In Stitches, artist and illustrator David Small tells the story of his early life. Given his whimsical children’s book illustrations, one would expect his childhood to have been similarly idyllic. Unfortunately, this was not the case. His family was dominated by the silent anger emanating from his mother. As he puts it, “Her silent fury was like a black tidal wave.” While his father and brother found their own ways to cope with the strain of her anger, David himself became ill frequently. Over the years, his doctor father subjected him to a variety of treatments in an effort to cure his ailments. One such treatment was regular x-rays. By age 11, David had a growth on his neck. It was not until he was 14 however, that his parents had the growth removed. When it finally was, so was one of his vocal chords, thrusting him into a life of silence and further emotional frustration.
Small tells the story of his family’s dysfunction with captivating subtlety. The simple and monochromatic art style allows the emotions of the characters to take center stage. David’s story is laid out in anecdotes, each one a stitch creating and holding together an emotional wound that is as destructive as his physical one. The brunt of the story is told visually; the narration and dialogue used only to support the story in the art. Small employs a number of subtle—and not so subtle—visual techniques to wordlessly convey his feelings about the people of his childhood and the circumstances in which he lived. In one scene, his grandmother’s dentures lay on the table, the exposed canine menacingly elongated and her claw-like fingernail resting nearby. As a teenager, David imagines the growth on his neck contains a frightening creature, just as the wound of his life contains a hateful secret.
Given the gravity of the content, it is more appropriate for ages fourteen and up. Adults and older teens will be more likely to appreciate the subtleties and multi-layers of meaning than younger readers. There are a few things that, while dealt with tactfully, may cause cautious parents to object (and for which some young teen readers may not be mature enough). One is an instance of (very roughly drawn) parts of the naked human anatomy. Others are the use of homosexual insults (by playground bullies) and an adulterous homosexual affair. There are also instances of attempted suicide and murder. Stitches would be an excellent adult book club selection. The complexity of the story and Small’s portrayal of his experiences will provide readers with hours of discussion.
Stitches: A Memoir
by David Small
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009