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.