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Controversy over National Book Award Nominees

October 16, 2009
David Small

David Small

David Small may be an award-winning children’s author and illustrator, but did the National Book Award err when it nominated his dark and grown-up new graphic novel, Stitches, in the young adult literature category? Maybe, according to Publishers Weekly.

And over at Entertainment Weekly, Tina Jordan raised a minor ruckus when she chided the NBA for leaving out books like Abraham Verghese’s “incredible” novel Cutting for Stone. Omissions like that, Jordan says, makes the list of nominees look “inconsequentional.”

Small and Verghese are among the more than 300 authors scheduled for this year’s Miami Book Fair International (Nov. 8-15).

Before Stitches, Small was a thriving author and illustrator of children’s books. He won a Caldecott Honor and a Christopher Medal in 1997 for The Gardner, written by his wife, Sarah Stewart. Small took home another Caldecott in 2001 for So, You Want to be President?, written by Judith St. George. He’s illustrated more than 40 books.

Stitches is something else again — a graphic novel telling the true story of Small’s bout with cancer at age 14, when he woke up from what he thought was a routine operation unable to speak. His parents had not told him he had throat cancer and was not expected to live.

Small conceived the project as a book for adults, though he did suspect it might have some crossover appeal to young adult readers. So he refrained from venturing into some aspects of his adolescence, he says — like “masturbation.”

“I’m not saying that I’m a fuddy-duddy, but I think it was unnecessary in this case to be that candid about my entire adolescent life. It had nothing to do with the arc of the story I was telling,” he said to PW. “There’s an urge to confess everything. It’s sort of cleansing, until you realize it’s sort of pointless.”

The decision on what category to nominate a book for rests not with the author, but the publishing house. Robert Weil, executive editor at W.W. Norton, said the book has found a big audience of readers 12-to-18 years old.

“Many of the comments we’ve gotten are from teens,” said Weil — who will also be a Miami Book Fair speaker. “It is a growing-up story, but the issues addressed in the book are ones that a lot of teens face.”

Still, the nomination has come under attack. Some grumble the NBA’s Young People’s Literature category should be reserved for titles originally published as young adult books. Others find it inappropriate for younger readers.

Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese

“It’s by no means a children’s book,” said Heather Doss, children’s merchandise manager at wholesaler Bookazine. “I would not hand it to anyone under the age of 16.”

At EW’s Shelf Life blog, Jordan sparked a lively debate by lamenting the many books she thinks are great that were left off the NBA nominations list. In the online discussion that followed, she clarified her point, saying the NBA’s are becoming more like the Nobel — “going with increasingly obscure (and, frankly, inferior) works that don’t hold a candle to some titles that weren’t nominated.”

Does she have a point? Maybe — it is hard to see how the nominating committee could have left out Verghese, a 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for his medical memoir, My Own Country. And yet, the list of books that were nominated looks pretty strong, too.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2009 5:50 am

    My, my. A book award that is in controversy. I can not imagine that. May be the young adults should get to choose if they want to read it. Chauncey how do they actually come to win these awards? The judges liked it and the readers like it. Interesting. No offense to Pw, but they them selves are questionable at best. Word on the street is they have favorite publishers and ones they do not like. Did you know for Pw to even review a book you must have 10,000 in stock. If you have 9,800 they will not look at your book. They claim that a review from them is so powerful that they do not want readers not able to buy a copy right away. On the street they kiss the a– of big publishers with lots of money honey. Sorry for reality here but that they way it is. Read the book decide for yourself. It is a free country. (Then the book should be free).

  2. vagabondia permalink
    October 19, 2009 9:42 pm

    It is a shame that such a big deal is being made of Small’s Stitches. His memoir is touching, deeply felt, and, frankly, real. Teens are not babies and they do not want to be treated as such. Small dealt with something many teens are facing– health scares, family, and growing up. To downplay any of this is a disservice to readers of all ages. The fact that he was a teen when he dealt with the disease, and that he choose to present the work in a multimedia (graphic novel) format makes this particularly appropriate for teens. Young adults are faced with much more “controversial” issues every single day whether via the media or by personal experience. Let parents determine what is appropriate for their children. If they choose to read the work, share it with their young adult, and open up conversation as a result, this is a coup for families, readers, the publishing industry and the culture at large. If they choose not to share this work with their teen, perhaps they will at least consider the implications of failing to have serious, meaningful conversations with their offspring.

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