The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 28, 2011

Jacque Gage: Story overcomes distaste of coming-of-age tales

By Jacque Gage
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — “Stitches,” by David Small, is not a new book; but it is new to me.

Not only was this book new to me, I had not read this genre before. “Stitches” is a graphic novel published in 2009.

According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a graphic novel is “a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book.” There is debate over how this may or may not differ from comic books, what exactly is a graphic novel, when graphic novels began and myriad other points, but I won’t go into that now.

At any rate, I had not yet read a graphic novel, but a professional journal I read recommended this book. “Stitches” is a 329-page book with its story told through the medium of black and white illustrations. Author Davis Small is an award-winning children’s book illustrator who won the Caldecott Award in 2001 for illustrating Judith St. George’s book “So You Want to be President?”

“Stitches” is autobiographical and spins Small’s coming-of-age story. I generally have a aversion for coming-of-age tales, but I made an exception for this book. Because of my  distaste, it took me almost a full checkout period plus renewal, before I ever got around to picking it up to read.

One phrase on the book jacket sums up exactly what this book is: “A silent movie masquerading as a book.” It was surprising to me how deeply this book was able to make me feel.

Words are minimally used, yet the pictures take us into the author’s imagination and into the stark reality of his life. Every person in Small’s family hid. His mother hid behind “a cone of silence” and anger; his father hid behind his work and his punching bag in the basement; his brother hid by banging on drums; David hid in his art and in sickness.  

A sickly baby and child, David received heavy doses of radiation for respiratory problems when he was young. Later, when he was 14, he entered the hospital for a supposedly minor surgery.

He awoke from that surgery functionally mute, with a bloody scar reaching across his neck -- “slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.”

The cone of silence that reigned in his house also kept his diagnosis of cancer and his parents’ expectation he was going to die away from him. He discovered that information on his own. Even after his discovery, his parents refused to talk to him about his experience. For Small, as always, art was his solace.

At 16, he left home to live on his own. There is a rest-of-the-story, but I will not divulge.

The pictures are the story. There is so much detail, it takes going back and looking at pieces and parts of the drawings again and again. Each time I revisit the book and the drawings, I gain insight and nuances into his story and see more symbolism in his pictures.

“Stitches” is a quick read -- at least until you go back to search out what you missed the first time through. It is worth the time it takes.

Now that I’ve had my first foray into graphic novels, I think my next read in this genre will be “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. “Maus” is a biography of the author’s father, who was a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.

It is the only graphic novel ever to have won a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps there is more to graphic novels than I’d given them credit.  

Jacque Gage is director of the Joplin Public Library.