Friday, October 26, 2012

Day 25: David Small - the story behind the art, and the art of redemption

Like a rite of passage of boyhood, both of my boys went through a dinosaur phase.  During Dinosaur Phase 1.0 my mom bought us When Dinosaurs Came with Everything by Elise Broach.  It's a fabulously funny read aloud.  One Friday, a young boy and his mom are running errands, and at each stop, a dinosaur is thrown in for free with purchase.  With the presentation of each dinosaur, the boy is overjoyed and incredulous, while his mom is completely horrified.  The writing is perfect, but what really makes the book memorable are the illustrations of David Small.

His witty illustrations also steal the show in So You Want to Be President? and One Cool Friend by Tony Buzzeo.

When I stumbled across David Small's artwork in Jane Yolen's Elsie's Bird...

then in the Caldecott-winning The Gardener, and The Library, and The Quiet Place, the content surprised me.  These beautiful books come from a different place; a place of pain, loss or loneliness.   In my mind, I had him pegged as the funny guy, with an awesomely humorous illustration style.  But the underlying sadness of his other books gave me pause.  How could the same illustration style be hilarious one minute and filled with emotion, sadness and hope in the next?

I noticed that most of his more serious books were written by the same author -- Sarah Stewart.  Which made me ask more questions, like:  Why is he making all of these melancholy (but wonderful) books with this Sarah Stewart?  What's the draw to him?  And what in the world is this guy's story anyway?

It may be the first time I've asked myself that about an illustrator.  I'm always curious about an author's back story, but David Small made me need to know the man behind the artwork.

A quick search revealed that he is a fellow Michigander who grew up in Detroit.  I love discovering other Michigan artists in the children's book industry.  I always imagine that I could meet up with them and garner some wisdom.  Though that will never happen, I like to imagine it nonetheless.

My curiosity soon led me to an unexpected discovery.  David Small had a rather traumatic childhood, and has actually created a graphic novel called Stitches telling his story.  I devoured it in about an hour.  The memoir is dark and disturbing, but certainly answers my questions.  Click {here} to read more about it.  His art was his rabbit hole.  There is also a small note of triumph running through the darkness of his youth.  He came out on the other side, scarred but living.  A creator of beautiful things.

And Sarah Stewart?  She's his wife.  I didn't see that coming and it made me smile.  They found each other while teaching at the same university and recognized in each other a familiar past.

I fear that I probably haven't done his story justice.  You'll have to investigate both his artwork and his graphic novel for yourself.  Most good art comes from an honest place of connection and personal experience.  It is that authenticity of sorrow, hope and resilience that makes his work with Sarah Stewart so powerfully moving.

I see even his funny work in a different light now.  While reading his memoir, I wished for a more redemptive conclusion.  More light.  More healing.  But, perhaps, the redemption I was routing for is right there, on the pages of books like When Dinosaurs Came with Everything.  The brightness is in every humorous line and every over-the-top expression that captures the lightness and joy of childhood.

If your curiosity about David Small has been piqued, click {here} to read Day 26 of my 31 Days of Children's Book Crushes, which features David speaking about his book, Stitches, at the Kalamazoo Public Library in October of 2009.

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