March 16 2016 12:54 AM

Author/illustrator David Small talks graphic novels, writing process

Author/Illustrator David Small, a Caldecott Medal winner, appears at two events hosted by Capital Area District Libraries this weekend.
Courtesy Photo

Author and illustrator David Small, 71, has written or illustrated more than 45 children’s books, but who’s counting? Not Small, at least.

“More than 50, but I’ve lost the exact count,” he said, speaking from his home on the St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan. Small lives and works in the house with his wife, Sarah Stewart, who is also a children’s book author.

Small’s pastoral home is a long way from his Detroit roots, which he wrote about in his disturbing 2009 graphic memoir, “Stitches,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of a Michigan Notable Book award. “Stitches” tells the story of a young boy facing psychological terror from his parents who loses his voice and turns to drawing to create a new world for himself.

Before setting out on his career as an author and illustrator, Small taught printing at a university. When that didn’t work out, he decided to try his hand as a children’s book artist. In 2000, Small won a Caldecott Medal, the highest recognition for a children’s book artist, for “So You Want to be President.”

Small recently illustrated “Bloom,” a children’s book about an ordinary girl saving a kingdom with the help of a mud fairy. He is working on a second graphic novel, “Home After Dark,” which is a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old boy who is moved across the country after his parent’s divorce.

“As an outsider trying to fit in with his peers, he orchestrates an act of terrible violence against another outsider boy and afterward searches for redemption,” Small said.

Small describes the process of creating a graphic novel as “a massive undertaking.” His sketches for “Home After Dark” take up nearly 400 pages.

“That’s something like 2,000 drawings,” he said. “The absurd thing is, these books can easily be read in one sitting.”

While the books can be consumed quickly, Small hopes that his hard work comes across in the books’ impact.

“You sit at your desk and you draw, one panel at a time, and you hope the cumulative effect — even if it happens over only 20 minutes — will be powerful and lasting and true,” he said.

Small is also a perfectionist. When he saw his first book in a bookstore, he immediately thought, “I wanted to do it all over again, repair all the mistakes.”

Aside from graphic novels, Small said that the books he’s illustrated for his wife are his most difficult.

“We come at stories from two very different points of view,” he said. “That said, they are some of the best books I’ve made — for exactly the same reason.”

The couple’s 1997 book “The Gardener” was named a Caldecott Honor Book in 1998.

Small, who prefers to work in “black and white with shades of gray,” said his style has changed over the years.

“When I began in picture books, I had a style that was quite realistic,” he said. “Not photorealistic, which is essentially lifeless, but in a style where everything was drawn and painted very meticulously. I gradually shed that for a style that was more like handwriting. I did this for expediency, as everything in the publishing world accelerated. I was also sick and tired of carefully outlining everything and painting up to the lines,” he said.

Thematically, Small deals with a variety of “outsider” issues in his books.

“I write and draw what I know about,” he said. “The outsider stance was very painful for me as a young person, but now that I am older I see it as an advantage. When you stand on the periphery, you have a view of the whole world which you can’t get if you’re jumping around in the center.”

Even while illustrating, Small tries to use metaphors in his work.

“I think visually, so it comes naturally to me,” he said. “Nearly everything you see can be representative of something else. A gnarled tree can speak of many things: strength, endurance, old age, even evil. It all depends on how you show it and how you light it.”

When he’s not drawing, Small relaxes by watching movies at home.

“I think they are our greatest art form,” he said. “I study them. I re-watch them. I read widely — mostly fiction — but I keep returning to the authors I love most, who are almost all dead.”

Meet author/ illustrator David Small

6:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, March 18 Ages 13 and up FREE, but registration is required; call to register CADL Downtown Lansing Branch 401 S. Capitol, Ave., Lansing (517) 367-6363 ext. 3,

Meet the Author & Illustrator: Sarah Stewart & David Small (Age 6 & up)

2-3 p.m. Saturday, March 19 Ages 6 and up FREE, but registration is required; call to register CADL South Lansing Branch 3500 S. Cedar St., Lansing (517) 272-9840,

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