This week, the finalists in consideration for National Book Awards were named, with much kerfuffle over one title named to the Young People’s Literature category: Stitches by David Small. Throughout a number of list servs and through the discussions on various blogs and Twitter, it seems many are disappointed that a number of worthy titles in the Very Large category were left out, while Stitches — published as an adult graphic novel — was given a nod.
Since last year I missed out on reading the nominees before the winning title was announced, I have made it my goal to be on top of it this year. I’ve got Charles and Emma and Jumped on my pile right now, with Claudette Colvin available to be at work, too. Lips Touch, on the other hand, is going to require some hunting, as a prior attempt to purchase it for my library’s collection met with an inability to find it. I digress.
Stitches is Small’s memoir about growing up in an abusive household. At this point you’re probably thinking his name sounds familiar — it is. He has done a lot of work on children’s books, so chances are you’ve seen his work.
Small’s story is dark. His mother had a deep seeded hatred for him from an early age, and his father may have been responsible for him being a sickly child and ultimately developing cancer. It is Small’s therapist who becomes his real savior in the story. It’s the first scene between Small and his therapist that brought tears to my eyes.
Depressing and dark indeed, but an absolutely moving story with, I think, an optimistic ending. This is a story very conducive to the graphic novel format and would be one in which non-graphic novel enthusiasts would find themselves wrapped. This is the *perfect* companion to Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, and I think many of us working in libraries can attest to this particular title still being one asked for again and again by teens and adults alike.
This is where it is crucial to discuss category. Where does Stitches belong? Is it an adult novel or a teen novel?
I say it does not matter. It will find its audience.
We use categories for convenience, and as in all things in life, there are rule breakers. You know how there are men and women in the world? Well, there is also a whole spectrum between those two polar ends, even though we only have categories for those two. People who live in that middle find their way and find one another, even as they often have to dodge the bullets from those who see things as one or the other, not both or neither.
Stitches is that sort of book. And for that matter, so is A Child Called It. In the case of the latter, I don’t think anyone can say that the book has become lost nor not received any attention because it’s not clearly for a certain audience (or if it falls clearly into fiction or non-fiction – it’s a memoir!). It will have appeal for so many ages and readers that its classification does not matter. For sake of locating an item, we have to put it somewhere, but look: there is no “right” place for it. It will find its audience whether or not it’s shelved in teen graphic novels, adult graphic novels, or among memoirs penned by authors.
It’s also worth stepping back for a second and looking a little closer at the particular publisher here: W. W. Norton. Know anything about them at all?
They only publish one imprint and thus do not publish for any specific audience in mind. So, sure, this book was definitely not marketed for teens when it came out because, well, that’s not what Norton markets for any time.
I’m thrilled such a book has made the short list for the National Book Award. This sort of book needs this attention to reach the multitude of audiences it could reach. I think it’s quite an honor a book like this can make the Young People’s Literature category among so many tough competitors. Who cares whether or not it was marketed as a teen graphic novel — there’s something much deeper here than category or marketing.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).