Putting the pieces back together

At age 14, writer and illustrator David Small’s neck was sewn up “like a bloody boot,” his voice temporarily gone after surgeries to remove a cancerous growth that resulted from specious radiology treatments. His father had been his physician. His mother, distant and difficult. Small’s work Stitches, one of two graphic novels to receive a National Book Award nomination in the young people’s literature category, navigates the dark recesses, the family secrets, and the oppressive silences of Small’s past.

It’s a story that had many false starts in a strictly prose format, Small says in a phone interview from his Michigan studio. “Every time `my agent` would call me and say, ‘How’s it going with the novel,’ I would always say, ‘Oh fine,’” he laughs, “but my secret was I knew it was never going to be a book like that.” 

Small hadn’t been particularly interested in graphic novels, calling most of them “peculiar navel-gazing that just left me feeling unmoved and empty at the end of reading them.” But on a trip to France he discovered some more intriguing examples. 

“They were very serious stories,” he explains, “and they were being treated in a graphic-novel way that had a great cinematic influence because the French are such cinephiles. And I am, too, so I really responded to the influences of films that I knew well, and thought that that’s what I should try my memoir as. And that’s when I came home and stuff started pouring out in a natural way.”

Stitches opens with soft-edged drawings materializing from the shadows as, frame by frame, Small leads us from the industrial Detroit skyline to himself at 6, drawing in the living room. The ever-narrowing, dissecting eye of the lens, continues to focus more introspectively as the figures in Small’s young life are introduced — an older brother absorbed with drumming, the father escaping to his basement punching bag, the mother whose “furious, silent withdrawals,” Small writes, “could last for days, even weeks at a time.”

“It really brought my parents back to life in a way that words certainly couldn’t in my use of them,” Small says, “in a way that was very confrontational, too. I can remember when I first started being able to draw my mother, I became afraid of her just the way I was when I was younger. And I felt her presence around me. I felt she was back near me again.” He realized, he says, that in a way he’d always be that troubled boy in the drawings. “I really needed to do this book.” In the end, he better understood his mother as “a very isolated and sad woman.”

Since Stitches’ release, it’s been edging into prominent top-10 lists and garnering enthusiastic responses. “I haven’t met anyone who has disliked this book,” Small marvels. “It’s almost embarrassing.  I don’t read bestsellers. I avoid them like the plague, but I think I’ve got one on my hands.” — Cynthia Hawkins

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