15 October 2009

“Mr. Small’s first work for adults.”

Yesterday the National Book Foundation announced the nominations for this year’s National Book Awards, which includes a category for “Young People’s Literature.” This covers both fiction and nonfiction, and poetry as well.

Among the nominees this year is David Small’s memoir in comics form, Stitches. I was one of many observers who thought that was striking, given that Stitches hasn’t been marketed as a book for young readers.

GalleyCat followed up on the discrepancy and discovered that the publisher, Norton, had nominated the book in the Young People’s category, which determined how it was considered. “We always intended to submit Stitches in the young people’s category,” said the firm’s head of publicity.

It’s true that Norton’s catalogue copy for the book concludes, “…Stitches will transform adolescent and adult readers alike with its deeply liberating vision.” And it is about Small’s childhood and adolescence.

However, in 2007, when Norton acquired the book, it said: “This will be Mr. Small’s first work for adults.” (See that press release as a Fuse #8 Reproduction.) Seven Imps understood it to be a “graphic novel memoir for adults.” USA Today reported it as the “First adult book by Small.”

Powells.com prefaced a question to Small by saying: “After working on more than forty books for kids, you’ve created one about yourself, for adults.” Amazon’s page for the book has no data for “Reading Level,” as the children’s titles do. And editor Roger Sutton reported that The Horn Book never received a review copy.

I can’t help but think that Norton always intended to submit in the Young People’s category because Stitches has its best shot for serious consideration there. For one thing, it’s not clear how fictionalized the book is—where do we draw the lines for graphic nonfiction?—so as either Fiction or Nonfiction it might present headaches for the judges.

And, of course, Stitches is in comics form. I think this categorization shows our culture’s continuing assumption that comics are for younger readers—unless they involve sex, of course. (You can read earlier versions of this grouse about how Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams got treated as an early reader, how Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell is shelved as a teen book, how Flight and Laika were nominated for Cybils Awards.)

If those are the rules of our cultural system, kudos to Norton for playing the game well. But will the judges’ choice be fair to books that were created and published with young readers always in mind?

1 comment:

dot said...

I do feel as if Norton was cheating terribly here, and it's not that I don't respect the category, but that absolutely everything from the publisher and the book itself pointed to Stitches being an adult book. Admittedly, I'm biased, because I think it's almost a shoe-in since it's so impressive, and I'd like to see one of the others win for that category.