Sunday, April 20, 2014


            I thought the penultimate book review for my children’s literature class would be easy.  (Please excuse my pretentious use of the world “penultimate.”  But I mean, when do you ever get to use it?  It’s just such an awesome word.)  Anyway, on blog 46 of 47, I convinced myself that it was nothing but smooth sailing.  The only two books I have left to review are a picture book about poetry and a memoir that is in graphic novel form.  I mean, I read Babymouse, so how hard can a graphic novel really be to read and blog about?  It’s not like they are serious or anything.  I was so wrong.  I would put my latest book review in the same category of The Book Thief due to its complex nature.

Stitches: A Memoir (Published 2009) by David Small is not a difficult book to read at the surface level—it is, however, a book that handles sensitive topics and a book that will leave the reader thinking about it for a long time.  Set mostly in the 1950s, David Small starts the reader with his life as a six year old.  His mother speaks only the language of silence and slamming cabinets.  His brother speaks the language of playing the drums.  His father speaks the language of a punching bag.  And David?  David speaks the language of sickness.  It is not the happy family dynamics that the 1950s wanted the world to believe was occurring—David’s family is a silent one filled with much resentment.  Not once in any of the pages of this book, does either parent tell David that they love him.

          David’s father is a doctor, and he works to make his son better by giving him X-Rays to help out with his sinus problems.  Like a lot of people at the time, David’s father thought the X-Rays would cure many illnesses.  David says, “They were soldiers of science, and their weapon was the X-Ray.  X-Rays could see through clothes, skin, even metal.  They were miraculous wonder rays that would cure anything”(p.27).  This is but one indicator of how different it was to grow up sixty years ago.  David’s mother takes him to visit his grandmother, and when he does something she disapproves of, his grandmother shoves his hands into burning hot water.  When he tells his mother that his grandmother is crazy, she tells him to never speak those words again.  He’s not a boy who gets much sympathy.

            The reader is then taken to when David is eleven.  When his mother is hosting a party, the wife of a surgeon notices a growth on David’s neck.  After taking David to a doctor, they learn that the growth on his neck is probably just a cebaceous cyst that needs to be surgically removed.  Instead of immediately getting the cyst removed, his parents wait three and a half years.  David Small takes us to when he is fourteen and is finally getting the cyst removed.  Instead of getting one cyst removed, the cyst is removed, as well as one of his vocal cords.  David is left with a stitched-up neck and is unable to talk like he used to before the surgery.  No one tells David why, but he eventually finds a letter that his mom wrote to his grandmother—David had cancer.  The child had cancer, and not a single person in the world— not the doctor, his father, his mother—took the time to tell him. 

            Next, David at fifteen.  David finds his mother in bed with another woman, the same woman who found the growth on David’s neck when he was eleven.  Then, David’s grandmother tries to kill her husband (the only family member who actually shows David any affection in this book, and he is actually his step-grandfather) by locking him in the basement and then setting the house on fire.  A neighbor sees his grandmother dancing around the front yard and calls the police.  His grandmother is taken to the insane asylum.  Later that year, his father wants to take him out to dinner.  After a meal full of their typical silence, his father takes him to the river and explains to him about the radiation treatments that he was given as a child, and tells him, “I gave you cancer.”  No apology or hugging session occurs.  David leaves home at sixteen, and he ends with his mother dying and a dream.  Since I’ve given you so much of the plot, I won’t spoil the end by explaining the dream.

This book is a dark book, both metaphorically and literally.  The graphics in the story are all shades of white, black, and gray.  David’s story is so incredibly sad, mainly because of the lack of love from his family.  One of the central issues in the book is David’s mother.  Throughout the entire story, David’s mother looks angry, except when she is at the party where other people are around.  When David catches her with another woman, he says, “After that awkward moment, while my own emotions ricocheted between extremes of betrayal and foolishness, anger and confusion, what stayed with me for the longest time was the look mother gave me, itself full of complex feelings, few of which, I’d guess, had much to do with me”(p.273).  It seems as though his mother was harboring this secret her whole life, one that was definitely not accepted in the 1950s.  Holding on to that secret made her bitter and angry.  When he catches her, there is no trying to explain or help him understand.  Instead it is more silence, more anger.  When David finally goes to a therapist, which of course his mother thinks is a waste of time, the therapist tells him that people have lied to him his whole life, and that he is going to tell him the truth.  That truth, as he tells David, is that, “Your mother doesn’t love you”(p.255).  A young boy has to confront the fact that his own mother doesn’t love him, and it is something that the reader and probably even David knew his entire life.

            The death of David’s mother does not offer much comfort.  David gets the call, when he is 30 years old, that his mother is dying.  He screams on his way up to see her.  He says, “I wasn’t screaming in anger or rage or at the thought of an impending loss.  I had learned that screaming thickens up the vocal cords.  Already this had given me back something of a voice.  So, I took every opportunity to be alone, to scream, or sing or tell myself stories as loudly as I could”(p.303).  His mother is dying, and he screams, but it is not out of any love for her.  When he finally does arrive, she has a tube down her throat and cannot speak, and he has made himself hoarse by screaming so much.  Their last interaction was like most of the interactions they had while David was growing up—soundless.

            The illustrations that are in this book add to the dark nature of the story.  The faces of the adults in David’s life are just down-right scary.  His mother and grandmother don’t own a happy face. 
          The doctors who go to take out the cyst (and as he finds out, the cancer) loom over him in their masks, sending him swirling into a dark hole reminiscent of Alice going into Wonderland.  David gives the readers a lot of close ups of faces and body parts, drawing the reader in and making them more a part of the story. 
          When David finally looks at his scar, David Small gives us a close-up of first his neck, and then to just the stitches going along his neck. 
          In a way, the illustrations in this book are graphic—with the close ups of the stitches, a fetus in a jar that repeats several times, not to mention the genitalia that his brother shows him in a book—but it makes it real.  When the reader is done reading the book, we finally get the notion of just how rough this man’s childhood was to overcome. 
         I’m sure that this dark nature can be achieved through words, but David Small’s ability to do this with both words and pictures is superior.  When David is afraid to go to sleep after his surgery, he begins to sleep underneath the kitchen table with the light on.  His parents find him.  His father says, “Isn’t that just g**d**n wonderful.” And his mother screams “Do you know what our utility bill is going to look like?  Do you even care?”(p225).  The words alone are powerful, but when the words are put with the illustration of his mother towering over him and his father simply walking away, the point really hits home for the reader.

Definitely David Small's style!
            With a tale this dark, one would think that the author/illustrator grew up to write novels full of dark, gritty, truths.  I did not read the synopsis of this book before I started my review.  About a third of the way through, I began to realize that these illustrations seemed familiar to me.  Namely, the wide outlines of things.  I finally read the book jacket and realized that this is not the author of gritty, adult realistic fiction.  This is David Small, the Caldecott Medal Winner of So, You Want to Be President?  He also wrote a beloved children’s book called Imogene’s Antlers.  This story is so far removed from those books that I don’t think I would have ever made the connection on my own.  Once you know that this is the same man, you begin to see the same wide lines like I spoke of before, in his work.  I really love the David Small wrote this book.  It is a great reminder that we can come from the most horrific circumstances and still become a wonderful person.

        Stitches: A Memoir is not meant for the children for whom his other books are written.  This is a book for teenagers all the way up to the elderly.  As I mentioned before, it was not an easy read or easy to write about.  Rarely do I read or recommend memoirs.  In this case, I am glad I was told to read it, because now I can recommend it to everyone I know.  If you are an elementary school teacher who is a fan of his other work, I strongly recommend you read this story and gain a deeper understanding of the man behind the pictures.
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