All Sewn Up
David Small, the author and illustrator responsible for dozens of delightfully whimsical children’s books, is famous for his bright illustrations and upbeat narratives. Small’s children’s books have become wildly successful, and he has won both the 1997 Caldecott Honor (The Gardener, written by Sarah Stewart) and the 2001 Caldecott Medal (So You Want to Be President?). But last year Small crossed genres to write his first graphic memoir for adults. In surprising contrast to his previous works, Small reveals a new layer of his creative talent with Stitches, the dark and disturbing story of his own childhood.
A 329-page book that takes only about an hour to read, Stitches is Small’s story of growing up with his older brother and parents in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1950s. Small uses stark black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings to depict his bleak surroundings as a lonely six-year-old with frequent sinus infections. Small’s mother is cold and stern, asserting physical violence instead of support or affection. His father, a radiologist, practices experimental x-rays on Small from a young age, in an attempt to cure his persistent sinus problems. Small’s brother, who is absent from the majority of the book, spends most of his time hidden in his bedroom, banging on his drum set.
The illustrations in Stitches, which depict the view from their home as a foggy skyline of industrial factories and steel streetlamps, are more severe than the warm, sunny drawings Small’s readers may be used to. At the same time, however, the illustrations in Stitches are so focused and numerous that the book could double as a movie storyboard, providing multiple angles and close-ups of small details in each scene that contribute to the dramatic tension of the sparse dialogue.
In Stitches, six-year-old Small uses art as a way to escape from his troubled life. In one emotional image in the book, Small illustrates himself as a young child diving headfirst into a drawing, traveling through a large human esophagus and finally landing in the outline of a stomach, where a cheering gaggle of cartoon friends wait for him. Dream sequences and imagined scenes like these are strewn throughout the memoir, the book easily slips between fantasy and reality, resembling the organic way a child’s mind works.
When Small’s mother brings him to visit his maternal grandmother, Small’s spirit breaks completely. As the result of a misunderstanding, the grandmother, who is even more stern and cold than his mother, drags him up the stairs and scalds his hands with hot water. “This may seem odd,” Small narrates, “But while that was happening . . . I saw it all from two points of view, hers and mine. 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.”
Small develops a growth on his neck at age eleven, which a doctor friend of his parents diagnoses as a sebaceous cyst. His mother balks at the cost of removing it, and the doctor determines that Small can wait to get the cyst taken care of whenever it is convenient for his parents. Meanwhile, Small’s parents purchase a variety of high-priced items for themselves, in a vibrantly illustrated section of the book that depicts mountains of shiny appliances and electronics from high-end department stores.
At age fourteen, Small’s parents finally arrange for the cyst to be removed. But when Small wakes up from the operation, the doctor explains that the cyst is still intact and a specialist will be coming to remove it the following day. “I told you, nothing is wrong,” the doctor says. “Now get some rest.” After the second operation, Small discovers that he is unable to speak any louder than a hoarse whisper. “When I woke up from operation #2,” Small writes, “I had only one vocal cord. And with only one vocal cord the sound you make is ACK.” Small is left with a gruesome scar where his throat was “slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” This disturbing phrase is accompanied by an even more gruesome drawing showing thick, uneven stitches running up the length of Small’s blood-spattered neck; the shudder-inducing illustration that gives Stitches its title.
As Stitches delves deeper and deeper into Small’s personal history, the illustrations become darker and more severe. Each page features between one and six drawings, depicting dark, shadowed faces, close-ups of withered, gnarled fingers and claustrophobic, grey walls. The outdoor scenes are drawn with the same bleary, grey palette as the indoor scenes, giving the reader an eerie peek into Small’s depression, which he suffers in silence.
Then one day when Small is home alone, he finds a harrowing letter that changes his life. In a correspondence between his mother and his maternal grandmother, Small discovers that what he thought was a sebaceous cyst was really cancer. Small’s respect for his parents snaps, and he begins having nightmares and delusions so severe he has to sleep under the dining room table with the lights on. Small’s relationship with his parents disintegrates as his family continues to disappoint him, and he is unable to escape from their abusive, grey world. Although Small’s parents show almost no kindness for their son in the book, occasional moments of weakness, like Small’s mother’s muffled sobs behind her closed bedroom door, make his parents seem not like one-dimensional villains, but hauntingly real people.
Through self-reflection, a kind therapist and his love for drawing, Small is able to separate from his parents by moving out of the house and creating a whole new life in the inner city of Detroit. In one illustration, Small, as a young adult, draws at an easel. Three young women wearing bold, patterned dresses admire him as he works. There is no grey haze or oppressive shadow weighing down the illustration. Instead, Small’s face is turned towards the reader, offering a secret smile. “Art became my home,” Small writes. “Not only did it give me back my voice, but art has given me everything I have wanted or needed since.”
The versatility of Small’s drawings, which range from the bubbly, whimsical cartoon characters in young Small’s imagination to the dull, grey landscapes of Detroit, create a haunting and crucial extra dimension to Stitches. Because drawing is the very reason Small was able to emerge from his troubled childhood a strong and healthy adult, it creates a realness to the book that a solely written memoir might not have accomplished. While reading Stitches, I was able to delve into the subconscious, whirling imagery of Small’s soul that would seem incomplete if it was only written and not drawn. Stitches has the rare distinction of being both whimsical and horrific, and yet there is an innocence that makes the book so genuine and heartbreaking, I was unable to stop reading until I was out of pages.
When I closed Stitches, I immediately realized that it had changed me in a profound way. When dealing with my own personal struggles, I often fall into a rut, feeling that the dark moments of my past will always linger behind me, defining my future. I couldn’t stop thinking about the image of Small drawing at the easel, the only illustration in the book that depicts the artist with the hint of a smile. By staring through the peephole the book offers of Small’s childhood, I was able to recognize that even as a young child Small had made a decision to survive. And after suffering silently through years of oppression and torture, Small quietly gives himself permission to reach out of the vast, thick fog of the past and aim for a new, brighter world.
Books Mentioned in this Column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.