2009

Stitches

By David Small

Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Digital Publisher: None

Reading Level: Not Available 

Gary D. Schmidt writes: 

I first saw the sketches for the graphic memoir Stitches in David Small’s studio. I was, as I recall, stunned. I mean, this was the guy who did Imogene’s Antlers and Once Upon a Banana and So You Want to be President? (to Judith St. George’s text) andGeorge Washington’s Cows—all incredibly funny, laugh-out-loud books. And this was the guy who did The Gardener and The Journey with his wife, Sarah Stewart, books that showed characters with a beauty of spirit that is moving and powerful. 

But this graphic memoir!

The pages were dark, the setting dark, the characters darker, and the story darkest of all. Funny, laugh-out-loud pages? Not here. Characters with beautiful spirits? Well… outside the protagonist, not here.

Stitches is a portrait of the artist as a young boy and as a young man, but instead of a memoir in which art blossoms within the artist and makes him larger and larger until, finally, those around him recognize his talent and gift—as in, say, The Chosen—this is a book in which the art is the path to survival—quite literally. The choices are not Art vs. a lifestyle in which creativity is not affirmed; the choices are Art vs. madness. The reader knows from the very beginning that the stakes are incredibly high, and that the young boy of the opening pages, so alone and vulnerable against the backdrop of a cold city that ignores him, and a cold family that can be malevolent, has only a small chance.

In the center of the memoir, young David is confronted by a bald statement of what he knows already but cannot articulate: that his mother does not love him. The fact that he realizes on some level that this is not his fault is irrelevant; the fact that he comes to realize that the reason for her lack of love lies within his mother’s own psyche and body is irrelevant. That it is stated by a doctor who is personified as Alice’s White Rabbit—a character who is part of a mad world—brings small comfort. 

Before that reveal, we have the story of a boy trying to understand the fear and anger and bleakness of his world. His mother’s language in this world is the sound of slamming cupboard doors—and sobbing. His father’s language is the sound of his fists hitting a punching bag. His brother’s language is the pounding of drums. All of those images are loud and violent; young David’s language is sickness. Where the other languages in the house represent violence against something, his language represents violence being done to him. It is not ironic but horrifying that his language leads to more violence against him—his father inflicts multiple x-ray treatments upon his throat. The result is cancer; it is a cancer that literally takes away his voice. He has no more language at all.

Except his art.

It is his imaginative responses that create a livable world for young David—though, at first, so distorted is his world that even his imagination seems malevolent. When he sees bottled fetuses in various stages of development in the hospital, he imagines one of them emerging from the bottle and sprinting toward him—a terrifying incarnation. His dreams are frightening descents into Alice-like visions, trapping him in small rooms and coffins and rubbish-filled cathedrals—just as he is trapped by his parents’ beratings, and his grandmother’s physical abuse. Set against the bleakness of industrial Detroit, these visions only seem to confirm a malevolent world filled with adults who hurt him, who ignore him, who yell at him, who deceive him, who lie to him, and who expect him to die. 

In perhaps the most heartbreaking series of illustrations, young David is recovering—if that is possible—from his throat surgery. He does not know how serious the operation has been, or how terrible the wound is.

For two weeks, I did nothing but sleep and watch TV.
Then, as I slowly regained strength, one evening I decided to change the
bandage on my neck by myself.
And I saw for the first time what they had done.

[The page turn comes here.]

A crusted black track of stitches, my smooth young throat slashed and
laced back up like a bloody boot.
“Surely this is not me.”
“No, friend, it surely is.” 

The page turn reveals a full-page illustration showing David’s turned-away face and neck, with the skin slashed from the middle of his jaw down to his chest. It does indeed look like a sloppily laced boot—as do the three smaller illustrations on the facing page. Seeing this, David walks up the dark stairs, so alone. He dreams of a bat finding what he thinks is his mother, but it is only a broken umbrella, and he remains all alone. Alone David finds the letter that reveals his cancer. Alone he faces his mother’s anger and enmity, as if somehow his cancer is his fault and has inconvenienced her. And then, in the next full-page illustration of the book, just as moving as that of his ruined neck, we see an adolescent David standing on a street, huddled against the cold, wounded on the outside but even more terribly on the inside. He is, again, alone.

Enter the White Rabbit, whose entrance seems just as miraculous for David as it does for Alice. “We talked. After life in a house where silence reigned and free speech was forbidden that office, three times a week, became a haven for me. There, things began to makes sense.” There, David can speak of his dreams, and find reassurance: “Dear boy, I can make you well.” He finds affirmation of his art. He finds concern for his physical health. And so, he survives when his father reveals the betrayal: “I gave you cancer.”

And this revelation is, on some level, freeing—“things began to make sense.”  

He turns to his art: “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.” David has made a choice, and what had sustained him in a place where there was no real home gives him a new home.  With his choice of art, he has survived.

To say that this is a harrowing journey for young David is an understatement, but it is a harrowing journey for the reader as well. The story is uncompromising, as are the black and white pictures, whose cinematic qualities carry so much of the narrative. The dreariness and—is this the right word?—horror of David’s world are unrelieved. There is no hope of a happy ending, a silver lining; this is a Flannery O’Connor story without her flashes of humor, but with the same level of deadly potentiality that inhabits her worlds. At any turn, things could get worse—and for the most part, they always do.

But attached to this bleak and deadly world is a protagonist who is a survivor, and more than a survivor. Many of the illustrations focus on young David’s eyes, illustrating his fear, his anger, his bitterness, his vulnerability, his hurt—and his determination.  When his father’s complicity in the cancer is revealed, the image depicts a merger of six-year-old David’s eyes and adolescent David’s eyes, their union creating a unity in David’s life, and suggesting his new understanding of how the parts of his life fit together. The exchanges between his eyes and his dying mother’s eyes—both of them, at that moment, deprived of speech—suggest the complexity of their relationship, and the fact that there is no way to unknot the tangles of their distrust and bitterness—at least, not then. After his father’s reveal, he moves away down the shoreline away from David, so that we cannot see his eyes: the secret has been in him so long, he cannot look at his son. On and on, the reader is confronted by eyes.

For it is these eyes that stitch together the pieces of David’s life, and that in this memoir give that life a wholeness and meaningfulness. He sees, therefore he understands. And with this formula, he can do this miraculous thing: he can create. He can draw beautiful shapes and forms. He can find a new life that has its own language, and that language is no longer sickness, but beauty and meaning.

The memoir concludes with a dream in which David’s mother beckons him toward the insane asylum that housed his grandmother. She is sweeping the floor, clearing the way for him. It would have been the easy choice; anger and bitterness and horror could lead him there. Instead, he chose art, and art requires the artist, above all, to see.

This is a memoir, in the end, about seeing—and perhaps that is one of its most important gifts—among other brilliant gifts. It offers us the life of a young boy who didn’t just survive, and didn’t just escape—clearly, escape is not possible. What it offers is the hope of seeing, and with seeing may come understanding, and with understanding may come, at least on some level, forgiveness and grace.

Gary D. Schmidt is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a National Book Award Young People’s Literature Finalist in 2011 for Okay for Now. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars. He lives with his family on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by.

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YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Deborah Heiligman for Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
  • David Small for Stitches
  • Laini Taylor for Lips Touch: Three Times
  • Rita Williams-Garcia for Jumped

YPL Winner That Year: Phillip Hoose for Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Judges That Year:  Kathi Appelt, Coe Booth, Carolyn Coman, Nancy Werlin, Gene Luen Yang

The Year in Literature:  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman won the Newbery Medal.  Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta won the Printz Award.

More Information: Childhood illnesses kept David Small bedridden and isolated as a young boy, and he taught himself to draw as a way to pass the time.

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