A stitch in time can save nine, but Caldecott-winning children’s book author David Small’s unloving parents spared him not a one, as Stitches, his graphic memoir of his harrowing childhood, makes clear. Small was a sickly child, and his radiologist father subjected him to repeated X-rays, believing it would cure his sinus problems. When a lump materialized on his neck, his mother complained about the expense and put off surgery for three years. Small emerged from multiple operations at 14 unable to speak, and only learned later that he’d had cancer. Like Alison Bechdel’s genre-bending Fun Home, Stitches melds ink-washed drawings and incisive captions to tell Small’s devastating story about growing up in a silent, angry household with miserable parents. With its menacing, child’s-eye view of Detroit smokestacks, hospital corridors, and scowling, bespectacled adult faces looming up close, Stitches reads like a silent horror movie. Communication in the Small household was nonverbal: “Mama had her little cough,” he opens, which augured her unexplained rages. His father “thumped a punching bag. That was his language.” His older brother, who grew up to become a percussionist with the Colorado Symphony, beat his drum. And little David, “born anxious and angry,” got sick. David is saved by a wonderful psychiatrist, depicted as Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, who helps defang his nightmares — including his parents — and makes him realize that drawings are his language. Small writes, “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.” Stitches leaves the reader speechless — stunned at its power and perfect pitch.
About the Author
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.