Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stitches: A Memoir

By David Small

New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009

Week 45Memoir

David Small, known for his prize-winning children’s books and book illustrations, has created a masterpiece of a memoir in a graphic novel format. He says, “I am an artist, and this is a book about being voiceless…When you have no voice, you don’t exist.”

Small divides his memoir about his “Soviet Bloc” of a childhood into parts relating to his age when the events happen: “I Was Six,” “I Was Eleven,” “I Was Fourteen,” and “I Was Fifteen.” Through black and white drawings, shaded in grays, with very few words, Small tells the story of a family where silence reigns, where love is never shown, and where explanations are never  given.

His mother is a 1950s housewife, his father a radiologist, and his older brother is the usual bullying brat of a big brother. Here are the bare bones of Stitches. David was small, sensitive, and prone to infections. X-rays were the new big thing, and his father as a radiologist used them to “cure” David of his sinus infections. When he was eleven, he developed a lump in his neck that was diagnosed as a cebaceous cyst. His parents decided to ignore the doctor’s recommendation that the cyst be removed claiming that it would be too expensive to remove, so David lived with it for the next three years. However, when he was fourteen, the cyst was finally removed, and along with it, David’s thyroid and part of his vocal cords. David was left voiceless for a prolonged period of time, but more insidiously, he was never told that he had cancer. The next year was a nightmare for David, and he began to act out his pain and anger, causing his parents endless frustration, and contributing to David’s increasing isolation and psychosis. Finally, at age fifteen, his parents took him to an analyst, who Small portrays as the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. This dear man helped him realize that it is not David who is flawed, but his parents and his entire family, and that he has a right to be angry for his parents not telling him about the cancer. The climax of the book comes when his father tells him that he was to blame for what happened to David because the cancer had been caused by the prolonged exposure to the x-rays.

Small understands the concept of telling a story without words. When he describes how his father reveals the huge secret, the drawings go on for several wordless pages, and the pain is searing. In another amazing sequence, Small illustrates with rain the tears that flowed when he began to understand that the pain of his life was not his fault, that his mother was incapable of loving, and that he had not been told the truth his whole childhood. The viewer (reader) is absolutely moved to tears as the rain in the drawings eventually subsides.

It is so evident that Small has bared his soul in Stitches. In one drawing, little boy David is drawing on a big piece of paper on the floor and in the next two drawings, he is sucked down into the paper. In an interview, he says that he had so much more that he could have told, but that he had to continually edit the story down until it was a manageable length. A short chapter about Small’s adult life, and an equally short explanation with a couple of photos, helps the reader understand a little better about why his childhood was so unfortunate.

David Small and his wife, the author Sarah Stewart, live just south of Kalamazoo, and are frequent visitors to our community. I saw them last at a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood. Small won the Caldecott Award for the book, So You Want to Be President? in 2001 and is an honor book winner for the same award with a book he wrote with his wife, The Gardener.

Like Persepolis, which I reviewed earlier this year, graphic books can tell a story in a very profound way. In discussing this, one reviewer suggests, “Such moments remind us of the emotional power and immediacy of drawing.”

I highly recommend Stitches. It is an amazing book, the winner of several awards, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Here is a review in the Washington Post:

A very good interview in the website, The New Gay:

David Small’s website:

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