I was not originally going to write a review of this book (and whether this post proves to be a critique or a rambling observation still remains to be seen,) but, having just put it down, I wanted to say something about it. I could have quickly tweeted--"Just read 'Stitches' by David Small. Wow!"--and anyone interested who saw the tweet would have no doubt commented. But that didn't seem fair treatment to this unusual autobiography. 'Unusual' is really an understatement; "harrowing', 'dark', 'grizzly', 'bleak' might be more accurate descriptors. But I want to keep a book which is so reliant on the use of images from becoming bogged down with words. Also, anyone who is familiar with the bigger picture knows that David Small grew up to become a Caldecott Medal winner, married a fellow writer, wrote and illustrated the playful Imogene's Antlers, and--most importantly--survived the story within the pages of Stitches. His is ultimately a story of triumph! And yet.....well.....let's just say, thank goodness for catharsis.
Small starts his story when he is six, an age when the intense emotional repression in his family has become evident. He talks about the language used by his family; his father pummels a boxing bag, his mother slams doors, and his brother thrashes away at a drum kit. David's language is not art, as the reader would be forgiven for assuming, but illness. There is not much that David can do about it, but he is chronically ill. He is born with a sinus ailment, and his father's attempts to treat the respiratory problems with radiation will result in David developing cancer. And yet, ghastly as this is, the story that Small tells up to this point is unimaginable enough. He tells about his mother, born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest, which becomes a tragic allegory for her inability to communicate; he tells of vacations spent with a grandmother who's taciturn nature masks increasing insanity; and always there is the presence of an inexplicable, unfathomable rage which courses through the family.
And yet, as I read this book, I was struck by the fact that I could not hate these warped, disturbed people who raised David Small. This is a testament to his storytelling craft as well as the images he creates; his mother, for instance, is often portrayed with opaque, flashing glasses which prevent us from seeing her eyes. It is as if he is acknowledging that there was more going on than any child could understand. When I read Small's brief note at the end, in which he says that "maturity, reflection, and some family research" has led him to a new understanding of his mother, I felt vindicated as a judge of character. However, Small makes it quite clear that his parents damaged him immensely, and he judges them appropriately.
And, as mentioned, there is the big picture. In a recent issue of Publisher's Weekly, Small wrote a three page article about why he writes. That article, like this book, is presented graphically. He represents himself as Frankenstein, a monster made monstrous through no fault of his own. In that article he explains how the writing of Stitches has helped him feel much better, though he is Frankenstein still. And while the book does not end happily, it does end--which means that there is a survivor to tell the story. Small has illustrated picture books which have been at times exuberant (When Dinosaurs Came with Everything,) reflective (The Friend,) and celebratory (The Library.) As readers we do not always get the full story behind the creators of the books we love. With Stitches we are treated (if that could possibly be the correct word in this context) to a level of revelation beyond what most readers could imagine. Read this book, and marvel.