29 November 2009

All sewn up

It may not have won a National Book Award, but I still recommend you read David Small's memoir STITCHES, a book I was surprised to find on the new-release shelf at my local branch library on my last trip. It's unfair to level this criterion against all books, but it's hard to find something this powerful that can also be wrapped up in a day's commute or less.

Small depicts himself growing up in the Detroit area in a household bare of affection and almost all communication except the rhythmic slamming of doors. His idea of "fun" is sneaking up to the wards he's not allowed to go into in the hospital where his dad works. Frequently ill as a child, he goes into the hospital as a teenager for what he is told is a benign growth removal; two surgeries later, he has lost most of his vocal chords, forced to contribute to the house's sullen silence and to discover, in a letter he wasn't meant to see, what was really wrong with him.

Where Alison Bechdel loads her illustrations with text including layers of literary references, Small's style is closer to last year's Caldecott winner THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, which sought to recreate the magic of early film (and the lives of its creators) in illustrations. (That said, there are two very clever allusions here to appreciate, one connected with the harrowing page 211, my favorite panels I never want to look at again.) Small's illustrations toy with scale and the process of imagination to capture that childhood feeling when things are happening around you that you aren't quite old enough to process yourself. FUN HOME gave me the feeling that I could find Bechdel's childhood house using her pictures, but even if Small's buildings were more detailed I wouldn't want to go looking for them; his world is a little Edward Hopper, but more Edvard Munch.

As for the question of whether or not it should have been categorized as YA -- it could have gone either way, but the publisher was probably right to put it where it would face less competition, even if it didn't pay off. (From the previous paragraph, FUN HOME would definitely be adult, HUGO CABRET YA or even middle-grade children's.) Normally books are bumped up to adult because either the language or the content are too sophisticated; there isn't really a case for the former, and for the latter, I don't think it's out of reach for teenagers. What happens to Small is definitely not a "teen issue" in the after-school special sense, but that doesn't mean it should be kept from that age group either. I can't remember where I saw this, but Small said in an interview that he wanted to wait until his parents were dead to publish this book; he drew this short but striking graphic essay for Publishers Weekly about the process.

Panel from STITCHES: Galleycat


Wade Garrett said...

Looks really good, and totally different from Bill Simmons' new book, which is not moving and which cannot be read in a single commute. Walter Kirn's memoir Lost in the Meritocracy is pretty great, and can be read in a single plane flight, not a commute, unless you live in New Haven and take the metro north.

Ellen said...

I will have to look for that Kirn book. (Not because it's short.) (Okay, not only.)