The Young Adult rewrite of Anderson and Bolden’s award-winning One Person, No Vote never justifies its existence. Read the original instead.


From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of White Rage, a young readers’ edition of a startling—and timely—history of voter suppression in America.

In her New York Times bestseller White Rage, Carol Anderson laid bare an insidious history of policies that have systematically impeded black progress in America, from 1865 to our combustible present. With One Person, No Vote, she chronicles a related history: the rollbacks to African American participation in the vote since the 2013 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Known as the Shelby ruling, this decision effectively allowed districts with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination to change voting requirements without approval from the Department of Justice. 

Focusing on the aftermath of Shelby, Anderson follows the astonishing story of government-dictated racial discrimination unfolding before our very eyes as more and more states adopt voter suppression laws. In gripping, enlightening detail she explains how voter suppression works, from photo ID requirements to gerrymandering to poll closures. And with vivid characters, she explores the resistance: the organizing, activism, and court battles to restore the basic right to vote to all Americans as the nation gears up for the 2020 presidential election season.

Who is this book for?

It’s a necessary question for nonfiction, especially nonfiction packaged for a specific audience. And it’s a question I kept returning to throughout my read of the Young Adult adaption of the award-winning One Person, No Vote from critically-acclaimed academics Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden.

It’s fairly easy to tell who the original is for. With its forward by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and references to “the resistance” in the cover copy, One Person, No Vote is clear about being targeted towards readers already inclined to agree with the thesis.

Despite the blue packaging, however, it’s still an accessible and useful book for readers anywhere on the political spectrum. Its academic rigor makes that possible. The book is clear about the argument it’s making, then methodically lays out support and evidence. The result is possibly the best single resource on the belief that, as the cover proclaims, “voter suppression is ruining our democracy.”

That’s why the book still found respect outside the left-leaning academic circles it was written to sell to. It’s an honest, thoughtful argument grounded in historical context and contemporary evidence. It tells you what it seeks to persuade you of, then does a great job of it.

So, now that One Person, No Vote has been given a teen-focused rewrite, we ask the question again: who is this book for?

In this case, the answer is a little less clear.

It’s obvious, you might say. It’s right there on the cover. This book is for all the same kinds of people that would read the original, just younger.

There’s certainly something to that idea. In the YA version, on the paragraph level, the reading level is dropped almost insultingly low.

I opened both ebooks side-by-side to get a sense for what kind of sentence-level changes were made, and the result was at turns frustrating and hilarious.

Take a look at this paragraph from the introduction of the original:

In the YA version (and this is the ARC, so all quotes are potentially subject to change), that paragraph becomes:

Those paragraphs are pretty typical for the way the whole book was rewritten.

It’s not the decline in detail that I find interesting. Fewer specific quotes and references are understandable–a YA version should be more streamlined. Plus, just because references are gone from one paragraph doesn’t mean they won’t appear later.

It’s not even the changed facts that I’m stuck by. Yes, there’s a big difference between 7 and 17 percent, but as this is an ARC, I can’t be sure that isn’t a typo.

No, I’m interested in the tremendous simplification of the prose. “Moreover” becomes “what’s more.” “It is true that” becomes “yes.” Phrases like “sea change” eliminated altogether.

The difference in prose complexity was much greater than I anticipated, given that the original is neither antiquated nor particularly difficult. And that concerns me.

If a reader isn’t ready for the language used in the original, they’re probably not ready to read the book critically. One Person, No Vote is not a difficult book to read, given the type. If a reader needs “moreover” to be changed to “what’s more” for the book to be accessible, how do Anderson and Bolden expect them to indipendentally evaluate the argument?

The answer, of course, is simple: they don’t. They aren’t expecting young readers to approach their work critically, and they’re okay with that.

Let’s look at the lines that follow the excerpts above. In the original, after outlining the ongoing presence of voter suppression, they write: “One Person, No Vote seeks to change that.” It’s a succinct line that cues the reader to what they’re about to read: a very specific argument with an activist goal. The authors want to show you that a particular problem exists, then encourage you to do something about it.

That same sentence in the YA version has changed drastically:

In this version, the book is a “story.” A “history.” It isn’t a specific point of view, and it certainly doesn’t represent a specific agenda. No, it’s simply the facts.

The biggest change made in this adaption isn’t on the language level. It’s in One Person, No Vote‘s concerted effort to repackage itself as a textbook rather than an academic thesis.

The authors are counting on readers–those readers who supposedly can’t handle “moreover”–to not understand what they’re reading. To buy the book’s constant assertions that it represents an irrefutable observation, not an argument that demands evidence.

It is for these readers, it seems, that this adaption was written. Readers who aren’t prepared to evaluate sources on their own and are looking for books to tell them what to believe.

Readers who won’t notice, for instance, the awkward acrobatics the authors perform to argue that voter suppression is a uniquely Republican phenomenon. Even in the chapter called “Only Democrats Need Apply,” the authors go to great lengths to attribute shady actions to “representatives” and “states,” not “Democrats” or “the Democratic Party.” This hesitation, of course, disappears in the latter half of the book, when not only actions but nefarious motivations as well are attributed by name to the GOP.

My biggest problem isn’t that those holes in the argument exist. The scary thing is that Anderson and Bolden don’t want readers who will notice them.

The original version of One Person, One Vote is perfectly accessible to a well-read, politically engaged teen. The academic language serves as an important cue for young readers that they need to bring a thoughtful, critical eye to the book. The YA adaption removes those cues, pretending that this kind of book can and should be read by credulous, inexperienced teens as some sort of bible.

In trying to get another bite of the apple, selling the same book a second time, Anderson and Bolden undermine their original work. Without the confidence that their work can (and should) be expected to stand up to scrutiny, this book becomes flimsy and ultimately useless.

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