The 2012 Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference proved to be an ah-ha event. The high”lights”, endearing keynote speakers, David Small and Sarah Stewart, captivated us with their devotion to one another and their genuine interest in the dreams of novices, like me, who looked to them for encouragement.
To launch the conference David bared his soul with a gut-wrenching presentation about his graphic novel, National Book Award finalist, Stitches. The bestselling memoir confronts his nightmarish childhood under the care of unstable caretakers unwilling — or perhaps unequipped — to express parental love for him, his brother, or each other. Small called his family a “long conga line of generational dysfunction.”
Why publish such a disturbing piece after a lifetime of success writing and illustrating conventional, light-hearted children’s books? David’s answer: For his own well-being. As a middle aged adult he still suffered. The reoccurring by-product of his youth: Post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer of the thyroid. To cope, he reflected on his past as his own psychoanalyst and used his art to fill the gaping hole of neglect in his heart. He called this process “narrative” or “cartoon medicine”.
Favorite David Small 2012 MN SCBWI conference quotes:
- “Drawing, for me, is like breathing.”
- “It seemed right, since my life was wordless to make my book as wordless as possible.”
- “My trash can is a good friend.”
- “Having a contract is like having a flamethrower on your butt.”
- “Keep the author and artist as far apart as possible.”
- “A good book calls up good pictures in everybody’s mind.”
Sarah Stewart wrapped up the eventful day describing the co-creation of The Quiet Place — Sarah, as author, and David, illustrator. Sarah confessed that she writes to save her life as she knows it — and to keep the demons away. She recommended that we unplug ourselves and go to that slow, quiet place to meet ourselves.
- “The writing is a muscle and you have to keep it taut and firm. Get it very tight — every word a world.”
- “You know we can change the world one reader — one word at a time.”
- “I hope you have a partner or a friend who doesn’t think you’re crazy.”
- “Good criticism is what you already told yourself, but you thought you were going to get away with.”
- “Do you still have something from your childhood? It’s important for you to have something from your youth.”
As a gift to Sarah, David incorporated her beloved childhood companion, Richard Bear, throughout her children’s books.
Hidden in The Quiet Place, you’ll find another loving bonus from David to Sarah: an exquisite fold-out illustration — an elaborate quiet place for Sarah’s protagonist Isabella — a colorful contrast from the black and white drawings depicting the starkness of David’s youth.
More than one audience member wiped away tears as Sarah expressed her heartfelt thankfulness for having David Small for a spouse. “I’m still in awe,” Sarah said. “It’s like making magic explode.”
The blessings go both ways. Sarah seems a seven/seventy-fold gift to David as well — a warm, loving, and sweet recompense for the cold, loveless, bitter life he once lived.
Thanks, David and Sarah, for your candid mentorship and kindness. And, thanks to the MNSCBWI Conference organizers: Quinette Cook, Jessica Freeburg, Alicia Schwab, Celia Waldock, Catherine Glancy, Kristi Herro and all volunteers for once again producing a positive, memorable event!