Book Review: Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

Image Description: book-cover of Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (hardback format). The top half of the cover is a group of adult characters, all of them looking towards the reader, all of them wearing glasses, and giving the reader a disapproving look. Then there’s the title “STITCHES”. Underneath the title is a sequence from the book where David attempts to change a pillow-case by punching and kicking the pillow.

Title: Stitches: A Memoir
Author: David Small
Social Media: Goodreads
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Format and Price: Hardback from my local library
Stars: 4 out of 5 stars

About The Author:
David Small is the recipient of the Caldecott Medal, a Christopher Medal, and the E. B. White Award for his picture books, which include Imogene’s Antlers, The Gardener, and So, You Want to Be President? He lives in Mendon, Michigan.

About The Book:
One day David Small awoke from a supposedly harmless operation to discover that he had been transformed into a virtual mute. A vocal cord removed, his throat slashed and stitched together like a bloody boot, the fourteen-year-old boy had not been told that he had cancer and was expected to die.

In Stitches, Small, the award-winning children’s illustrator and author, re-creates this terrifying event in a life story that might have been imagined by Kafka. As the images painfully tumble out, one by one, we gain a ringside seat at a gothic family drama where David—a highly anxious yet supremely talented child—all too often became the unwitting object of his parents’ buried frustration and rage.

Believing that they were trying to do their best, David’s parents did just the reverse. Edward Small, a Detroit physician, who vented his own anger by hitting a punching bag, was convinced that he could cure his young son’s respiratory problems with heavy doses of radiation, possibly causing David’s cancer. Elizabeth, David’s mother, tyrannically stingy and excessively scolding, ran the Small household under a cone of silence where emotions, especially her own, were hidden.

Depicting this coming-of-age story with dazzling, kaleidoscopic images that turn nightmare into fairy tale, Small tells us of his journey from sickly child to cancer patient, to the troubled teen whose risky decision to run away from home at sixteen—with nothing more than the dream of becoming an artist—will resonate as the ultimate survival statement.

Content Warning: Stitches: A Memoir focuses a lot on the emotional and psychological abuse that David Small experienced from his parents and grandparents (specifically his maternal grandmother). This book could be potentially triggering to readers with similar experiences.

General Observation:
~Reading Recommendations: The only reason I know about this book is due to one of my writing teachers from my Professional Writing and Editing course, Sherryl Clark, recommending it. David Small is primarily known for writing children’s books, which explains why Sherryl knew of him, but this is the only book by David Small I’ve ever read.

~Intense Subject Matter: This graphic novel details the inter-generational cycle of emotional abuse. These toxic behaviours are passed on from parent to child. From David’s grandmother to his mother, from his mother to him. The real tragedy is that this type is far more common than people realise (or care to admit). It’s truly scary how much damage classism and apathy can do to another person.

David Small has written an unchangeable segment of his life, I can only begin to guess how many drafts this novel was subjected to, I’m going to assume a lot. Once this type of experience has a physical form; a creator can’t take it back or pretend it didn’t happen. It takes a lot of courage to be that vulnerable. It takes a lot of courage to have one’s suffering out on display like that (potentially for years). There’s such a raw intensity to this book, it just pulled me in, and I couldn’t let it go. It was horrifying, fascinating, and potentially triggering.

~Artistic Style: There’s definitely a unique art style to David Small’s work. I’ve never read any of his children’s books, but if I see his drawings, I recognise them immediately. David Small has a unique talent of being able to capture the mundane elements of life and then ever so slightly giving them a surreal twist. There’s a lot of uncanny valley happening with the humanoid characters in the novel, however, I guess that was kind of the point. Our memories become distorted over time.

All in all, an intense read that focuses on super important topics like the impact of empathy (and the lack of it), how the denial of the thing only makes it stronger, that sometimes it does get better (and sometimes it doesn’t).

Available for Purchase: Amazon | Book Depository

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