By Maureen Tai, 30 July 2018
How does one review a wordless picture book, when the illustrator has already decided that words are insufficient, and ineffective in the storytelling? Do I say that in small things, the illustrations are achingly exquisite and hauntingly beautiful? Or that I felt, understood – to the core – and found familiar, the sadness, loneliness and depression experienced by the small boy in the story? Or that this is probably one of the most profound, and important, picture books on childhood anxiety that I have had the good fortune to discover? All true words, but strangely insufficient, and ineffective. To truly appreciate this wonderful picture book, you need to hold it in your hands and absorb every frame as you turn the pages.
The boy in small things faces isolation and failing grades at school. Shadowy demon-like creatures start clustering around him, growing in size and number as the boy’s anxieties take hold and multiply. The malevolent creatures create a crack in the boy’s perfectly formed arm, which he bandages, but to no avail. More and more fissures and cracks appear in the boy’s body as he becomes more and more dispirited, and as he begins to lash out in frustration and anger at those around him – his teacher, his one friend, his sister, and his mum and dad. The inexorable downward spiral is arrested when his sister reveals that she too, has cracks of her own. The boy is not alone with his shadows. The boy comes to terms with his anxieties by not only reaching out for help, but by also reaching out to help others who are in their darkest moments of hopelessness.
small things was published posthumously after Shaun Tan (author and illustrator of Eric and The Lost Thing) agreed to complete the near-finished work of the incredibly talented Mel Tregonning. Whether or not small things reflects the inner turmoils of the illustrator before she tragically took her own life will always be a mystery, but her powerful legacy remains. Highly recommended as a reading-together book that raises many issues around anxiety that a parent/caregiver can gently discuss with a child. As with all children’s picture books, it ends on a positive note, with a positive message.
However deep and dark the shadows, we can face them together.
For ages 7 and up.