A Review of David Small's Stitches: a memoir. . .
(W.W. Norton, 2009)
Cooper Renner

One scowling boy and four adults -- two likewise scowling, two simply intense -- frown out at the reader (and perhaps down at the smaller boy below the title) on the cover of Stitches, the memoir-as-graphic-novel of illustrator David Small. These five menacing characters in their whited-out eyeglasses capture the dread which hangs over much of Small's early life, alleviated (or do I mean heightened?) by the speech balloon over the head of the central woman which proudly bears Small's name in larger red letters, undercut by the tiny white letters above and below it reading "by my durn grandson DURNIT...!!"
This grandmother -- tragic, stern and, finally, dangerous -- is a frightening character in Small's childhood and a pivotal figure in the horrifying nightmare which closes the book (and which he dates as only a few years old.) Otherwise the forbidding presence of his deeply unhappy mother and the essential (but not actual) absence of his father frame his childhood, as depicted here, creating the conditions which finally lead him to leave home while still a high school student. Before this, however, comes the defining event of his youth, the cancerous tumor on his throat, the removal of which renders him mute (and, as a consequence, psychologically invisible) for a while, and two related revelations: first, his deduction from her behavior that his mother expected him to die, and second, his father's conviction (and later confession) that the X-ray treatments he gave David to combat his childhood sinus infections caused the cancer. The essential turning point, which enables David to overcome not only his brush with death but also his terribly dysfunctional family, is the counseling he receives from the doctor he renders here as a human being with a rabbit's head.
His illustrations here feature strong, simple lines and grey or black washes, almost like storyboards. The effect is sketchier than that employed by many of the genre's noted artists and adds momentum to the storytelling rather than slowing the reader down with details that would have been, for this tale, distracting. Automobile styles and social indicators -- doctors who smoke -- strongly reflect the time period (Small was born in 1945), and the realism of the daily life flows easily into the dream and nightmare sequences which so effectively render the boy's terrors.
Parents who are familiar with Small's Caldecott Award-winning work for children might seem to be the obvious audience for this work, but in fact many of them might find this memoir so grim and honest as to make them return to Small's work for juveniles with suspicion. Instead those most likely to enjoy Small's unflinching and sometimes heart-rending account are those drawn to the format, fans of the graphic novel and the work of artists like Jules Feiffer and R(obert) Crumb, quoted on the back of the jacket.