Aug. 19 2009 12:00 AM

Children’s author, illustrator tells own dark childhood tale


David Small is an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. But make no mistake, his latest book, “Stitches,” is not for children.

It would be an easy mistake to make. Small has illustrated and/ or authored more than 40 children’s books, including five with his wife, author Sarah Stewart.

“Stitches” is a brutally honest memoir, packaged in a booklength, graphic novel format. It is the Mendon, Mich., illustrator’s first foray into a more adult arena, and the book is absolutely stunning and haunting at the same time.

Using unparalleled, simple images to convey complex thoughts and emotions, Small pieces together the story of his strange but true childhood. Some of his images are disturbing; some can be confusing and some are laugh aloud funny, with their inordinate ability to communicate ideas from a child’s innocent perspective.

But Small’s childhood wasn’t idyllic, and his book shatters any pleasant thoughts readers may have about why he became an illustrator.

The graphic novel could be the perfect form for Small, who in drawing found a voice that had been snatched away from him in real life. On page one of his book, Small has sketched himself being pulled into a drawing pad. This should be a clue where the book is going. Some of his drawings can be confusing at first — even Kafkaesque.

For Small, this book is about survival in a world that had silenced him. To survive, he began drawing at age 2. “Words are a real struggle for me.”

Small, 64, grew up in Detroit, the son of a radiologist father and a brooding stay-at-home mother. An older brother was often his nemesis. Small’s home was defined by silence. There was little talk. His life teetered on madness. By 16, he was living on his own in Detroit’s Cass Corridor.

“My parent’s never spoke about anything, ” he said. Small has been at this anguished, redemptive memoir for some time, first starting it as a short story about 10 years ago, then trying it in novel form. About five years ago he became intensely involved in turning it into a graphic novel. “Drawing [‘Stitches’] opened all the doors,” he said. “My memory, it was pretty cloudy. I was lost in a dark forest.

“I wanted to go back as an adult and live my childhood,” he said.

It was a silent, sullen, childhood filled with anguish and confusion. Small, in addition to his self- imposed silence, found himself as a young teenager with one severed vocal chord following surgery for a cancerous growth.

Small made many attempts to write his memoir, but a cataclysmic, psychosomatic event propelled him into it. He had been working on sketches, and as he did, he said he could feel his mother and her malevolent, angry withdrawal within him.

One night, he and his wife were out to dinner when, he said, “I was so creeped out about my mother, I could feel my neck (where his growth had been) swelling up. I thought it was a hallucination.”

His wife looked across the dinner table and asked him what was happening. Small went into the restroom, looked in the mirror and found the swelling was real. “My body was expressing repressed emotion,” Small said. “I had to do the book.”

Small said he poured out memories in no chronological order. Ultimately, there were 12 versions of the book.

In conversation, Small makes it clear that he wasn’t tortured or thrown out of a window when he was a child. His torture was more psychological, coming from a depressed mother and a distant father.

One day, Small’s editor called and alerted him to an author who had fabricated her life story for a memoir. “My editor asked if there was anyone alive who could refute any of the elements in the book. I said I did have this brother, but we haven’t had a civil conversation in 40 years. I sent it off to him. Then I waited four days and called him.

“When he answered he said, ‘David, this book blows me away. It is a snapshot of my youth.’”

Small said his brother then asked if he could show it to his therapist.

“I learned what he went through was worse than I ever did,” Small said. “He still finds it hard to talk about.”

Reviews of Small’s book are apt to offer the clichéd accolade of its being, “a book you will not be able to put down,” or some similar sentiment. But they will be wrong. This is a book you will have to put down, time and again. But, like with a cigarette habit, you will find your heart racing and reaching for it sooner than you expect.

‘Stitches’ By David Small 320 pages, W.W. Norton & Co.