Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Stitches was written and illustrated by David Small.  It was published in 2009 by W.W. Norton and Company.

What a powerful book.  When I picked up the book, Stitches, and realized it was a graphic novel, my initial thought was, "This book can't be all that engaging, it's a graphic novel."  My experience with graphic novels is pretty much limited to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  I didn't think anything too serious or thought provoking was going to come from a book of many pictures and few words.    Oh, how I was wrong.

I read the front and back end covers to get a little background about David Small.  There, it explains that he came from a family that didn't express emotion and kept the fact that he had cancer a secret from him.  Although it was surprising to read that, I don't think it was necessary to have that preview on the inside front and back covers.  I say that because the graphic novel was so well written that you can immediately feel the disance his parents put between themselves and the children. "Mama had her little cough. Once or twice, some quiet sobbing, out of sight.  Or the slamming of doors. WHAP! That was her language. Dad, home from work, went down to the basement and thumped a punching bag.  That was his language." We didn't need a prelude to know that these parents were neglectful and mean to David and his brother, Ted.  The illustrations of David's parents show them with harsh lines and scoweled faces the majority of the time. Whenever they interacted with him, it was to scold him about the amount of money he was wasting on one thing or the other. At the beginning of the book, when David was six, he still held on to some hope.  He loved his parents and wanted them to be there for him.  He sat during his x-rays, had a vivid imagination with his brother when they went to pick his father up from the hospital, enjoyed playing as a typical little boy, such as when he went sock skating down the hallways of the hospital, and still thought of his dad as a superhero.  "To me, dad and his colleauges seemed like the heroic men featured in the ads in Life magazine.  Marching braely into the bright and shining future.  They were soldiers of science, and their weapon was the x-ray.  X-rays could see through clothes, sking, even metal.  They were miracuous wonder rays that would cure anything."  It's a shame they didn't realize what it was doing to David. 

David held on to his childhood the best he could, but when he turned eleven, everything changed. A family friend, Mrs. Diller, saw a growth under David's skin on his neck. It took over three years for his parents to take David into surgery to determine what the growth was, as "they didn't have the money for it."  Although, the selfish parents they were, they had the money for boat trips, new furniture, new clothes, and whatever else David's mother wanted at the time . When his neck was checked, the doctors realized it was cancer.  The surgery to cut the tumor out left David without his thyroid and  vocal cords.  He was fourteen years old and could no longer speak when he needed to. The worst part was, his parents didn't tell him it was cancer.  This was yet another example of how disconnected from reality and how selfish his parents were.  They seemed to only care about themselves and making themselves look good in front of the doctor's Mr. Small worked with, and did not attend to their chidrens' needs at all.

One aspect David made obvious through his story was the mental illness that ran through his mother's side of the family. At age eleven, David and his mother went to Indiana to visit his grandmother.  His grandmother was very harsh, and you can see where his mother learned to push down her emotions, but his grandmother was also abusive.  She burned David's hands in scalding water in retaliation of David saying "mother says saying ain't makes you stupid."  Her grandmother aslo attempted to kill her husband by lockig him in the basement and setting fire to the house. At the end of the book, David had an eerie dream, which supports the mental illness conclusion.  He sees a building across from his home and realizes it is the insane asylum his grandmother was sent to.  In it, his mother (after she had died) sweeping the path into the asylum, clearing the way for David.  His last statement -- "I didn't."

The illustrations match the tone of the story perfectly.  David's childhood story is sad and tragic, with parents who don't care about him, lies about his heath and abuse from his grandmother, and the illustrations are dark and forboding.  Typical to graphic novels, the pictures show the sequence of events. The first series of pictures drew me in.  The first one being a shot of what looks like a coal plant in Detroit. After reading the front inside cover, my initial thought was the location of the home, close to the coal plant, is what may have caused David's cancer.  The illustrations then moved closer and closer to the house, then inside the house, and then into the room David was playing by himself.  It shows us from the beginning how lonely David was and how estranged he was from his own parents.

David Small grew up to be an incredibly successful author and illustrator.  He is a prime example of moving beyond your circumstances.  He would be a fantastic example to teach our students about, to show them that no matter what, they can become who they want to be.  To learn more about David Small and the books he has written and/or illustrated, you can read about him at DavidSmallBooks.

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