The prize-winning children's author depicts a childhood fromhell in this searing yet redemptive graphic memoir. One day David Small awoke from a supposedly harmless operationto discover that he had been transformed into a virtual mute. Avocal cord removed, his throat slashed and stitched together like abloody boot, the fourteen-year-old boy had not been told that hehad throat cancer and was expected to die. Small, a prize-winningchildren's author, re-creates a life story that might have beenimagined by Kafka. Readers will be riveted by his journey fromspeechless victim, subjected to X-rays by his radiologist fatherand scolded by his withholding and tormented mother, to hisdecision to flee his home at sixteen with nothing more than dreamsof becoming an artist. Recalling Running with Scissors withits ability to evoke the trauma of a childhood lost,Stitches will transform adolescent and adult readers alikewith its deeply liberating vision.
I was amazed at how much can be told through illustrations and so few words. This was my first graphic novel, and I found it to be a gripping and emotional read.
The best thing David’s parents do for him is take him to a psychologist when he’s sixteen. Finally, he starts to understand what has happened to him and that the abuse he’s suffered is not something he deserved.
This was a quick read (I read the entire book in about 45 minutes) and it’s another example of how powerful the graphic format can be. There’s something about the visual element that definitely adds to it’s impact.
Today, David is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books which seems fitting since drawing was one of his refuges as a child. As he says: “Art became my home. Not only did it give me back my voice, but art has given me everything I have wanted or needed since.”
I would guardedly recommend this book, not because of the writing or the illustrations which are excellent, but because of the subject matter. In some ways, it’s not a depressing book because David’s life took a turn for the better but it is difficult to read about his childhood.
Over the course of the story, Small shows the reader a variety of horrors that the author faced in his own life: childhood cancer, emotionally-distant parents, mentally-unstable grandparents, and crippling depression. All of these experiences result in painful scars – both physical and emotional – that David must overcome over the course of his life. Fortunately for the reader, Small has not let his personal pain overshadow his talent with pictures and words, and Stitches is the result of his survival.
The target audience of Stitches seems to be adults – the grown-up children who remember the painful scars of their youth, but who have enough emotional distance to look back on the past without feeling overwhelmed by the pain. However, the book can just as easily speak to disenfranchised teenagers, many of whom are still in the throngs of painful adolescence experiences. Because Small’s visual style utilizes a cartoonish format, it can seem playful and childlike at times; however, Stitches is definitely more Frank Miller than Jack Kirby in its presentation. Small’s artwork is stark and unsettling, with no color added to the illustrations: in this regard, the art recalls old black and white photographs, which capture a moment in time without fleshing out the full set of emotions involved.
As far as memoirs go, Stitches is powerful and poignant, encapsulating the challenges of adolescence without falling prey to nostalgia. The book also reminds us of the power that families have over children, as David’s parents essentially paralyze his voice (literally and figuratively) until he is able to reclaim it as his own many years later. Although some readers may unwisely dismiss Stitches because it follows the graphic novel format, it is a vivid depiction of familial dysfunction that deserves to be read by adults and adolescents alike.
"Stitches" begins with the same idea: a young boy is left alone and his imagination mixes with reality. Sadly for young David, his parents are very much alive. It's a household of bitter silences and David grows up amid his father's absences and his mother's boiling resentments, retreating into his own world with the help of his ability to draw. Several frames show him immersing himself into a drawing and down a hole where his imagined creatures wait and cheer him. Much of the story is interspersed with dreams that contain elements of his own experience and the fantasy of his favorite book, "Alice Through the Looking Glass".
Despite the comic book form of a graphic novel, not all are meant for children. "Stitches" is the biography of an unloved boy whose radiologist father treats his respiratory problems with massive doses of radiation. It's hard to believe that this was common practice at the time, as David father tells him, and not an attempt to save money by avoiding what should have been a simple operation. By the time he has surgery, the radiation has produced cancer in the boy's throat and he wakes up minus a vocal chord. In this silent household he has never been told of the cancer and his accidental discovery leads to his moving out of the family home at sixteen. Finally, his parents send him to a psychiatrist who tells him the truth ("You're mother never loved you") and helps set him on the right path.
The good news is that David went on to become a Caldecott Award winning illustrator and this book, with its spare line drawings of dour faces and angry expressions, is a departure from his children's drawings. His depiction of dreams is wonderfully graphic and when we see his psychiatrist, he is delightfully represented by Alice's rabbit, complete with vest and pocket watch. It's a harrowing story and a testament to the human spirit that this talented man was able to tell it in his own way and so well.
Memoirs are often written; David Small drew his. What Augusten Burroughs accomplished with thousands of words in Running with Scissors, Small also did in panels of black and white in his graphic biography, Stitches.
Raised in Detroit by a complicated mother and a radiologist for a father, David wasn't much of anything growing up; he was a kid, acted like a kid, got bullied sometimes and got scolded often. Then a lump started growing on his neck - a harmless lump that was operated on three and half years after the initial diagnosis. Only, that harmless lump caused him one of his vocal cords - and turned out not to be as harmless as he's been told.
Being an illustrator for children's books, Small's lines and ink washes are in their simplest forms, yet they carry such a weight that conveys the complications, confusions, and bleakness of his childhood. The profile sketches are beyond simple illustrations themselves - with a few strokes he's conjured facial expressions so powerful that the anger or sadness felt by the characters transcend paper and ink.
Every family is loony and dark and psychotic in its own way - such is a familiar theme with memoirists. But Small's story is far removed from the tragic, comedic, dysfunctional family saga - and with it being drawn instead of written, Stitches is a memoir subcategory in itself.
PS. Think of Alfred Hitchcock, only drawn.
Originally posted here.
This autobiographical graphic novel must have been very painful for Small to relive as it was very painful for me to read. His drawings depict his childhood pain, loneliness and his agitation as well as his mother’s hatred and his father’s inattentiveness so perfectly that it becomes very emotional for the reader to be a spectator to this abuse. Thankfully, his love of art carried him through these difficult times even though his parents did not.
Would I recommend it………………………………Yes, but expect to be moved by this account.
David Small's "Stitches" is a gloomy and harrowing memoir written as a graphic novel. The story brings us back to the author’s childhood and lets us “in a house where silence reigned and free speech was forbidden.” Although David wasn’t beaten or starved (not too often, anyways), the extreme lack of love and communication from his parents left deep scars, even deeper than a stitched up gash across his throat. And how did he get that gash? Oh, at the age of fourteen he had a surgery after which he woke up without his thyroid gland and one of the vocal cords. Apparently, he had cancer and was expected to die, but nobody told him any of that until he found out about it himself, accidentally.
“Stitches” was the first graphic novel I’ve ever read. Maybe because of my limited proficiency in “reading” the pictures, at first I wasn’t too impressed. But after a great book club discussion and some background information, I was inspired to read it again more thoroughly… and I absolutely loved it!
Here are some things I loved the most:
a) The artwork in Small’s memoir is a masterpiece, well beyond the level of any comic book illustrations I ever seen. Every emotion is captured, every detail adds something to the story. A single image often tells more than can be summed up in a paragraph.
b) The whole book is very well thought-out. The images and text work in a perfect harmony, supplementing each other.
c) Transitions in “Stitches” are simply genius. The book flows like a movie.
d) Small tells us a horrifying and heartbreaking story but does so in a simple, honest and relatable way without being too sentimental or judgmental.
Even if you don’t read comics on a regular basis or steer clear of the genre altogether, give this one a try. It’s really worth a couple of hours of your life.
I thought as I read the book about what a great healing the author derived from writing and illustrating the book with the encouragement of the people close to him in his life. It is not easy to read about childhood mistreatment. I can't say that the illustrations softened the story any, but, it was the talent and skill of the author that encouraged me to read on. It is another story telling of the resilience of young people in the face of their caregivers/parent(s) lapses in judgment and mistreatment clearly based in their own, personal difficulties.
See for yourself what you think. Not really for the faint of heart, this is tough stuff.
The art in this graphic novel is some of the most beautiful I've seen. The use of gray-toned water color to shade and add depth to the vivid drawings gives the characters and world a kind of ghostly, insubstantial quality, which seems to me to be the nature of memory. This is a book I'm definitely going to have to own, if just for the opportunity to gaze at the art again and again.
The book moves along in stories centered around Small's history of illness and how it relates to his family. Sometimes the book flowed too quickly, leaving many places and reactions unexplored. The characters are strong, with the exception of David's brother Ted, who for some inexplicable reason is drawn like an old man in his childhood. Ted is relegated to the background while his parents, mainly his mother, dominate the foreground. David himself is a relatable, sympathetic character, dealing with his dysfunctional home life through escape in his drawings and, more hilariously, pretending to be Alice from Alice in Wonderland. The latter means of escape lend to a humerous scene that shows off Small's talent for expressing a situation without words. Dressed as Alice with a towel around his head while hanging upside-down on the monkey bars, the panel portrays a group of bullies watching him from behind a fence from Young David's perspective, upside-down. Next panel, David, on the monkey bars, looks right-side-up in surprise. Next page: the same panel of the bullies, now right-side-up, their cruel expressions now clear. Small's use of perscpective is often a brilliant way to say something without saying anything.
Small came out of that childhood, alive yet scarred (physically as well as emptionally), with only one set of vocal cords. The other was removed during a surgery done when he was 14 to remove what he didn't then know was cancer. Luckily, Small had a caring therapist and a drive to be elsewhere, and has since become a well known artist.
Recommended - reminds me of The Glass Castle...
David had an extremely difficult and troubling childhood, mainly because of his mother. There is one scene in Stitches that will be particularly disturbing to book lovers. David’s family suppressed things and did a poor job of communicating, especially with the kids, so David discovered things the hard way. I’m amazed that he’s gone on to have such a great life.
I thought STITCHES was an amazing book! The story is horrifyingly compelling – just as you think things can’t get any worse, they do – and the illustrations are fantastic. I think having color in some of the illustrations would have improved the book somewhat, but that’s only a minor complaint. The book is great as it is.
This is a powerful story, made more so by the format used to tell it. For those looking for a complicated book on family relationships and finding your own voice, I would highly recommend this book.
At six, David has sinus problems. His radiologist father treats him with X-rays, not uncommon at the time. At eleven, David has a lump on his neck. Surgery is recommended, but somehow the family puts it off for three and a half years. The aftermath of the surgery, and the series of revelations that follow are terribly sad and often horrifying.
Small's minimalist art and black and white watercolor palette help make this tale not only readable, but engaging. There are many powerful wordless sequences from a child's perspective, some true, others imaginary. Like Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home", with which this book shares more than a few similarities, the existence of the book and the ability of the artist to write it point to hope and redemption in the face of a harrowing family life.