During the initial stop of his tour to promote his first, just-published graphic novel, Stitches, David Small emphasized less is more.
A Caldecott Medal and E.B. White Award winner for his children’s books, Small discussed with the more than 700 folk who packed the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public Library downtown auditorium yesterday evening his decision during the drawing of his childhood memoir to cut back drastically on the explanatory narrative boxes and dialog he’d initially planned to include.
“I decided to eliminate as much language as possible, and trust the reader,” he said during the show-and-tell portion of his presentation.
In one example of some early panels Small displayed for the audience, the narrator recalls when his grandmother allows the water in the bathroom sink to run until it is extremely hot — she then sticks six-year-old David’s hands under the scalding water. In the published version, those narrative boxes are gone. Now the grandmother only says, “First we’re gonna warsh your hands.” The solitary sound in the following panels is the ominous hiss of the water, and we see the steam and the old woman’s angry expression reflected in the mirror … then she grabs the small boy’s wrists, and we see the fear on his face as he realizes what’s about to happen. Then he screams in pain.
What Small was searching for was the “silence between words,” citing works by favorite playwrights Pinter and Beckett, the movies of Hitchcock, Bunuel, Polanski and Antonioni, and the minimalist music of Morton Feldman. (You can hear some of Feldman’s work here.) Small wanted to work without adjectives, the artist said.
In other words, as with any good novel, don’t tell — show.
And for a man who contended the omnipresent irony in our current culture “is soul-sucking,” he had to admit the coincidence of his sparse approach in Stitches and the overwhelming silence among the forlorn characters in this book. The people of his childhood did not share their feelings, only their pain.
A word about those characters, drawn in swathes of somber gray shadows: This is not a cheery book, and Small clearly suffered an unhappy childhood, with parents who didn’t love him, ongoing depression, nightmares, and operations for a cancer his parents refused to explain or even admit to him. (As another attendee remarked to me at the Kalamazoo presentation, noting the packed house, “A lot of people for a downer of a book.”)
But there is a happy ending, of sorts, as Small himself admitted. As an adult, he enjoys a successful professional life and a happy marriage, and if he hadn’t had those experiences, he might not have turned out as he has. Writing and drawing Stitches was cathartic. He has found his way back up and out of the rabbit hole.
Small lives in Mendon, about 20 miles south of Kalamazoo, which is why the Kalamazoo Public Library was his first stop. His Stitches tour is scheduled to include New York, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston and Ann Arbor.