CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 32. . . .April 20, 2018
Toronto, ON: Pajama Press, 2018.
40 pp., hardcover, $22.95.
Stories without words.
Depression, Mental-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 2-6 / Ages 7-11.
Review by Christina Quintiliani.
Every once in a while, we are privileged with the gift of holding in our hands truly unique and emotionally riveting books which have the capacity to leave permanent footprints etched in the heart. Mel Tregonning’s Small Things is, undeniably, one of those books. While Tregonning’s untimely passing in 2014 has resulted in her being unable to physically witness the impact that her work has had on so many lives, it is safe to say that the legacy she has left behind in Small Things will continue to inspire and promote awareness for years to come.
Tregonning’s final artistic contribution tells the wordless tale of a young boy who battles with anxiety and depression rooted in issues that many children and youth, regrettably, may come to face. At school, the boy is bullied, and it is not long before his once stellar grades, consequently, begin to suffer. Each moment of emotional turmoil results in the emergence of dark, abstractly shaped demons who follow the boy and slowly wear down his spirit, dignity, and morale. Gradually, the boy begins to develop numerous cracks and fractures in his previously unblemished outward façade. With each new demon and fracture, a tiny bit more of his motivation and positive outlook on life slowly slips away. In his attempt to conceal his crumbling exterior from others, the boy only grows angrier and sinks further into despair as he finds himself alone in his mental anguish. At his lowest, the boy appears to become entirely disassembled, and all that remains are shattered, unrecognizable fragments of the self. One day, after unearthing the courage to show his sister his visible ‘scars’, he is surprised to discover that she, too, bears similar wounds caused by the stresses of daily life and the frequent pursuit for perfectionism. This interaction equips the boy with the courage needed to reveal some of his struggles to his parents who instantly offer comfort in his time of need. From that moment, the boy comes to view the world from a new perspective as the demons, whom he once thought exclusively followed him, are now clearly visible around every person he sees.
While this incredibly powerful tale would have unquestionably had significant influence for today’s youth regardless of the underlying subplot of Tregonning’s own life, the added dimension of her experiences indisputably adds a certain mystique and appeal to the narrative which one can argue is, in many ways, inseparable from the storyline once it is made known to readers. Sadly, Tregonning was unable to see her project to its entirety, and, therefore, the final illustrations of the book were completed by renowned illustrator Shaun Tan who has forever redefined the genre of children’s literature with his creative, wordless vision and masterful life-like illustrations through such influential books as The Arrival. The similarities between Tregonning’s and Tan’s work are uncanny, and their mutual use of black and white and intricate shading techniques results in an extraordinarily realistic and haunting visual depiction of the actions and emotions of their characters. While evidently unforeseen, this chance merger of two such prolific illustrators of our time has resulted in a wordless masterpiece that, like The Arrival, effortlessly taps into the rawness of the human experience.
In Small Things, the author seems to speak to us from beyond the pages with a poignant reminder that no one is ever truly alone in their internal battles. Furthermore, Tregonning’s young protagonist acts as an example of the newfound hope and healing that can progressively emerge from confiding in others during life’s more challenging phases. Perhaps what makes this book most appealing is its relatability. Readers of all ages will be able to associate with the examples of daily stresses and worries that make us vulnerable and, at times, chip away at the soul, leaving temporary cracks for the light to escape. This beautifully depicted textless narrative which effectively honours not only the life of Tregonning, herself, but also the lives of all those who have been impacted by struggles with mental health, is a must-have, one-of-a-kind addition to every school library and home collection.
Christina Quintiliani is an Ontario Certified Teacher and Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Education, Brock University, St. Catharines, ON., where she is researching children’s literature.
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