If I could draw as well as David Small, I would draw this review of Stitches first as panels showing views of my face, with my jaw dropping further and further down, and a tear building slowly at each corner of my eyes. The final panel of the review would begin with me sitting with Small’s book on my lap, my mouth now closed tightly, my back rigid against the couch, my eyes open and staring off in the distance; then comes a sketch of my kids in the hall, calling “good night” as they head up the stairs to bed. The final scene is of me rushing to gather them in my arms and assuring them — their faces are bewildered, mine is wild with grief — that they are safe and they are loved.
Stitches, Small’s just released graphic novel memoir of his childhood, is a chilling depiction of the wounds and scars, literal and figurative, that are imposed on the young by their parents. The drawings are varied in style but consistent in effect, and the effect is an incisive, baring, and nowhere-to-hide exposure of pain. Small had no relief from the onslaught of his mother’s misery, his father’s failure, and his grandmother’s psychotic lunacy, no relief save the skills he had as an artist. There is a wonderfully compelling sketch of the young Small diving into a drawing pad, being taken down through the page and into a world of his own creation, a world safe for being his own, and for being unreachable by his family.
There are many levels of horror in this book, the father who treats his son’s asthma with radiation, causing a cancer of the throat that takes away his son’s voice; the mother whose own health problems and sexual anguish make her mercurial and volatile, cold and uncaring; the grandmother whose psychosis vents on the visiting grandson without protection or shield; the reign of silence and barely-controlled anger in the household; the censure of books and thought and discussion; and the repression of the truth, including the truths of Small’s illness, the nature of the mother’s sexuality, and the state of the family unit. It is only when the teenaged Small begins to work with a therapist that a light of relief can be seen but first, the child must acknowledge the failure of the relationship between his mother and himself.
The scene of Small’s revelation is drawn in two parts: the announcement of the most awful of rejections, and then a tear falling down Small’s face followed by panel after panel of rain falling on scenes of Small’s Detroit landscape, rain rolling down the panes of windows, in puddles, over factories, against sliding glass doors of a patio, over a discarded lawn mower. The effect is wrenching and undeniable sorrow. There is another scene, earlier in the book, where Small wishes to respond to his parent’s haranguing with a scream: we see his mouth opened wide, with another mouth engulfed inside, and another mouth engulfed in that mouth, and so on, creating a series of opened, screaming mouths. I could hear the anguish, I could feel the vibration of the cry, and chills ran down my spine.
I have read many of Small’s books for children, ones he wrote and illustrated and ones he illustrated only. Of those books, I have read so many, many times over as they were my children’s favorites and my own. Books like Imogene’s Antlers,The Library, The Christmas Crocodile, and Petey’s Bedtime Story are all-time favorites, ones I still read over by myself because I find pleasure and comfort in the drawings. The way Small draws cats, all hunched up or stretched out, the details he puts in of small toys scattered around or of Christmas decorations hung over ornate fireplaces, the flowers he has cascading over fences and the books he stacks up every which way around chairs just made for reading: I can imagine myself very, very happy and safe in the spaces and landscapes Small created in his books for kids. In Stitches there is no such comfort offered, despite the occasional cat sketched in and the ornate gingerbread house of witchy-grandma; the scenes are cold, the faces angry or scared, the landscape, interiors and exteriors, barren and bereft.
Stitches demonstrates, as did Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, that graphic expressions of truth can be as powerful as words. In fact, experiences of vulnerability and youth, where the situation can be interpreted in a variety of ways and standpoints, can be most-effectively rendered visually, allowing the reader to experience first-hand what the narrator experienced, without being told what to feel by the words of the narrator’s experience. It is more powerful to see the eyes of Small’s mother narrow into slits of anger and hate than words might be able to convey, especially when Small places one of his own eyes as a mirror to one of his mother’s and we see the resemblance. Seeing the two slitted eyes, side by side, we are shocked by the implication of heredity, of what is being passed on between son and mother, and it is not love, or acceptance: it is hate and anger.
That Small was able to overcome his childhood and become the artist that creates landscapes that are original, whimsical, fully-detailed, and most of all warm and comforting — full of love (really) — is amazing. That he won the Caldecott Medal for So You Want to be President is inspiring: he was a boy who was denied so much and yet he became what he wanted to be, an artist. The book is built on his own experience, and filled with his wonderful drawings of very human beings becoming President of the United States. Small’s books are proof that scars of pain, fear, and sorrow can be salved; they offer hope against very tough odds; and most of all, they are a testament to his resilience, determination, talent, and heart.
Stitches will go up there with Imogene’s Antlers as an all-time favorite Small, but not one I will share with my children (not yet, I’ll wait for them to grow up a bit). I will most certainly share Stitches with my friends, many of them mothers, and all of us worth reminding of the power of family, and of the individual.