Stitches By David Small
In the mid-1950s, when David Small was 11 years old, someone noticed a lump on his neck. After undergoing surgery three years later, he was left with a serious scar—”my smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot,” he describes in his stunning, anguished illustrated memoir, Stitches—and even more brutally, without a voice: one of his vocal cords was removed. He soon discovered the lump had actually been cancer, something his distant, seething parents never intended to tell him.
From an early age, drawing was Small’s escape. He depicts himself sprawled on the floor, sketching intently and then leaping through the page into a joyful underworld far removed from the tensions that raged in the house above. As he revisits the ordeals of his childhood, his dark, moody illustrations are racked with unease and filled with chilling dreams and fantasies. When his 14-year-old self first pulls back the bandages to look at his wound, Small renders his stitches with near photographic precision, a sobering divergence from a style that tends to be looser and more impressionistic. He sees a fetus in a hospital specimen jar and imagines it clambering out and chasing him. Conjuring the sensation that he’s “shrinking down and living inside my own mouth,” he portrays himself sitting in the groove of a giant tongue, surrounded by teeth, holding his head in his hands.
When Small is 15, his doctor father confesses that the powerful X-rays he gave him as a child (in an attempt to cure his sinus problems) were what caused his cancer. When this truth comes out, it’s just one more betrayal on top of so many others, but there’s some relief in it being spoken out loud. Stitches is a book about silences: the things that go unsaid, the yawning spaces between people, and of course, the devastating literalness of Small’s own missing voice. The author long ago regained his ability to speak, and is known today as an award-winning writer and illustrator of children’s books. The nightmare of his own early years only makes his clever, inventive stories for kids more poignant.