It’s easy to see how “Born a Crime,” Trevor Noah’s funny and devastating memoir of growing up mixed race in South Africa, became a best seller. Less predictable was the success of the book’s young readers’ edition, published this month and aimed at children 8 and up. I asked the comedian and talk show host to talk about adapting his story for a much younger audience. These are excerpts from our conversation.
How did you arrive at the idea of a young readers’ edition of “Born a Crime,” given that your show is on way past this audience’s bedtime?
It was a combination of factors, one of the most prevalent being that a lot of parents were saying their kids loved the book. People would say, I read the book to my 8-year-old, or my 10-year-old, but I wish they had a version they could read for themselves.
What changes did you make?
We slightly changed the framing of the book to gear it to a younger reader who doesn’t know about the history of South Africa. And then the main difference is obviously we’ve changed the language a bit. It’s not like the first book is graphic, but we made sure it’s completely suitable for kids of all ages.
[Read more on how nonfiction writers adapt their books for young readers.]
There’s that scene when you’re 5 years old and you don’t want to use the outhouse, so you put a piece of newspaper on the kitchen floor — somehow it seems even funnier in the version for kids.
Changing the word to “poop” — that small thing makes it more accessible. But everything else in the scene is basically the same. I didn’t want the parents who’d liked the book to not get the same book for their kids.
I think the great stories connect with you regardless of your age. That’s what Pixar and Disney do today — they tell a story, and someone older can take away something different than a younger person does, but the heart of the story remains intact. The stories I loved as a kid are still the stories I love now.
Many people find it hard to figure out a way to talk to kids that’s not condescending.
I found it to be a natural mind-set, maybe because I thought about telling these stories to my younger brother, who is 17. I speak to him like an adult. I was lucky to grow up in a household where my mother gave me respect and treated me like an adult. That’s important to do with younger readers — they may not have the experience, but they are still functioning human beings and they can grasp the concepts. When I was growing up, Roald Dahl had the biggest impact on me. The way he told a story was so simple, yet so complicated at the same time.
This edition also has to explain South Africa to American children, who generally don’t know about apartheid. How did you approach that?
Unfortunately that’s true, that American children don’t learn about apartheid. But also, unfortunately, I could use a lot of American examples as reference points.
You mean like this one: “In America you had the forced removal of the native peoples onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”
That passage is the same in both editions.
Did you worry that young readers wouldn’t get some of the nuances in either the politics or your own story?
No — again, that’s the thing, when you look at kids, they understand things on different levels. Look at a child who’s grown up in a harsh environment. I think they understand the nuances of their situation even more than most adults do. A kid will say, my daddy is not a good man when he’s drinking alcohol, but I still love him. Grown-ups can’t do that as easily. I think those sorts of ideas actually connect with kids better. As we grow older, we start holding on to our realities and our knowledge in a more entrenched way, as if it’s who we are. It feels like, if I shake the core of what I know, maybe I’m not as intelligent as I thought I was. Kids don’t struggle with it as much. They are not married to their ideas as much yet.
I think everybody understands a given story within their own context. I loved Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I didn’t really like many of the kids in the factory, but I also knew how to process the complications of their particular world. I thought, “this child was spoiled by his parents and that’s why he is the way he is. I’m still sorry he had to fall into the chocolate.” There are complicated ideas children can grasp if the storyteller relates to him in an authentic way. In Harry Potter, you don’t ever think Voldemort is not bad, but you do come to understand how he came to be how he is, and why some people gravitate to him.
Have you been able to speak to groups of kids about the book yet?
I have, and it’s been amazing. I guess I’ve never lost a lot of what I enjoyed about being a kid. Part of being a comedian and doing what I do is I try not to lose my imagination. I try to enjoy being silly, so when I hang out with kids and I tell the stories I tell, there’s a beautiful space we exist within.
What do they find most interesting about the book?
A lot of kids are fascinated by apartheid itself. They ask, why didn’t the government like black people? For a kid who hasn’t yet internalized the workings of government, there’s an illogic to apartheid that kids just don’t understand.
We take for granted how a lot of the worst ideas are taught to children. We don’t give children enough credit for understanding the difference between right and wrong. You have to really teach a child to understand something that is incorrect. You look at a little child raised in a racist place by parents who are racist. That child waves at a black person, and the parent says “You don’t wave at them!” The child is just existing, he doesn’t understand. Those small moments show you that you really have to be taught the wrong things that you know. Over time we allow life to erase some of the magic that made us who we were. It’s a humbling experience to talk to kids about this book, because their questions remind me that as much as we’d like to forget it, we still are the kids we were growing up.
Maria Russo is the children’s books editor at the Book Review.