One-Minute Book Reviews

November 20, 2009

A Midwestern Gothic Boyhood – David Small’s Graphic Memoir for Adults and Teenagers, ‘Stitches’

An illustrator found that during a painful childhood, “Art became my home.”

Stitches: A Memoir. By David Small. Norton, 329 pp., $24.95. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

David Small’s mother had her heart in the wrong place — literally. Elizabeth Small was born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest, and the defect serves as a metaphor for her coldness to her son in this graphic memoir and Midwestern Gothic tale of growing up in Detroit in the 1950s.

As a teenager, Small had surgery for throat cancer caused by high doses of radiation given to him by his physician father for sinus problems. His parents didn’t tell him he had cancer, and he learned of it from a purloined letter. He discovered that his mother was a lesbian when he found her in bed with another woman and that his grandmother was insane when she set her house on fire.

Small blends real and imagined scenes as he describes these and other traumas in a book that fittingly bears many hallmarks of neo-gothics: a madwoman, night terrors, family secrets, a locked drawer, mysterious passageways, a church with pointed arches. He also nods to Alice in Wonderland through both words and pictures, including images of a psychiatrist-as-White-Rabbit who helps him burrow into his past and find redemption through art.

Working in pen-and-ink washed with black and white, Small has filled Stitches with artistically and psychologically rich illustrations that help to offset the limits of the weaker, solipsistic text. In his pictures he vividly shows the world from a child’s point of view, often by casting himself as a small figure looking up at adults whose eyes are obscured by glasses that suggest their inability to see him for who he is.

But Small writes from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, which at times makes for subtle discontinuities between the images and words. The back matter suggests that he knows his mother comes across as a monster and that he became aware of some aspects of her grief only after she died. And yet countless writers have made you feel both their youthful sorrow and that of the parents who caused it.

The pain of unhappy housewives like Elizabeth Small was powerful enough to help launch the modern feminist movement. Hers must have been that much greater because she had the added burden of having to hide her sexual identity. But Stitches gives you little sense of that pain; you see its roots in her own upbringing, but you never feel it. Perhaps a sequel will capture more of the spirit of a quotation in Small’s afterword about his mother, which comes from the poet Edward Dahlberg, “Nobody heard her tears; the heart is a fountain of weeping water which makes no noise in the world.”

Ages: Stitches made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature, and some people questioned whether it belonged there or in an adult category. It’s a judgment call: This is a crossover book that may appeal both to mature teenagers and to adults who enjoy graphic novels and memoirs.

Best line/picture: No. 1: “Art became my home.” No. 2: In a review in the Washington Post, Michael Sims described one of the finest pictures in the book, which appears on the frontispiece and elsewhere: “The boy sits on the floor, on a sheet of drawing paper almost as large as he is. Crayons lie scattered nearby. He leans forward, resting the top of his head on the paper. Then he begins to literally sink through the floor, to disappear into the paper. A last kick of his legs reveals that he wasn’t sinking so much as joyously diving head-first into the world he created, leaving behind the world he was born into.”

Worst line/picture: “On the one hand, I felt the fear, humiliation and pain … While on the other, for reasons I could not quite understand, I felt that she was justified … and that I deserved everything I had gotten.” This passage supposedly describes Small’s feelings at the age of six but sounds more like something he worked out later in therapy. It is also involves telling rather than showing. Small doesn’t trust you to understand his feelings from his pictures, as he does in many other parts of the book, so he overelaborates here.

Published: September 2009

About the author: Small also wrote Imogene’s Antlers and illustrated Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?, which won the 2001 Caldecott Medal. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines. Born in 1945, he lives in Michigan.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturday’s. You can also follow Jan on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where further comments on them sometimes appear during the week.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2009

‘Even the National Book Awards Can Generate a Judging Scandal’

Filed under: News,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:48 pm
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Interesting reactions to my post yesterday on an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. An article by Motoko Rich for the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, in which I am quoted, begins: “It’s not Olympic figure skating, but even the National Book Awards can generate a judging scandal.” And Elizabeth Bird weighs in on the School Library Journal blog, where she wonders: “What should technically be considered a conflict of interest?” The winners of the awards will be announced tonight beginning at about 8 p.m. EST, and the results should appear almost instantaneously on Twitter (@nationalbook) at www.twitter.com/nationalbook. I may have comments about them after 10 p.m. on “Late Night With Jan Harayda.”

November 17, 2009

A Conflict of Interest Among Judges of the 2009 National Book Awards in the Young People’s Literature Category?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:02 pm
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The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced tomorrow night. Will the results in the category of young people’s literature be affected by the sponsor’s decision to allow one judge to judge the work of her illustrator?

This year’s shortlist for the National Book Award for young people’s literature is unusually strong but may be tainted by an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel. The five finalists include Stitches, David Small’s graphic memoir of his youthful experience of throat cancer. One of the five judges for that award is Kathi Appelt, the author of a 2008 National Book Award finalist that Small illustrated, The Underneath.

No one could have known that Stitches would make the shortlist when the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the prize, tapped Appelt as judge. Appelt may have been selected long before any books were nominated. But now that Small’s memoir is a finalist, she should recuse herself or be replaced to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

When Atheneum paired Appelt with Small, he had won the most prestigious honor in the picture-book field, the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal, for his So You Want to Be President?. Appelt had received many honors but had not earned one of the ALA’s top awards. So Small’s willingness to illustrate her book could be considered a favor, however much he was paid for it: It was comparable a Wimbledon winner’s agreeing to be the doubles partner of a someone who had never made the finals of the tournament. Since the publication of The Underneath, Appelt’s career has soared. And Appelt has acknowledged Small’s contributions to her novel. Asked about its characters, she said: “He brought them to life in a million ways.” Small has also praised Appelt. “I was amazed by the twists and turns of the story,” he has said of The Underneath, “by the range of characters, both animal and human, and by the tone of mournful, nostalgic poetry in the prose.”

Does such a connection mean there’s a conflict? Some past National Book Awards judges may have voted for or against books important to people to whom they had close ties – for example, books edited by their editors. But the relationship between an author and illustrator is unique. Judging a book by someone who illustrated your book – and whose work may have had a direct effect on your sales — is different from judging a book edited by your editor and from which you can’t benefit financially.

The issue here has nothing to do with the integrity of Appelt, Small, or the National Book Foundation. Nor does it involve whether Appelt can be “objective.” Perhaps she can be. The issue is that Appelt’s ties to Small raise questions of fairness to the other four finalists: Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma (Holt), Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin (FSG), Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped (HarperTeen), and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times (Scholastic). If Stitches wins, how will the losers know that Appelt’s support for her illustrator didn’t make a vital difference?

Winning – or losing – a National Book Award may be the most important event in the professional life of a finalist. Apart from the money it brings, it has the power to transform careers. All finalists have a right to know that the decision was made fairly. The best way to ensure that literary justice prevails is for judges to avoid not just conflicts of interest but the sort of appearance of a conflict of interest that exists this year.

– Janice Harayda

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland who has been a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted other comments on the 2009 National Book Awards.

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

October 15, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – The World’s Best Acknowledgments in a Book

Yesterday Deborah Heiligman made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for her captivating dual biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95, ages 9 and up). And she might win in a walk if the judges gave the prize for the acknowledgments section of a book alone. Heiligman amusingly tweaks the clichés of the genre in her thanks to her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner:

“You put up with a lot as I wrote this book. You owed me, sure, but you have paid me back in spades. I’m ready for your next one. Jon read the book front to back in many drafts, and if there are any mistakes, blame him.”

Wouldn’t acknowledgements be more fun if everybody wrote like this?

October 14, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — What Exit Are These Books From? — New Jersey on the 2009 National Book Awards Shortlist

What exit are these books from? At least three of the 20 National Book Awards finalists announced today or 15 percent have strong New Jersey ties. Lark & Termite (fiction) comes from Jayne Anne Phillips, director of the young Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Rutgers/Newark. Princeton University Press published Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates: Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (nonfiction). And Lips Touch: Three Times comes from the Scholastic Books imprint of Arthur A. Levine, who lives in New Jersey. Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at Rutgers/Newark, won the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello.

www.janiceharayda.com

Complete List of 2009 National Book Award Finalists for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Here is the complete list of finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards. You can learn more about the books and authors on the shortlist by visiting on the site for the prizes:

FICTION

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION

David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen, HarperCollins)

October 13, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – National Book Awards Finalists to Be Announced Tomorrow

Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.

The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.

I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.

Whom would you like to see win in November?

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 9, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — 2009 National Book Award Finalists to Be Announced Next Week, Winners on Nov. 18

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:29 pm
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Update, Monday, 10/12: The 2009 National Book Awards finalists will be announced on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 12 noon Eastern time.

Yes, it seems we’ve barely exhaled since the 2009 Man Booker and Nobel prize-winners were announced. But next week the National Book Foundation will name the five 2009 National Book Award finalists in each of the four categories – fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. But the foundation may still be making up its mind about the date: One page of the awards site says the finalists will be announced on October 13 and another page says the finalists will be announced on October 14.  I will update this post as soon as the organization clarifies this. The winners will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on November 18.

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