By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director of Twenty-First Century Books
Twenty-First Century Books’ Spring 2018 season is starting off with a bang! One of our YA nonfiction imprint’s newest contributors–science journalist Tara Haelle–got a glowing starred review from Kirkus in February for Vaccination Investigation: The History and Science of Vaccines. Described in the review as “an essential purchase for collections serving young adults,” you’ll definitely want to add this book to yours.
Q&A with Tara Haelle
Tara and I had a great conversation recently. Here are some of her thoughts about YA nonfiction in general, her work on the vaccination book in particular, and her own pleasure reading.
How do you think about researching and writing YA nonfiction? Is it distinct from the adult journalistic reporting you do? if so, how?
I used to teach high school, and I remember how curious I was in my teens (and still am!). So I think about what I personally want to know and what I can see myself getting excited telling my past students. That’s where the research begins—what do I most want to know and what do I think today’s teens would most want to know.
When it’s time to write, it’s a meld of teaching and storytelling, much like my journalism. I want people to learn and understand without just dumping facts on them. It’s important to find and communicate the human stories linked to all the research, especially with a topic like vaccines that so deeply affects our health.
I incorporate analogies and metaphors into my writing to help readers connect with the nitty-gritty of a topic. Then I go back and streamline what I’ve written. I often over-explain things in first drafts, so if I’ve explained something three times in three different ways, I determine which explanation is clearest, most effective, most interesting and easiest to grasp.
The research for YA nonfiction and my journalism is very similar: what does my audience want to know, and where will I find the most accurate, up-to-date answers? How can I provide answers while including all relevant perspectives and not leaving out key information?
I also know readers often want to hear about people they relate to, so I look for ways young adults are part of the story. In this book, I included a section specifically on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine because it’s a series of shots recommended for all adolescents, who are hopefully discussing it with their doctor. I wanted to devote space to a vaccine that wasn’t just for babies and young children but was for the YA audience reading the book.
On that note, why and how is the topic of vaccination important for teens?
Vaccines are a divisive topic and sometimes a confusing one. At first, it may not make sense to receive an injection to prevent an illness you don’t have yet. Until you understand how and why vaccines work, the idea of “taking medicine” before you’re sick might feel unsettling, and tons of misinformation about vaccines exists online and in local communities. People form beliefs and attitudes about vaccines in their youth, so the sooner teens learn about how vaccines work and why they’re so important, the stronger and the more confident they will feel about making healthy decisions for themselves and their families throughout life.
For example, news headlines right now are reminding us how deadly the flu can be, even though most people don’t realize how many people influenza kills each year—including healthy teens. The flu vaccine is not one of our best vaccines, so it’s not great at preventing flu. But it’s very good at reducing the severity of flu if you do catch it. That means a couple days with a low fever and stuffy nose instead of at least a week of aches and pains and high fever. The flu vaccine also prevents thousands of hospitalizations and deaths every year. Knowing more about vaccines can help teens make an educated decision about getting a flu shot.
Also, many teens are excited to explore the world. Traveling overseas often requires getting certain vaccines that aren’t necessary in the United States but that protect people in countries where those diseases exist. As new vaccines are developed for diseases such as malaria, dengue, Zika and other threats—many becoming worse because of climate change—teens will need to understand what that vaccine development means for them.
Finally, this book helps teens understand how messy and rocky scientific discoveries and research can be. It’s important to understand the ethics, mistakes, injustices, advancements, and other realities of scientific research, even when progress has grown out of inexcusable tragedy. It’s also important to understand how our own experiences and thinking patterns influence the way we interpret new information, including science, so we can recognize our own biases on a topic.
How do you research a project like this?
With vaccination, I had a head start because I’ve been writing about them for eight years, just a little longer than I’ve had my oldest child. In fact, I started researching vaccines while pregnant. I quickly learned how challenging it is to research a topic that has always been mired in controversy! Early on, I read as much as I could from all different viewpoints, paying attention to where they came from but mostly familiarizing myself with what was out there and being said about vaccines.
Then I started digging deeper into the evidence behind different viewpoints. I found experts in different areas—not just pediatrics or vaccines but in influenza, HPV, autoimmune diseases, and other specific areas of medicine and biology—and asked them for suggestions on books and studies to help me understand a topic. I asked them questions after I had looked for answers as thoroughly as I could. Very importantly, I learned to recognize and accept my limitations—what I could understand and what I didn’t have the education to grasp. I discuss this challenge—known as the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon—in the book.
Gradually, I learned how to evaluate the evidence and determine reliable sources of information versus sources that misunderstood or misrepresented the science. This process never ends and remains challenging even today, especially for a topic as technical as vaccines. But I’ve learned how incredibly important it is to find the right experts and recognize when to rely on their expertise while also closely examining research for myself.
What do you read as an adult for pleasure these days?
I used to read a lot of nonfiction—The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is my favorite nonfiction of all time and recommended for everyone. But more recently, I’ve been reading and listening to YA novels, alternating between realistic fiction about mental illness (Laurie Halse Anderson is my favorite YA author) and fantasy fiction, such as the These Broken Stars and the Firebird series. I was also on a big Neil Gaiman kick for a while, partly because hearing his voice narrate his audio books was so relaxing. Often, my favorite books are those that mix intense realism with elements of fantasy, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife , The Scorpio Races, and The Graveyard Book, three of my all-time favorite novels.
I’m also reading YA fiction with strong female characters, such as the awesome new Charlotte Holmes series, and with diverse characters living very different experiences from mine, such as The Hate U Give and Almost Perfect. Those books help me better understand people around me, hone my awareness of injustice, and help me understand how best to promote social justice as an educated white woman with a lot of privilege. And since my oldest son is in elementary school, I love rereading Harry Potter with him!
Vaccination Investigation is available through lernerbooks.com and major distributors.
For more YA nonfiction titles from Twenty-First Century Books, click here.