makes the book friendly (instead of scary) and about exploration (instead of studying).

Adapting an adult book into a book for young adults is about paring down, adding on, and making the story reflect the interests and experiences of a different audience who will become the same audience for the original book. My agent referred to Killing the Wittigo as “Legacy Junior” for quite a while during the proposal stage – which captured the work exactly. It’s related to and cut from the same cloth, but completely different and absolutely its own thing.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Suzanne Methot is the author of Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing. She has worked in adult literacy and skills-training, as a museum educator, and as a teacher, creating a classroom program for Indigenous students experiencing intergenerational trauma. Born in Vancouver and raised in Peace River, Alberta, Suzanne is Nehiyaw of mixed Indigenous and European heritage. She lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation.