David Small’s “Stitches” and its Impact on the Perceived Emotional Intelligence of Modern Youth

David Small’s “Stitches” is a groundbreaking graphic novel that directly confronts the effects of childhood trauma. His novel accurately depicts the events of his childhood and how they alter his adult life. Small paints a picture of his home that is silently torn apart by his parents, his own life being disregarded by the people who are supposed to love him most, and most importantly, himself as a young boy as he becomes acutely aware of it all. 

Small uses static, rigid panels to communicate a feeling of stiffness and rigidity. This combined with his moment-moment panel transitions helps to paint an image of a quietly threatening environment. Small’s parents’ desire to maintain normalcy and an unwavering family dynamic can be represented by the seemingly straight but wobby panels that encase each illustration. This subtle technique helps create instability with the reader. Additionally, Small almost entirely assembles his story via moment-moment transitions, a technique which makes his world seem (no pun intended, I promise) small. The childlike perspective helps drive this fact, as David would only perceive what was directly in front of him. Due to these moment to moment transitions we feel as though we are David, turning his head from one side of the room to another to watch the older people talk. When it is not moment to moment, Small separates the viewer from the narrative and into his imagination, or into an external scene to encapsulate an aspect from the previous scene in an abstract idea. However while inside the panels, we often look at Small over the shoulder of another character, emphasising his insignificance as a decision maker in the narrative. As the story descends and we experience moments of height or tension, Small ditches the frame in favor of a full bleed to let the scene consume the reader. However these “consuming” scenes are often pulled far back to help the quiet feeling that persists throughout the story. 

Small excellently distills his characters down by only using defining dialogue and cutting out any fat. Our first experience of Small’s Father is all that he did to David when he was younger to help cure his sickness, all that he does to appease David’s mother, but has no defining dialogue attached to him. That is of course, until nearly the end of the book, where he breaks his complacent silence and tells David about his cancer. It truly is as if David’s father doesn’t realize the consequence of any of his actions until he is faced with losing his son. And even then, in the presentation of the information, it seems as though it is only to relieve himself of guilt. On the other hand David’s Mother  is introduced through dialogue immediately. By doing this, Small immediately establishes her as the dominant figure in the household. We meet her, in her untiring anger, “Hnf-ing” around the kitchen and making noise to express her displeasure. It is important to note that this develops an important characteristic of his mother from the get-go; she is never direct in her speaking. She will always express her emotions and thoughts in an ambiguous manner. Lastly, we meet David as an emotionally intelligent, ultra perceptive young boy. He picks up on nuances and minute details, even if he does not understand the long term significance of them all. His quiet and private narrative implies he understands more than his parents think. When David does speak at the beginning of the book, it is weak in tone and in conviction. He starts to speak out more as he ages, getting his most brave right before his surgery. Brave for David, that is, as he is still relatively quiet and seemingly complacent. Once gaining his voice back we see David speak more often and with more conviction. It’s as if after being literally silenced (following years of figurative duct-tape having been placed over his mouth by his parents) David feels a new drive to control and define his own life. He starts snapping back, speaking with attitude, yelling at his parents even. His switch in dialogue symbolizes his switch in perspective and awareness of the injustices that happened to him.

The most outstanding use of character development through imagery in Stitches is the author’s illustration—or rather lack thereof—of his parents’ eyes. Small starts the novel off painting his parents as monsters, unemotional people who lack compassion and responsibility for their actions. He withholds from drawing their most expressive part, their eyes, instead illustrating only their glasses. This technique persists until we see them in their weakest or most intense moments. For example, the first time we see the mother’s eyes is when she experiences the same fear that she inflicts upon David while dealing with her deranged mother. As the novel progresses, we start to see the parents eyes more and more as David (and therefore the reader) starts to understand their flaws and view them as more and more human. 

The reader learns a lot from visual cues in Stitches, so Small’s use of text is naturally minimal. He spaces out dialogue over panels to make his relationships seem stale and awkward. There’s an emphasis in spaces between dialogue, and only one person gets to speak per panel. This is broken, of course, when there is an argument or someone interrupts another. The majority of the text in the novel is self narrative—showing that Small is telling his story and his story only, and that he is most comfortable with himself as his own closest companion. 

Visually, this novel looks like a storm. Most often it is overcast with a slight drizzle (sometimes literally), in its sparse monochromatic black ink washes.. His color treatment is dark but remains looming, with merely the potential to be loud and booming. It’s the great restraint within his treatment that allows Small to pale-down and ground a story that could be ultra-dramatic. This ink wash technique is paired with a line style that is extremely expressive. It is loose and undefined in places and often extremely simple with a very skillfully placed touch of messiness. When asked by Smith Magazine about his technique, he states he likes to stick to the basics. “I drew with a brush and ink, a fine-point nib pen (the kind you dip, gets your hands dirty and splatters you with ink). Except for the lettering—which was done from a font of my own printing, and which lends a nice element of regularity to my loopy line work,” Small comments. He goes on to provide what is possibly the best review of his graphic novel in the phrase “As you see, all very real, tangible, hands-on stuff.” If anything, “real” and “tangible” are in fact the two words that could sum up Stitches. This line style not only lends itself to a child narrator, but also to an unstable environment that is created completely from memory. Where his line style stays consistent, his font usage differs throughout the book depending on intensity, importance, speaker, and volume. For example, when Small’s internal narrative is the focus, the handwritten font is small, thin, and weak, exemplifying Small’s lack of influence and literally weak character within the narrative. When someone is yelling or there are loud noises the font switches to a heavy brush stroke that has a much more bold and abrasive presence. His speech bubbles are often regulated to thin lined semi-stable boxes and do not vary often, which allows a sense of security in the recalling of information. Had Small varied in his speech bubbles, it may have discredited the information, making it seem as a more feeble memory than a confident declaration and retelling. 

When we look at the presence of metaphor and symbolism in Stitches the usage is sparse and vague. By far the most overt metaphor is the somewhat out of place visual representation of his therapist as the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Small’s choice to swap these two characters represents the therapist’s ability to guide Small into his subconscious and enable him to re-interpret his real world surroundings. When asked on the seemingly bizarre choice, Small confidently replies;

 “The White Rabbit, in Alice, is the usher into a subconscious world, which Alice sees as nonsense. (She is like a patient rejecting the “curious” evidence of her dreams, which tell her that all is not right in her life.) So, the Rabbit seemed a perfect stand-in for the analyst, who ushers us into the world of the subconscious, where the truth is told at last.”

Additionally, there’s the disturbing fetus that chases David through the hospital halls. It is unclear whether this represents his experiences in hospitals as a young child taking a toll on his body that will haunt him for the rest of his life (the x-rays, the enimas, etc) or his mother’s perspective that David is a nuisance that has ruined her life, endlessly pestering and inconveniencing her since she became pregnant, or something completely different. Regardless of the transparency of the symbol or metaphor, we can assume that these alternate aspects of reality is David—both as a child and as an adult recounting the events while writing—processing his trauma by associating them with extremely unrealistic situations. In an interview with journalist Alex Dueben, Small states “There should be nothing superfluous in the images that take away from the main themes of the story…The reader is the dreamer of a book or, rather, is put in that position, and deserves clarity or, at least, the means to achieve it. And if a dream is going to be included, it should relate somehow to the waking story being told, it should expand that story in a fanciful way, not confuse it for the sake of weirdness.” Although there are certainly parts of the book that are “weird,” they serve no other purpose than to let us into the mind of young David. We may not understand exactly the significance of a drawing of a pit underneath his house with all of his cartoon friends living underneath it, but we do understand the feeling Small wants to communicate.   

Through all of these visual and literary devices, Small curates an ultra-realistic experience filled with universal truths. Although all aspects of the novel are not “real” persay, every reader is able to identify with the events and characters in stitches—even if our mother wasn’t exactly an eyeless monster and our life-saving therapist isn’t the exact replica of a much loved Disney character. More importantly Small’s development of his own young self as a character has created a unique phenomenon within readers and in the literary community. By articulating his memories and trauma, Small has fostered the image in the mind of the reader of an emotionally intelligent and socially aware young person. Often the reader perceives children in literature as flippant and naive, assuming actions will have no long-term effects on them due to their lack of permanence due to their youth. Too often we see the common trope of the abused child being a simple mention in a story. We assume that once a child is removed from trauma, the trauma stops existing.

Small changes this. By carrying his story all the way to adulthood, even to the grieve-less death of his mother, we understand the long term effects of life in his childhood home and how it continues to shape him deep into his adulthood. His writing shapes a new type of young character. One who sees the world through knowing eyes, and although they might not be able to correctly understand significance, they can still feel and process and repress the same as a grown adult.  Most importantly, David paints his own character as unremarkable. He is forgettable, even. By doing this, the reader can assume that although his experiences as a young man are completely unique, David is not. Through the book we begin to understand that David is the ultimate example of a teenager with a complicated home life, and that everyone can fit into his character’s “mold” to some degree. Part of every teen is able to be defined, albeit in small parts, by David Small’s character. 

In conclusion, Small has created a novel that perfectly describes childhood trauma. HIs choice to pair storm-like ink washes accompanied by loose linework creates an unstable and ominous quality to the story. His masterful use of text and limited dialogue to distill characters down to their simplest form allows the reader to perceive them as a child would. Additionally, his short paced moment to moment transitions make us feel hyper connected to the character, acting as a pseudo first person perspective. Lastly, due to his raw, almost visceral recounting of his memories we are able to recognize youth both in and out of literature as emotionally intelligent and aware characters.

Sources

“‘A Conversation with Illustrator David Small,” Julia Tindell.” World Literature Today, 27 Feb. 2015, www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/march/conversation-illustrator-david-small-julia-tindell.

Abbott, Alysia, and Alysia Abbott. “From Tales of Wonder to Tales of Horror: David Small Dissects Stitches.” Nieman Storyboard, 14 May 2010, niemanstoryboard.org/stories/from-tales-of-wonder-to-tales-of-horror-david-small-dissects-stitches/.

“David Small: Penguin Random House.” PenguinRandomhouse.com, www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/28746/david-small.

“Home After Dark by David Small.” Goodreads, Goodreads, 3 Sept. 2019, www.goodreads.com/book/show/43726550-home-after-dark.

“‘I Don’t Mind Scaring Myself’: An Interview with David Small.” “I Don’t Mind Scaring Myself”: An Interview with David Small |, www.tcj.com/i-dont-mind-scaring-myself-an-interview-with-david-small/.

“Interview: David Small, Author of Stitches: Memoirville.” Memoirville RSS, www.smithmag.net/memoirville/2009/10/06/interview-david-small-author-of-stitches/.

Small, David. “Big Think Interview With David Small.” Big Think, Big Think, 8 Feb. 2019, bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-david-small.

“Stitches (Book).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stitches_(book).

Weldon, Glen. “’Stitches’ Draws On An Artist’s Painful Childhood.” NPR, NPR, 15 Sept. 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112842179.

Comic Glossary

Comic:

A set or series of images, with or without text or written narrative, that outline a story. There is no set format to comics, all are differing and unique in their own form.

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

The (comic) book was better: What to read after you've seen ...

Cartoon:

“Amplification though simplification.”

An art form that exaggerates and simplifies a drawing down to its most valuable characteristics. Comics can be both-hyper specific (ie. a character simplified down to beady eyes, a large hook nose, birth mark over their mouth) and extremely general (ie. Calvin and Hobbs) to help the viewer connect in varying degrees to the characters.

Gutter:

“That space between the panels.”

The space between drawings that communicates a shift, and works alongside closure to allow the viewer an understanding of a change in the story. See Panel to Panel Transitions to see what changes can occur.

Scott McCloud - The Gutter | Comics, Mccloud, Storyboard

Closure:

“Closure is an agent of change/time/motion in the medium of comics and the viewer is a willing collaborator.”

“Mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience.”

Most comics will vary in how scenes change from one to another. Closure is what happens when the reader bridges the gap using information or observed facts from the story to, in their mind, complete what happens in between frames. Essentially, the viewer processing is acting the ampersand between cause & effect.

Ie. An action. In frame one, we see Fred winding up for a punch. In frame two, we see his victim dazed on the floor with stars around his head. Although we didn’t see Fred hitting the other man, we know it happened due to the common trope of dizziness.

McCloud's Concept of Closure

Panel-to-Panel Transitions

How aspects of the comic change in between panels. This can be a change in time, perspective, location, etc. See below for common panel transitions.

Moment-to-Moment: A heartbeat between panels, with very little time passing in the change.

Action-to-Action: Panels communicate large or small parts of actions in a scene.

  • Ie. Frame one: Fred winding up for a punch. Frame two: Fred’s fist flying through the air. Frame three: Fred’s fist making contact with somebody’s face.

Subject-to-Subject: The change is communicated by switching subjects but staying on the same scene or idea. Think action, reaction.

Scene-to-Scene: Change involves larger changes in time and location/space.

Aspect-to-Aspect: Focuses on describing a place, idea, or mood by switching subjects/settings/views. For example, we can describe New York in different panels showing buisiness men, small apartments, and homeless men in front of a brick wall. We’re still focusing on the same thing, New York as a whole, but visually describing different aspects of it.

Non-Sequitur: “No logical relationship between panels.”

Bleed:

“When a panel runs off a page.”

The frame of a panel is released and set free onto the page. It can travel off the page completely, or fill up parts of it. Especially great for dramatic impact.

This One Summer | Groundwood

Motion Lines:

“Zip-ribbons. Motion lines represent objects moving through space.”

Artistically licensed lines that communicate motion and change.

Excuse Me" - Silent Manga in Motion - YouTube

Synaesthetics:

“Art that might somehow unite the senses and in doing so, unite the different artforms which appealed to those different series.”

Artistically licensed stylization that describes an abstract feeling or emotion by visually manipulating one of the 5 senses.

Representing abstract ideas or feelings in a

Comics use “living lines” that can represent other senses or feelings without having to actually use that sense.

The Benefit of Writing Vs Typing While Note Taking

Many students debate over the benefit of taking notes digitally or traditionally. In favor of typing, it is extremely convenient and provides immediate results. However, working by hand often offers different benefits and utilizes different parts of the brain that offer higher memory retention and cognition. The written word at its core serves as a symbol for an object, and carefully handcrafting a picture of an object will prove more effective for memory retention than pressing buttons to create the same symbol. There is a dissonance when typing on a computer, as the student is only half engaged with the act of note taking and the absorption of information. Lastly, writing by hand requires a significant amount of editing, requiring the student to synthesise the information instead of hoarding it as one would with a laptop. This essay will be based on a 2012 paper from Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” in which they discuss the brain’s activity when engaging with both methods.

To look at it briefly, the science of handwriting compared to typing is simple. Writing can be simplified to drawing small pictures of your subject. Although we are not directly drawing the object we are trying to remember, the word serves as an interchangeable symbol. For example, the written word “dog” symbolizes the actual animal the same way a photograph or simple drawing would. They are all equal when concerning memory retention. When you think about it, of course hand crafting a visual representation of an object is going to ingrain the object in your memory more than pressing three buttons would. After conducting three studies testing students’ general understanding of content with half of the students taking notes by hand, Mueller and Oppenheimer state, “those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with their laptops.” This is certainly due to the aforementioned use of the written word as a symbol.

One might assume that because writing is a more strenuous activity that requires more mental processing, the same parts of the brain are being used for both forms of note taking. Simply put, writing requires more brain activity as opposed to a different type of activity. Handwriting and typing utilize the same three parts of the brain:  the left supramarginal gyrus, the left superior parietal lobule, and the left premotor cortex. This means that the brain is utilizing both processing and fine motor skills for each activity respectively, but writing by hand activates more sections of the temporal lobe.The temporal lobe and hippocampus are responsible for episodic memory, allowing you to store and manage information. This could be a factoid you learned in class or something as simple as the taste of a coffee you enjoyed with a friend last week. The important part is that it facilitates the retention of external information. Additionally, writing involving the complex movement of a pen in your hand requires more attention than typing. As Meuller and Oppeinheimer state in their essay, writing by hand is a more intricate and time consuming activity, thus requiring more editing down of information from ear to page. While writing notes one cannot reproduce a lecture word for word by hand. A laptop provides a much more immediate result and requires less editing, but also requires less analyzing of information. Students become familiar with the minimal movement and disengagement from typing due to high typing speed, autocorrect, and ability to immediately identify errors. As a result, typing note takers passively engage with both the lecture and note-taking, and in turn retain minimal information at the end because they are only half  invested in both activities. It’s a passive physical process typing on a computer, whereas writing by hand requires cognitive awareness and information editing. 

With handwriting, you’re synthesising information and evaluating what content is the most important, because you have less time to record. This way of thinking is purely analytical, taking only the information that is crucial. With laptop writing, the method of note taking is more verbatim, and the net of what is regurgitated into the notes is much more widespread. This can be summed up by a review of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s paper published by Scientific American Journal in 2014, stating;

“Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning.  Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.” 

We can think of writing by hand as more of a survival method, taking only the essentials for what we need and using them to our advantage. Typing is more of a hoarding method, grabbing everything close to you regardless of its use. 

From a personal angle, I prefer taking notes by hand when it is more historical or process based information. However, in classes that have heavy demonstrative lectures (like our tech lab classes, for example) I find that I have to take notes on a laptop to get each step down so I’m able to effectively work within a system like photoshop. 

In conclusion, writing by hand offers many different benefits to that of typing. Although typing satisfies an immediate result and writing is a slower form of note taking, writing serves as a symbol of a word that encourages deeper memory retention. The slower form of writing requires more analytical processing and extracts only the essential information while typing resembles more of a hoarding mindset, allowing less room for absorption and retention. 

A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop

Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1159–1168., doi:10.1177/0956797614524581.

David Small Research Essay

Resource material and interviews

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stitches_(book)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Small

http://www.davidsmallbooks.com

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/28746/david-small

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43726550-home-after-dark

http://www.davidsmallbooks.com/homeafterdark

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/march/conversation-illustrator-david-small-julia-tindell

http://www.smithmag.net/memoirville/2009/10/06/interview-david-small-author-of-stitches/

https://bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-david-small

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112842179

Points to Cover In Essay:

Small contributing to the increase in youth recognition as emotionally intelligent members of society.

The therapeutic value of looking at your past from a third person perspective

Depersonalization and dissociation

Personifying monsters; how telling someone else’s story helps us relate to bad people, and the value of sympathizing with antagonists

FOUND Campaign Process

Starting this project, I knew that my views on decolonization and indigenous relations would be vastly different than my target market’s. When talking to my mom about the issue she brought up the inconsistencies in medical care when treating aboriginal children and families, and eventually we landed on the topic of the foster care system.

Initially, I wanted to focus on the failure of the government dating back to the Sixties Scoop. I knew I wanted to focus on the individuals to gain empathy from the target market, but I knew I couldn’t call the children broken or incomplete, and at the same time I couldn’t villainize the parents partaking in the foster care system who were providing positive experiences.

With this in mind, I originally landed on the phrase “Missing But Not Lost,” intended to address the Indigenous identities of the children separated from their communities who’s culture/language/family ties were “missing but not lost,” intending to build awareness for the issue and inspire change in elections. However, this sounded too close to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaigns, and it pointed fingers in the wrong directions. It was through ideation with peers and professors like Vida that landed the idea of the “FOUND” posters. The idea of being found vs. yet to be put the exact positive spin on the campaign that I needed, and gave footing to the funding it needed. Although this removed it from the direct problem (intergenerational trauma and a lack of parenting skills due to the Canadian Government) it re-contextualized the campaign into one of hope and community building, not loss and mourning.

To keep with the positive, youth centred theme I chose to utilize bright colours and children’s illustration. I wanted the posters to be eye catching and dynamic to make them stand out. (See mood boards above.)
I understood that the target market would easily look past a regular poster with a child’s face on it, so I wanted to play to the emotional appeal by showing showing a child in a way that they would want their own to feel. Happy, whole, and inspired. This is also why I decided to incorporate an animated aspect into the campaign, to catch the eye and confront them with an image that seemed alive as opposed to static.

Concept for animated version of posters that could be applied in multiple ways.

These animations could take form in a number of ways. A short 5 second ad with a simple found logo and link at the bottom, a long form narrated commercial, replacing the photography and illustrations exactly the same as the posters above, an animated card on the website, etc.

Final Poster 1/3
Poster 2/3
Poster 3/3 (Color when importing into WordPress extremely oversaturated, please refer to PDF for accurate color.)

I also decided to include a website to provide an opportunity for education and further explanation of the initiative. The first step in removing cultural barriers is always education, allowing the viewer to build sympathy and de-mystifying the other group step by step. At Found.ca, the visuals match that of the poster, and then provides culturally relevant information for each of the illustrations to start educating the viewer in an approachable and comfortable way. Now that you have an emotional tie to the main child shown (Marcus) and you feel like you understand him a little, it explains the reality of the situation lower down the page as to not shock you with it straight away.

Landing Page Design for Found.ca, the face of the campaign lead by the Aboriginal Children Hurt and Healing foundation.

Overall, I wanted this campaign to be an approachable, positive way to address, educate on, and fund the very intense process that is rebuilding culture within indigenous youth that have been separated from their communities. The Found project builds up and helps fund organizations that help youth to reconnect with their cultures, languages, communities, and families. These are local youth groups, night-classes for Indigenous languages, Indigenous lead art camps, etc. that contribute to a sustainable community children in foster care would not have had they been without services that the Found project provides.

Self Evaluation

Although I’m happy with my final product, research, and strategy rationale, I think my ideation process and workflow could have been streamlined. I stressed myself out too much in the beginning stages and delayed my working time significantly. In the final product, I am happy with the aesthetic and art direction. I worked very hard on the copyrighting and hierarchy but recognize that there is always room for me to improve in those two areas. If it makes sense, I’d give myself a low A for execution and a B for process.