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So the National Book Award finalists are out and as usual there are books folks expected and books a lot of folks have never heard of. A quick controversy brewed in the Young People (YP) category however with the inclusion of David Small's fine graphic novel Stitches. The issue is not about it being a graphic novel but that it was published for adults and yet Norton entered it for consideration into the YP category. Their reasoning (via Galleycat):

"We always intended to submit Stitches in the young people's category," confirmed Erin Sinesky Lovett, Norton's assistant director of publicity. "We knew it would appeal to a YA audience as well as an adult audience." She added that because Small had never written for an adult readership before, the graphic novel could be seen as a "transitional" work, building from his distinguished background as a children's book writer and illustrator, and observed that the story was "age-appropriate" for teen readers who grew up on Small's earlier work.

How about they always planned to enter it in YP because they thought they had the best shot there? Would a graphic novel memoir hold up in the adult category against more traditional heavy hitters like Fordlandia and The First Tycoon? This is only the second graphic novel to make it to the finals and the first one was - yeah, you know it already, in the YP category. Looks like hedging your bets to me.

Really though, who cares what category the book is nominated in? The question here is does it belong there? And that of course means yet another (God Help Us) revisit of the "what is YA?" discussion. One thing that I think should be front and center when choosing books for this category is that the book was not published for children (or teens). If the publishers weren't selling it that way from the get go, then I have to wonder why it suddenly has gotten all teen friendly now when awards time rolls around. Of course a lot of older teens probably would like it just fine - they read Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner in high school and none of them have ever been considered YP lit (as opposed to Mark Twain or Harper Lee who swing YA/Not YA depending on the mood). Lots of older teens read adult books - heck most teens are reading "Lord of the Rings" at 14 or 15 and that is an adult book. So certainly Stitches could be loved by teens everywhere.

And yet. Is that the point of this award - recognizing an exemplary adult book that teens would also enjoy? I don't think so, and that's why I have a problem with its inclusion here.

Placing Stitches in the YP category means the publisher didn't think it could be placed in the adult - meaning the YP category was easier or softer on the graphic novel format. That could be true format-wise but that's the choice Small made when writing a gn and Norton made when publishing it. It should not be true however if the book is that good (and it is a fine fine book); it should stand up on its own against any format and just be judged on its excellence, format be damned. If the adult judges are prejudiced against graphic novels for adults then there needs to be some internal discussion on the matter. Throwing the book in with the children/teen titles solves nothing in terms of dealing with this same situation in the future (and based on the popularity of this book, Fun House, The Photographer, etc. graphic novels for adults really really aren't going away) but it does bring up questions for the YP category: namely that there are now six adult nonfiction titles who were made finalists and only four children/teen.

What's so frustrating here is that Stitches deserves to be in the finals so I don't want to be perceived as bashing that book in any way. If you're going to celebrate books for teens though, then you should require at least that they were written for teens. As it is, the category is already skewed older this year anyway (high school vs middle school or younger); throwing an adult title in just makes the gulf that much wider.

The question I find myself asking as publishers discuss transitional titles and crossover books is well, what is the point of awarding teen books if really it is just about what they can read, and not what is written expressly for them. Either you are celebrating young adult books or not and in this case, as wonderful as Stitches most certainly is (and do read the amazing review at 7 Imps for a taste of it), the audience for that book is seated elsewhere. Or to put it another way, there's an actual YP book that didn't make it to the final five so Stitches could be included. One wonders if two books will be bumped next year for similar reasons. And one wonders then, yet again, just what this whole YP category means anyway.

Don't tell me the book is there because it's wonderful; tell me it is there because it is a wonderful book for children or teens. That's what you can say about the other four titles in the YP category but not Stitches and that is why I think this was a bad call by the judges and the start of a slippery slope for the category as a whole.

ETA: Betsy's take on this (and a reminder of how infrequent the YP category includes books for younger children) at Fuse Number 8.

comments

As a former chair of the young people's literature committee for the National Book Awards, I can say that I am glad that I was spared this particular decision (to include or not to include, based on all that you've presented here). As an author, I always feel that it's important to note that authors typically have little say over what happens to their books—their covers, for example, or whether or not their books will even be submitted to the NBA for consideration (this year, mine was not). I have not read this book; I hope to. I would only hope that the controversy that swirls does not ultimately hurt the author. If his world is anything like my world has been, he had little say in the matter.

I hope I made it clear that I am a fan of David Small's work and the book itself is wonderful. It's just....well, it's not about the author or the book here, but the publisher and the awards committee. You're right - it's hard to keep all that separate although since Stitches has been out a while, our discussions should not affect it at all.

I just see this as the first and wonder about those that might follow using similar arguments ("teen appeal" or "age appropriateness") as to the much more black and white of "was it published for children/teens or not".

Colleen, I'm guessing the publisher's decision on where to nominate was a business decision.

Aren't the NF nominees usually fairly heavy-duty biography, history, politics, etc.? I don't remember seeing a lot of memoir there, much less graphic-novel memoir. The NF category would be some hard competition. Imagine "Stitches" competing against last year's nonfiction winner, "The Hemmingses of Monticello."

Publish a book for grown-ups, get it stamped & approved as a young-adult book, too, and then it sells to a wider market. Crossover heaven.

In the end, does it matter which market the book was published for? The Cybils say yes, but it looks like the NBA says no.


Rules are made for a reason and I think it stinks that Small's book is in the YA category when it was published as an adult books (and my comments have nothing to do with Small's talent or writing or the book in question). IT DOESN'T MATTER that it's a crossover book!

What about all the other books that WERE published FOR the YA market that didn't get a chance at that spot on the NBA list? Somebody else got left out. And that is not right. There are so many YA books out there that could fill that spot perfectly this year and yet they've been ignored. (And Small's books will never get ignored).

Now that we're on the slippery slope, there is nothing that will stop future judges and committees from choosing other adult books for the YA category "just because teens will like it, too."

Well, the Nobel Peace Prize means nothing now and soon the NBA will be there, too, if this continues. Colleen, is there any way to write or protest decisions? I'm not that familiar with the process. Thanks for a great post.

I think what really bothers me is the notion that "Stitches" is too slight for "Fordlandia" (for example) but will compete just fine against "Charles and Emma". So NF for young people isn't as serious or something? We know that's not true but there's a perception here - again - that says books for the young can be easily dismissed. I can foresee this category transforming into "adult titles with kid appeal" (which is what "Stitches" is) and I also think that the conversation would be so much better if we were all talking about "Stitches" going head to head with "Fordlandia" and the other adult NF nominees. We'd be talking about what makes an adult book powerful and emotional, etc.

Instead we're stuck with stamping our feet in frustration yet again. (And no, Kimberly - I have no idea how to protest this.)

Frankly, I think Charles and Emma is an adult title that was published as YA! And I have to say that "cagey" is not a bad attribute in a publisher. The point of awards is to bring attention to excellent books. Well, Norton's strategy sure worked, didn't it? They did not break the rules -- they were allowed to choose which category they wanted to enter STITCHES into for NBA consideration. Did they also submit it for consideration in the adult nonfiction category? Is that allowed? (I think the entry fee is $250 or more per book, so I know publishers are selective.) I think we're getting ahead of ourselves by saying it would be overlooked by the other committees until we know whether those other committees were given an opportunity to judge it.

Great discussion!

From what I read in the Galleycat post, (which I linked to above) they only submitted it in this category. That is where I drew my conclusions from.

I read "Charles and Emma" as very much a YA book - it seemed like a good intro to his work and I could see it as a place for a 14 of 15 year old to start from with Darwin (aside from great picture books). The point though is that it was published for teens - not adults. I loved it, but I wasn't the intended audience.

Someone on twitter just pointed out that teens read Danielle Steele all the time (I know I did in high school) so we could for example say that her books belong in the YP category as well - based on some teens reading them. I guess my point is the slippery slope concern...that if it is just about teen appeal then publishers could argue for pretty much any book and then the YP category is effectively the "Junior Adult category" and not awarded to children/teen authors at all.

Stitches is good enough - it should be head to head with the adult NF titles and let publishing FINALLY acknowledge that graphic novels are an adult format.

I checked my local library to see how this book was shelved and it was under YA. I asked on Twitter for others to see how it was shelved in their library. All under children's. So obviously, the board here aren't the only ones that think graphic novels belong in the children's section. I just thought that was interesting.

That is interesting - in bookstores I've found it in the general graphic novel section and not in children's or teen. They never seem to know what to do with gns which drives me nuts.

Why not just put in memoir along with "Fun Home" and be done with it?!

Natasha, I'd be curious to know how long STITCHES stays in the children's section. When Jack Gantos wrote his two books for older teens, some libraries saw "Gantos" and put them in children's until someone pointed out the error (jail! drugs! necrophilia!). I don't think its "GN"; it's "Oh, here's the newest book for kids who like IMOGENE'S ANTLERS."

Angie Manfredi

Here via Liz, and just let me say: O-M-G, I love this post so much.

To restate some of what I posted on the YALSA list-serve: I resent the issue being framed as "Well, you know, teens could read and enjoy this!" Well, uh, sure they could. But, first of all, I don't think the *majority* of them will (I know, this makes me a heretic, because the popular thing to say is that teens read and understand and are ready for every and anything, right?) and, second of all, I don't have the money or the time to build my collection around adult books that teens "could" enjoy. If a teen librarian has a limited budget should they buy a Jodi Picoult book or a Sarah Dessen book? A copy of "Stitches" or an omnibus of "Runaways"?

The idea, via John Green, that there's no such thing as genre anymore, well, OK, maybe to some degree that's true, but does that mean all the books in A LIBRARY should be together? "Ramona" next to "The Joy of Sex" next to "Henry and Mudge" next to "Looking for Alaska", let the patrons sort it all out and choose a genre? Is there no such thing as an adult graphic novel anymore? Is it so bad for "Stitches" to be mentioned in the same breath as "American Splendor" and "Fun Home"?

Moreover, we're not talking the Alex Awards here, we're not talking Best Books for the College Bound, we're talking about an award for "young people's literature" which is all together different.

Just: thank you for stating it all this way, it made me feel less crazy! :)

I am really surprised Marcelo in the Real World by Stork wasn't shortlisted.

@Colleen: the bookstore where I work (a major chain; let's call it Buns and Noodle) files Stitches and Fun Home both under adult biography.

Yeah, Seth, that's what I've seen when I'm at "Buns and Noodle".

You're cracking me up!

There's also the possibility, not mentioned here yet I believe, that whomever is in charge of sending in nominations on the publisher end of things was just clueless about what STITCHES was and for whom it was written. I've served on awards committees before and I assure you, this isn't as far fetched an idea as it might seem at first glance. Their (the publisher's) somewhat bizarre post-nomination statement certainly seems as if it could could be read as a bit of "covering one's ass" after a mistake was made.

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