Friday, June 11, 2010

Stitches, A Memoir, written and illustrated by David Small

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 336 pages
· Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
· Price: $24.95
· ISBN-10: 0393068579
· ISBN-13: 978-0393068573

Good thing I was on vacation when I received the news that my book club, the indomitable Book Mavens, was going to have a special luncheon with David Small and his writer wife, Sarah Stewart, in their hometown of Mendon, Michigan. Wonderful! I would have an opportunity to feature the author/illustrator in the Summer 2010 Issue of The Smoking Poet. First, however, I must get my hands on Stitches

Vacation, off the clock. I wandered into the first, eclectic little book store, locally owned, that I could find in Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t even have to ask. There it was: Stitches, A Memoir, written and drawn by David Small, on the front shelf, eye level. I set a copy down on the counter next to the cashier, and she started paging through it and very nearly forgot me. Hello? Could I buy this book? Oh! Yes!

And that’s what I did when I got back to my cozy B&B. I, too, got lost in Stitches. Very much like the little David, six years old, spreading out the white page before him and diving into it, gone, gone, sunk into it. I was immersed for the remainder of the evening and late into the night. I dreamt Stitches. In the morning, over breakfast, I’d finished it.

Almost a guilty pleasure. Like reading comic books as a kid when I should be reading something serious, only this was serious, very serious, as serious as the topic of child abuse and deeply dysfunctional families. No caped wonder here, only a little boy growing up in Detroit, Michigan, with a physician father who seems to think radiation cures every possible ill, and a frustrated and angry lesbian mother, who isn’t doing such a hot job of keeping up the closeted façade. The memoir takes us from David at age six to David at age 16.

David Small, as I would learn at our book club luncheon back in Mendon, Michigan, is more illustrator than author. Drawing, he says, is his language. Images, after all, as we all know, speak a thousand words if skillfully formed. Small is known as an illustrator of many fine children’s books, many of which are stamped with prestigious medals in children’s literature. Some of these have been written by his wife, Sarah Stewart.

But Stitches was something that was swelling inside of him, something that cried for release. Small's childhood was a strange and dark time, a time of being caught between adult dynamics, the scapegoat for adult idiosyncrasies and adult mental illness. Small was compelled to mold his own suppressed rage into drawings, pages and pages of drawings, three years' worth of drawings—and this book was the final result.

Pages of this memoir are nothing but drawings. Words are sparse, and often, there is no need for them. Small’s artwork is the sort that speaks volumes in but a few freely expressed lines. A boy’s wide-eyed expression of stunned confusion. Or, the perspective from the boy’s eyes, looking out at the odd and often frightening world around him.

Images: Immense radiation equipment, a father holding him down on the cold, tiled floor for a forced enema. A mother who ignores the swelling on his throat until a glamorous woman attending a party at the Small house points out the growth on the child’s neck and embarrasses his mother into doing something about it. Waking up in a dark hospital room to find a long, ragged wound down his throat, cancerous vocal cord removed, voiceless. A maniacal grandmother who drags the boy upstairs and forces his hands under boiling water. A teen being arrested for driving the stolen family car without a license, long shadows falling from the block building of the police station. A large rabbit with immense eyes, offering therapy to the growing boy. The beginning of an answer to a stitched-up life …

This is no comic book. This is more like the experience of being drawn into a movie—indeed, in meeting the author/artist, he spoke of thinking as a movie director might, coming in for close-ups, withdrawing into the distance to evoke isolation, clipping scene after scene. Reading, or viewing, something like this was a new experience for me, and if I had picked up Stitches expecting something like a comic book, I was stunned at how profound pages of gray-washed images could be. For while Small’s language is in art, mine is in words, and I was taken aback by how moving his language, his ability to express a full spectrum of emotion, his artistic power, could be in the format of a book.

Stitches was a finalist in the 2009 National Book Awards, and has garnered much praise and acclaim among artists and book lovers of all kinds. I count myself among them.

Read the account of a book club luncheon, Talking to David Small.

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