Nashville Author Is The Latest To Convert A Nonfiction Bestseller Into A Smart Read For Teens

Dec 19, 2016

A Nashville author who saw surprising success with his first book is trying to extend his hot streak. With, “Strong Inside,” Vanderbilt University alum Andrew Maraniss delivered a bestseller about Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.

Now, Maraniss has crafted the story into a condensed version for young adults — with a full-color action shot on the cover — and it joins an emerging trend of true sports stories for teens.

The original book went to the top of The New York Times bestseller lists for sports and Civil Rights.

But to pull off the young adult version, Maraniss had to cut. At the publisher’s request, about 160,000 words, or three-quarters of the original, had to go.

“But they said, ‘You know, your writing style doesn’t really need to be changed for these 10 to 14, 15-year-old kids,’ ” Maraniss said, laughing. “I eventually took it as a compliment that it was clear, straightforward writing.”

The advice he received was to respect teen readers, and to get right to the action, with Wallace confronting racism as a Vanderbilt basketball player.

“In the young reader’s version, it starts in the heart of darkness, so it’s in Starkville, Mississippi. You’re placed in Perry’s shoes as he’s experiencing the worst racism that he ever encountered,” Maraniss said.

The new young adult edition of "Strong Inside" swaps out a black-and-white photo of Wallace for this photo illustration.
Credit Courtesy of Andrew Maraniss

From there, he flashes back to Wallace as valedictorian at Pearl High School and three-time state champion. And to the present day — he’s now a law professor.

In between is the kind of story that educators say is lacking on their shelves.

“What you tend to get are books really that are kind of biographies for little kids … and then, all of sudden you get to the high school level, and we have adult-level books that are in the range of 300, 400 pages, that are pretty intimidating,” said Jeff Schreiber.

Schreiber is the so-called Jockbrarian, a Milwaukee-area school librarian who blogs about young adult sports books.

He sees the new version of “Strong Inside” as part of a trend of nonfiction narratives that use the stories of athletes to explore broader lessons.

He said it is a welcome arrival after he had some trouble convincing students to try the original version.

“I remember suggesting it to a kid and when I put it in their hands, they kind of looked at me like I was nuts. I mean, the thing is about the size of a Bible,” he said. “Andrew then came out with this young adult version, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is it.’ I wish more authors would do this.”

Schreiber and Maraniss said middle school boys are considered “reluctant readers.”

“I’m hopeful that maybe there’s a kid out there who plays a lot of video games or watches a lot of ESPN, and maybe it’ll inspire someone to love reading that didn’t know that they would,” Maraniss said.

Below, hear extended comments from Maraniss about the editing process:

While editing, it also meant that Maraniss would hold the line against whitewashing what Wallace experienced, including racial epithets and intimidation.

“I think it would do a disservice … to sanitize the story,” he said. “And also not to let the racists off the hook.”

He said the material may shock some readers — but not most.

“Unfortunately, this book is extremely relevant to today’s times,” Maraniss said. “You wish that wasn’t the case 50 years later, but it is.”

Now, the story of Perry Wallace will be instructive to a new generation, and one that stretches into classrooms far beyond the southeast.

Maraniss plans to speak to schools after the book’s release today. He also has signings this week: from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at Parnassus in Green Hills and from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Vanderbilt University bookstore.