David Small is an award-winning American author and illustrator of over 40 books for children. A Detroit, Michigan native, he graduated with an MFA from the Yale School of Art and published his first illustrated book in 1981. His illustrations for "The Gardener" (written by his wife, Sarah Stewart) received a Caldecott Honor in 1997, while his work on “So, You Want To Be President?” (by Judith St. George) earned him the coveted Caldecott Medal for children's illustration in 2001. His widely acclaimed 2009 memoir, "Stitches," was nominated for a National Book Award in Young People's Literature. Small's work has also appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other publications. He and his wife live in southwest Michigan.
Question: How does it feel to be up for a National Book Award as a graphic novelist?
David Small: It's thrilling. I'm overwhelmed. But I also—I won a big award and a couple of minor things, and I'm trying to just keep in mind that this is just a blip, you know, in my life. I mean, if I get it, that'll be very nice, and probably lead to a flurry of e-mails and phone calls and who knows? Maybe some trips, and then it'll all be over, and the big spotlight will move on to somebody else, and my studio will become very quiet again. And that's just the way it goes, and that's a good thing.
Question: Was your book miscategorized as “Young People’s Literature”?
David Small: I do not believe that it was miscategorized. I think it was categorized exactly where it should be. I didn't think of categories when I was writing the book. I knew that I was stepping out of the children's world, but I never thought that I was stepping completely into the adult world, because the book is about a teenager, for example. It really—the principal ages are six and 14—of the main character. And when the controversy started, I began having second thoughts and wondering, hmm, did I put some things in there that, you know, teenagers couldn't handle? I didn't think so. I mean, they see so much now, and things are talked about so openly in young adult literature. I actually thought that I was being rather modest in my book with the things that I left out. And also by not taking, by not adopting a totally sarcastic viewpoint. That—I questioned myself about that too, because it almost seemed totally uncool to not be, you know, absolutely ironic about everything. I'm not really ironic about anything in this book; it's pretty sincere, without, I hope, ever falling into sentimentality, which I despise. But I—you know, I was questioning it until yesterday at the New York Public Library, where the five of us finalists spoke to a room of, I don't know, it looked like hundreds of teenagers. And they all came up to the mikes afterwards with questions. And I could see that these young people were so touched by Stitches; it was just unbelievable. The questions that they asked were—they were the equal of the very best questions that I have been asked by bloggers in the whole—you know, you can read 53 pages of blogs and reviews of my book on Google—and these kids were just as intelligent and just as—they were giving my book just as sensitive a read as any adult who's talked to me. And I was really touched by that. And as one of the teachers said to me who came up to the table afterwards, you know, everybody feels—especially at this age—they feel the kind of isolation that's talked about in Stitches. They feel that kind of loneliness. And I—you know, the book is really—it's not about being an abused child in the sense of the kind of abuse that attracts our attention in newspapers all the time—you know, kids getting their limbs broken and being thrown downstairs or out of second-floor windows. None of that happened to me.
I was abused, but it was all psychological; it was much subtler. And I think everyone to some extent can relate to that. And I think above all why this is a book for teenagers is that teenagers—part of the teenage angst, part of the angstiness of being a teenager, and part of the rebellion, is this sense that they're not being told everything about the adult world, that there's a deep hypocrisy out there that they are desperate to know about. And, you know, teenagers are always sneaking around in drawers where they shouldn't go and reading things they shouldn't be reading. And that's an attempt to try, I think, to penetrate—and that actually happens in my book—there's—that's how I found out as a teenager what was going on, was by sneaking into drawers and reading letters that I had no business reading. This is how I found out that I had had cancer, that everybody—my whole family—thought that I was going to die, and nobody had told me about it. And my reaction at the time was the reaction that I had been taught by my own family to give, which was to clam up, to not respond, to hold it inside. And then when I started, like a teenager will, to act out, and in pretty bad ways—running away from school and threatening suicide and needing to see a shrink and so on—that's when the truth began to come out. And of course, what I discovered on my own was that, you know, that I'd had cancer, but then I found out later that it was my dad who had given it to me in his practice as a radiologist, and that was just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of—mixed metaphors—family skeletons, you know. I was the least of the ones that came tumbling out of the closet one after another at that point. So I think this is something that kids really, really can relate to, and I don't see it miscategorized at all, and I'm very happy to be in that category.
Recorded on November 18, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen