Stitches: A Memoir

by David Small

Paperback, 2010




W. W. Norton & Company, (2010)


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Too much setup, not enough payoff.
5 more
It is one thing for an artist to credit his career choice to an unhappy youth in which opportunities for self-expression were perpetually stifled, and quite another for an artist to say that his parents literally took his voice from him. That, however, is the story of David Small’s life as he tells it in “Stitches,” a graphic memoir, which comes out this week.
Graphic in every sense of the word, Small's masterfully drawn memoir will arrest readers from the very first cell.
School Library Journal
The shaded artwork, composed mostly of ink washes, is both evocative and beautifully detailed.
Like other “important” graphic works it seems destined to sit beside—think no less than Maus—this is a frequently disturbing, pitch-black funny, ultimately cathartic story whose full impact can only be delivered in the comics medium, which keeps it palatable as it reinforces its appalling aspects.
Library Journal
Stitches is compelling, disturbing, yet surprisingly easy to read and more than meets the high standard set by the widely praised Fun Home.

User reviews

LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
Stitches is the memoir of a young boy, growing up in an abusive family . Young David gets cancer in his early teens, and loses his vocal cords. The fear that he feels from both living in abusive family , and then losing his vocal cords is amazing well portrayed through his drawings in the graphic novel. Ultimately it's a redemptive story, and very moving.

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.
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LibraryThing member phebj
This is a very good graphic memoir but a disturbing one. David Small recounts a confusing and painful childhood. His mother’s only emotion seemed to be anger; otherwise she was mostly silent. His father’s response to the toxic atmosphere in the house was to be absent as often as possible. When they discover David has a growth on his neck, they ignore it for as long as possible (despite the fact that David’s father is a doctor) and then decide not to tell him that the operations that leave him scarred and without a voice for awhile were necessary because he had cancer.

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.
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LibraryThing member farfromkansas
The graphic novel Stitches, written and illustrated by David Small, is a testament to the power of silence. Throughout the book, David encounters the icy chill of his family’s silence, and when he is robbed of his own physical voice, he essentially becomes invisible to the people around him. While David’s experiences are not individually unique, they have the potential to cripple anyone when combined in such magnitude; because of this, Small’s story is a powerful demonstration of the human spirit’s ability to cope with suffering and still survive.

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.
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LibraryThing member NarratorLady
This is the second graphic novel I've read. The first was "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, a delightful and exciting story of a young boy who, after the death of his parents, discovers secrets and has adventures while secretly living in his uncle's small apartment in a French railway station.

"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.
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LibraryThing member akosikulot-project52
"You've been living in a world full of nonsense, David. No one has been telling you the truth about anything." - Thoughts on Stitches by David Small

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Carmenere
David’s parents really left a mark on him. Well, actually a few. Some are visible others are not. The most obvious mark is the scar alongside his neck where a growth once thrived, a growth that may have been the result of an overzealous radiologist father. The other scar which is not visible is the one inflicted by his growth of a mother. No love, no hugs, no time were given to young David by his mother. She, who was locked inside a Hell of her own, made another for her son.
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.
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LibraryThing member AgneJakubauskaite

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.
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LibraryThing member womansheart
The illustrations and text in Stitches: A Memoir, are both done by the author, renowned illustrator David Small. The illustrations are outstanding and convey great emotional impact that almost at times packs more punch than the text itself.

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.
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LibraryThing member wareagle78
This is my first graphic novel, and i found the format enriching to the story - the pictures explained beautifully his fears, his nightmares, his losses. I can't imagine words alone would have had the same impact.
LibraryThing member debs4jc
This is a powerful story of the authors growing up years, told graphically in pictures and text. The trauma that the author went through with his family--who tended to just want to sweep their problems under the rug--comes to a head at the end with an impact that the reader will not soon forget. Still, he manages to overcome and now is brave enough to tell us his story. I highly recommend it--it will not take you long to read, but the words and images will linger in your mind and make you think.… (more)
LibraryThing member mamzel
This Caldecott winning illustrator has turned his talent inward and produced a distrurbing look at a totally disfunctional family, unable to tell each other things that absolutely have to be told. A tough book to read but I was glad that he shared his life with his readers and hopefully get some peace and relief from the effort.… (more)
LibraryThing member jillrhudy
Read it out of admiration for Small's illustrative prowess (four favorites on the children's shelf are George Washington's Cows, The Huckabuck Family, the Gardener, and Fenwick's Suit) and was completely blown away. An utterly brilliant graphic novel, as good as or better than Perseopolis. An artistic tour de force. In the middle, where there were no words, I cried uncontrollably through the rain. It will break your heart.… (more)
LibraryThing member andreablythe
Stiches tells a haunting story of abuse, the most horrifying of which is his parents refusal to tell him that he had throat cancer, even after he woke up from surgery at fourteen incapable of speaking.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member stephxsu
STITCHES is David Small’s memoir of his horrific childhood with parents who believed that silence was the best way of raising a child. When David was younger, his father treated his sinus infections with heavy doses of radiation. As a result, he developed cancer, and without telling him the reasons for their actions, doctors removed half his vocal chords and rendered him silent at the age of fourteen. STITCHES is drawn in a sparse, black-and-white style that’s reminiscent of noir and horror films, as we the readers perceive David’s world through his child’s eyes. The result is a stomach-twisting but compelling graphic novel memoir.… (more)
LibraryThing member phredfrancis
I had heard a lot of good things about Stitches, and now I know why. David Small tells the story of his growing up in a family ruled by strange silences and unexplained anger. He chooses carefully the moments that he writes and illustrates, to maximum effect, and this causes those events to echo through the rest of the story. While the trials of Small's young life are far more difficult and extreme than most, the viewpoint of youth that he conveys is universal. Plenty of other reviews will divulge the details of the story, but I found that I was glad not to have read too much about it, so the revelations surprised me in exactly the way the author intended.… (more)
LibraryThing member StoutHearted
Some panels in David Small's graphic novel memoir are simple yet powerful: a closeup of an eye. Eyes play a major part in the imagery in Small's book, perhaps not least because with his voice taken away, the expressions of eyes rise in importance. Even in panels featuring an entire face, and entire room, or an entire scene, eyes reveal the true nature of characters when everything is repressed. From the insane grandmother whose voice belies the sadism in her eyes, to a parent caught in a compromising situation, Small's attention to eyes really packs a punch.

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.
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LibraryThing member sandywhitmer
Haunting, emotionally wrenching memoir. That David Small survived the emotional trauma of his childhood is nothing short of a miracle. That he has the ability to positively affect thousands of children through his thoughtful book illustrations is a truly meaningful gift.
LibraryThing member educ318
This graphic memoir by noted children's book illustrator (and Michigan native) David Small tells a fantastic and heart wrenching coming of age story. Small lets his hauntingly minimal images narrate his childhood struggles to both fit in with and escape from an indifferent and frightening adult world. Highly recommended - with the added bonus that David Small will be visiting Miller College in the spring for our first annual Children's Literature Project. (Dr. Kottke, Fall 2009)… (more)
LibraryThing member abbylibrarian
This is an intense and disturbing graphic novel memoir of David Small's childhood in a household so stifling that he literally lost his voice for years. When David was a teenager, he underwent surgery to purportedly remove a cyst from his throat. The horrible truth about his surgery wouldn't come out until years later. Creepy and gripping and brilliant and utterly brave, this is a story that shouldn't be missed.… (more)
LibraryThing member kayceel
Oh, man, is this dark and depressing. Small had a truly awful childhood, with a vindictive and angry mother, a terrifying grandmother and a withdrawn radiologist father who gave him hundreds of x-rays when Small was a kid.

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...
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I bought this book for my son, who is, like Small, a very talented graphic artist. But I took a peek into it before mailing it and I was hooked from the first page of strange, surrealistic black and white drawings of Detroit in the 1950s. I don't often buy "graphic" books - fiction or otherwise - as I have always thought of them as only a step above comic books. Well STITCHES is several steps up. I wouldn't have thought a person could tell so much about a life using so few words, but Small does. His drawings - and I'm not really sure what to call them: pictures, cartoons, sketches? - tell most of the story and tell it well. It's a very dark story, of an unhappy and painful childhood in still another of those "dysfunctional families," but Small was obviously a survivor - and not just of cancer, but of a cancerous kind of home life in an emotionally crippled family. My son will love the art work, I know, but I also know he will be moved by the story. It is easy to see why David Small has won so many awards for his art work. This book is a winner in so many ways. I salute this guy just for having grown up at all. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Small.… (more)
LibraryThing member bermudaonion
All I can say after finishing STITCHES by David Small is wow! Stitches is Small’s graphic memoir and it’s hard to say much about the story without giving things away. David Small was born and raised in Detroit by his radiologist father and his homemaker mother. His mother was born with some health problems and raised by a troubled mother and it affected her for the rest of her life.

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.
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LibraryThing member jlparent
Compelling imagery and story, told in terse words. I was enthralled by this unique way of telling one's own story. Generally I don't read graphic novels or anime but I couldn't put this down and absorbed the art and the revelations in one sitting. I highly recommend this memoir about a dysfunctional family and growing up in it.… (more)
LibraryThing member tiamatq
David Small draws you into his childhood, evoking the 50s and 60s and a household that represses and internalizes all feelings. "Stitches" is the story of his childhood, of his mother, and of the growth on his neck that turns out to be cancer, resulting in the removal of one of his vocal chords and a horrific scar. This book is brief - maybe an hour to read, but it sinks into you. The art swirls and moves as if it were a film, and the awkwardness, tension, and sadness of Small's family is conveyed through the black, white, and gray-washed illustrations. Certain themes crop up through the book - Small's fascination with Alice in Wonderland, a haunting discover in the pathology department of the hospital where his father worked, his escape into art throughout his childhood and into his teens, and the words that we say even when we are silent. Small closes the book with further details of his family's history, particularly his mother's medical background.

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.
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LibraryThing member Girl_Detective
a comic-book memoir by David Small, reviewed as one of the best graphic novels of last year. David is six when the story begins. There's a lovely, long series of tracking illustrations through Detroit into David's living room where he's drawing, then we meet his family. Each expresses emotion without words. Mother bangs pots. Father hits a punching bag. Brother bangs a drum set. And David? He gets sick.

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.
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