Study Guide

Stitches: A Memoir

By David Small

Stitches: A Memoir Introduction

Warning: You might need some intensive time with small, fluffy animals after you finish reading Stitches.

Why's that? While you might think that an author and illustrator who's won the Caldecott Medal, Christopher Medal, Alex Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, been nominated for the National Book Award, and had a #1 New York Times best seller is living a charmed life. But sometimes triumph follows trauma. And it doesn't get much more traumatic than David Small's childhood.

Stitches is Small's memoir about growing up in a nightmare and escaping it with, well, slightly less horrible nightmares. Growing up in 1950s Detroit, he had severe sinus problems, which his radiologist dad tried to cure with X-rays. That's right: The same technology that requires you to wear a heavy lead apron at the dentist was once thought of as a cure.

Because Small's dad, like other radiologists of the time, thought X-rays were harmless, painless, invisible wonder treatments, he freely irradiated his son. When David began to develop a lump on his neck at the age of eleven, his parents ignored it for three years—because, hey, what's a little tumor? Ain't no thang.

By the time David's neck began to bulge and they finally operated, the growth was cancerous, and the surgery necessitated removal of one of his vocal cords. Surprise: You can't talk without 'em. So when David woke up with no voice, he was baffled. After all, nobody ever told him he had cancer.

Small's horrific childhood was the second piece of graphic literature to be nominated for the National Book Award (the first was Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese), and it's easy to see why—Stitches is a devastating, beautifully rendered work of art that will haunt you long after you read it.

It will also convince you that you can overcome just about anything, especially if you have a passion to carry you through. Escapism can be dangerous, but it can also save your life when the world—or, heaven forbid, your family—is trying to kill you.

What is Stitches: A Memoir About and Why Should I Care?

Who among us hasn't had a secret, or known someone was keeping a secret from us? Who hasn't wanted to say something but been unable to find the words? That's the story of David Small's life. Except in his case, he literally can't say the words, because the secret his parents kept from him took away his voice.

Just like his parents, David has a secret inner life, but his is made of pictures. But while his parents' secrets are dark and oppressive, the young artist dreams that his drawings will be his ticket out of the Detroit house of horrors he grows up in. We're not giving anything away when we tell you he succeeds—we're talking about his National Book Award-nominated graphic memoir, after all. In other words, this book shows secrets from two angles: as stifling and oppressive, but also as well-tended dreams.

It's an unusual twist on secrets, and just might make you think differently about yours. Keeping your feelings about your crush to yourself is one thing, but what about the thing in the world you most long to do? Because whatever that is just might be your ticket to building the life you secretly yearn for.

Stitches: A Memoir Resources


The Curious Case of David Small's 'Stitches'
National Public Radio blogger Glen Weldon wrote this in-depth post on comics as literature—and noted that graphic memoirs and graphic novels are two different things—after Stitches was nominated for the National Book Award.

David Small's Author Site
Check out his sketchbook for color drawings. Unsurprisingly, his site is pretty creatively presented.

Articles and Interviews

Smith Magazine Interview
David Small's six-word memoir is "Drawing well is the best revenge." What's yours?

Powell's Books Interview
What are David Small's favorite panels in the book? Find out here.


Shoe Store Fluoroscope
Shoe stores used to have X-ray machines called fluoroscopes you could stick your foot into and find your shoe size. Who needs to try things on when you could just use MIRACLE RAYS?

Big Think Interview with David Small
Small, who can talk now (yay), discusses his National Book Award nomination.

Mama Had Her Little Cough
Small's publisher, W.W. Norton, created this animation of the beginning of Stitches. Who knew coughing could be so ominous?

Vocal Cords in Action
Want to see exactly how your vocal cords work? Check out this video from the University of Washington Speech and Hearing Clinic.


The Stitches in Stitches
Here's the panel in which David sees his stitches for the first time.

David Small's Very Fashionable Scarf
In the book, young-adult David begins wearing a neck scarf, which girls think is cool. Here's a picture of him wearing one today.