Review: Small Things by Mel Tregonning
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Pajama Press. Thank you!
Publication: March 1, 2018 (as per publisher site; first published 2016 by Allen & Unwin)
A stunning graphic picture book about childhood anxiety from an extraordinarily talented illustrator. On the cusp of having everything slip from his grasp, a young boy has to find a way to rebuild his sense of self.
In this short, wordless graphic picture book, a young boy feels alone with his anxiety. He isn’t fitting in well at school. His grades are slipping. He’s even lashing out at those who love him.
Talented Australian artist Mel Tregonning created Small Things in the final year of her life. In her emotionally rich illustrations, the boy’s worries manifest as tiny beings that crowd around him constantly, overwhelming him and even gnawing away at his very self. The striking imagery is all the more powerful when, overcoming his isolation at last, the boy discovers that the tiny demons of worry surround everyone, even those who seem to have it all together.
This short but hard-hitting wordless graphic picture book gets to the heart of childhood anxiety and opens the way for dialogue about acceptance, vulnerability, and the universal experience of worry.
Small Things is one of those tremendous reads that is an experience…the same potent feelings reading and poring over the work of incredible artists/creators like Julie Morstad and Shaun Tan is what I experienced during my reading of Tregonning’s work. Mel Tregonning‘s Small Things, a wordless graphic picture book, is all at once superbly illustrated, unforgettable, extremely emotionally resonant, beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful all at once. Far too often I have had conversations with a parent or caregiver at the library who does not see merit in wordless books; an adult who tries to dissuade their child from reading a wordless picture book as ‘there are no words in it, why would you read it’. I find this crushing and a total disservice to the potent, consequential nature of wordless graphic books like Small Things.
In Small Things, readers follow the story of a young boy who we learn is dealing with snowballing stress and anxiety. He tries to fit in with a group at school that rejects him; he gets chosen last for teams in gym class; and his marks for exams are not at the A level we understand he wants them to be. We see anxiety building in the young boy, illustrated by otherworldly creatures (floating objects in abstract, graphic shapes and patterns) hovering around the young boy, swelling in size and numbers as his anxiety grows. As anxiety bleeds with anger and lashing out at his sister and those that are kind to him at school, cracks appear on the boy’s body…metaphorically and literally, the boy’s body is fracturing and falling apart. Tregonning does, however, allow for flashes of hope and the possibility of healing towards the end of the story as the young boy opens up to his family…the last few panels also offer an auspicious and weighty ending to the story when the boy goes to school the next day and sees that anxiety, stress and isolation is all around him, even with his compassionate friend.
Overall, I highly, highly recommend this title for readers young and old. The initial thoughts I had when I added Small Things to my must-read list (not knowing anything about the creator or her body of work) was how stunning it looked and how much it reminded me of Shaun Tan’s exceptional work. If you are interested in reading further, there is an article in The Guardian that discusses how Shaun Tan actually helped bring Small Things to completion and posthumous publication after the death of Tregonning. An exceptional, stand-out piece that opens the way for discourse on mental health, I hope Small Things is a title that gets shared, talked about and appreciated.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Pajama Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.