'Stitches' Draws On An Artist's Painful Childhood

'Stitches' book cover
Graphic Memoir
Stitches: A Memoir
By David Small
Hardcover, 336 pages
W. W. Norton and Company
List price: $24.95

Award-winning children's book author and illustrator David Small (Imogene's Antlers, Fenwick's Suit) has written an illustrated memoir of his childhood that's strictly for grown-ups.

Stitches isn't profane or risque; no, the reason this book should be snatched from the hands of any child who might happen upon it is that what Small endured under his parents' roof is so difficult to process.

Small's scars — both literal and metaphoric — and the questions raised by this chilling, unsentimental, beautifully drawn book are the sort kids shouldn't have to confront. From the safe remove of adulthood, Stitches reads like a how-not-to guidebook on child-rearing.

Consider: Small's father, a radiologist in the 1950s, repeatedly gave the young boy high-dose X-ray treatments for his sinus problems. When Small was 14, he awoke from what he'd been told was a routine operation to find that he could no longer speak: A cancerous vocal cord had been removed, leaving him with a scar stretching from behind his right ear to the top of his chest: "A crusted black track of stitches; my smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot." (Read about one particularly spooky childhood visit to the hospital.)

Add to that a dour, rebuking mother who's harboring a secret, and a grandmother whose history of mental illness comes to light only after a violent act. In short, Small's family evinces the kind of casual cruelty that would get played for dark laughs in a children's book by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snicket. There's humor here, but there's nothing broad or arch in Small's account — Stitches is painstakingly built from small moments of selfishness, petty spite and indifference. It's easy to see why Small left home to pursue an artistic career at the age of 16, and why, until he began to write this memoir, he never looked back.

Small has shaped his narrative without forcing upon it an artificially tidy arc; there's a pleasing shagginess to the way Stitches proceeds, looping back into Small family history, or lingering over some detail of growing up in the 1950s.

Throughout, Small's art — by turns expressively abstract and clinically realistic — ensures that Stitches lands on the reader with satisfying emotional weight. The book contains several long, wordless passages in which Small's visual storytelling comes to the fore — facial expressions, body language and page layouts tell us more than long stretches of exposition ever could.

David Small i i

David Small is an award-winning children's book illustrator and author. Gordon Trice hide caption

itoggle caption Gordon Trice
David Small

David Small is an award-winning children's book illustrator and author.

Gordon Trice

And that, of course, is Stitches' true subject: the process of rescuing oneself, of confronting traumatic events and emotions, through art. We see the young Small escaping into a cartoon world of his own creation, and we witness the adult artist using his talents to flatly reject the unhappy fate his upbringing had laid out for him. There are reconciliations, of a sort, but they aren't cathartic and redemptive, the way they can be in overdetermined fiction. They're awkward, incomplete and — like everything about the book itself — palpably, recognizably human.

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