Monday, November 16, 2009

Not a review: Stitches by David Small

Since it was announced as a National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature, Stitches has undergone excessive scrutinizing, mostly from the people best at scrutinizing children's literature: teachers and librarians. And believe me, no one dissects a book's "appropriateness" like this group. It's not because they're conservatives or prudes or have a collective stick up their collected behinds (although some of them do). Unlike critics, who can rest soundly on their superiority-stuffed pillows, teachers and librarians have to answer for the critical decisions they make. You give a sixth grader a book that causes them to ask certain questions or stay up all night terrified or even commit a particular indiscretion, and you're not going to be able to fall back on the argument, "But it's a good book!" Parents are always going to be concerned with what their kids are reading, even if they're simply thankful that their kids are reading in the first place. And teachers and librarians are the primary sources of said reading material.

The NBA for young readers isn't as susceptible to contradiction from this group as say, the Newberry Award, which has always seem to play it safe for this very reason. As many librarians that support the Newberrys getting a bit edgier with their choices, there are parents ready to complain that despite a book being an award-winning, critically merited, valued piece of children's literature, it is just not age-appropriate for a child. A Newberry medal sticker on a book gives it a certain elevated presence that makes it acceptable in classrooms, libraries, booklists, etc, which makes those paying the most attention all the more careful about what might get the attention of parents and children.

The NBA doesn't have the exact same problem, because 1) it usually concerns reading material for young adults, not intermediate-level readers, and 2) because it's a fairly green award (it's only been around since 1996). Also, the National Book Awards are not typically thought of as an academic award, meaning that while readers of all types (casual, academic, otherwise) should take note of this specific piece of literature, the books don't often make an easy case for themselves as classroom curriculum.

Still, any award that specifically classifies itself as for "Young People's Literature" is going to come under some scrutiny when it comes to age-appropriate finalists. David Small's Stitches was never going to pass through unscathed.

There is little negative I can say about this work, aside from that I desperately wish there was more of his story. David Small grew up in a tension-filled household filled with people desperately repressing the anger that seemed to define their relationships to each other. His remote mother would quickly go from steely silence to banging cabinet doors in the kitchen, seemingly possessed by rage while unable to communicate her feelings to her family. His father and brother each had their own respective outlets, but Small's only display of vulnerability was in a near constant stream of sickness, tracing from birth to sinus problems in his early childhood. His father, a radiologist, treated them with home X-Rays.

Even as a very young child, Small's outlet lay in the rich imaginary life that both fulfilled and haunted him. Dressing up as the titular character of Alice in Wonderland, obsessing over the fetus in a jar that he came across at his father's hospital, ceaselessly escaping into his drawing (something often portrayed literally in the book).

There's endless dysfunction to the household: his mother's erratic behavior is eclipsed by her mother's even more abusive and dangerous reactions to childish imperfection and inquisitiveness. His father willfully endangers his son's life without thought to the consequences of his action, not to mention remaining oblivious to inner turmoil of his wife and sons. Then a growth is discovered on David's neck, and his parents take considerable time to have it dealt with (nearly four years) keeping the cancer a secret until well after the surgeries that would leave their son with a large scar running up his neck and without the ability to speak.

The graphic novel works as a slow burn to what becomes a fairly quick redemption, but that is not to say that it wraps up neatly or in any half-cocked fashion. Small, a gifted picture book author, knows how to layout a story to achieve the best momentum. Odd as it might seem, there's so much tension in the first half of the book, that by the time David undergoes the surgeries, loses his voice, and finds out that he had cancer all along, it's almost a relief to have these very deep family problems come to the surface, albeit in a horrifying way.

Panel after panel, page after page, the rendering is pitch perfect. Some panels are crystal clear, but most are drawn in a slightly distorted perspective, the marriage of the child's perspective and the man's uneven memories. The voiceless extension of pain and confusion echoes in the pages-long spreads of wordless visuals.

In theme and tone, Stitches inhabits a place shared by Fun Home and Persepolis - not simply graphic memoirs, but graphic memoirs of such specific, private tragedy, intimate in how closely the reader is brought into the story, but universal in the themes of pain, disillusionment, alienation, and the deepest cuts of family ties. Also like its kin works, Stitches is about a young man's redemption through art, through the ability to express what one may not be able to say, to give sound into the void, sight into the dark. Art allowed Small to free his anger, free his confusion and hurt, and free himself from the toxic environment that was his reality and pervaded into his dreamlife.

No question, this is one of the best books I've read this year. So the real the concern: Should this book be eligible for an award meant to celebrate "Young People's Literature." First off, I'll say that everywhere I've been, Stitches can be found in the adult section. We have a kids' graphic novel collection at my store, but this book can be found on display in the adult comics/graphic novel section. Would it appeal to a young audience?

Yes, it is mostly about an adolescent, but the family history is dark, painful and darkly confusing. And while the intended demographic of YA literature is teenagers, most kids regularly shopping the YA section are under the age of sixteen. Avid readers above a certain age are going to leave the YA section behind (unfortunate, but true) in favor of adult reading, which means that most kids browsing in the YA section are probably too young for Stitches. I would gladly hand this book to an avid reader seventeen and up, if I knew enough about their reading history. But to the average young shopper in my section, I'd probably sooner hand over Persepolis, because as heavy as Sartrapi's story is, a culture's history is explained in its impact on the young life of a one woman is going to be less terrifying than plain childhood abuse and negligence. Also, Small's visual exploration can be quite graphic and disturbing. I wouldn't hand this to the average young reader, just as I wouldn't hand a dozen classic contemporary titles to the average young reader. But not just because of what their parents might say - my mother let me have free run on what I read, and I still believe that was mostly the right strategy - but because I wouldn't expect a young reader to fully enjoy the depth and nuance of this story. If a teen were to ask for a graphic novel suggestion in my YA department, something specifically offbeat, I would offer them Shaun Tan's The Arrival or Tales From Outer Suburbia. They aren't better than Stitches, just possibly more accessible.

The real problem I have with Stitches being among the finalists for this award is that it renders meaningless the categorical separation between what is meant for adult readers and what is meant for young readers. There are a ton of adult books that would well serve older teenage readers, but the importance of awards for children's literature is how well it publicize worthy literature that has been strictly categorized as for "children." Among finalists that are actually children's lit, Stitches has the undeniable advantage of being the more sophisticated read. It's a challenge for a young reader, a worthy challenge, but not necessarily fair competition.

The book is starting to make appearances on "Best of 2009" lists, and every one of them has placed it squarely in the adult books category. This is true enough - while this book can, and most certainly will, be enjoyed by older teenage readers, this is undoubtedly a book that adults are going to gravitate to: the dark subject matter, no matter how much redemption lie at the end, will surely alienate many teens used to reading the lighter graphic novels meant for young readers.

If winning the National Book Award for Young People's Literature will help bring Stitches to a young audience, that's fantastic. But there are other worthy children's books that deserve the same attention.

1 comment:

Marie said...

I agree with you. It's worth noting that it's the publisher who decides what category to enter a book in when it comes to the National Book Award; it's thought generally that the publisher chose this category because they thought it offered the best chance of winning, NOT because it's really a YA book. That said, it would be an incredible upset if a graphic novel won in an adult category. But I agree with you that it's a book for grownups. I would give it to the *right* teen in my private life but professionally as a librarian, I would not shelve this with YA. I loved the book but it's not for kids.