Small things by Mel Tregonning

cover image

Allen and Unwin, 2016. ISBN 9781742379791
(Age: all) Highly recommended. Mental Health, Suicide, Loneliness, Graphic novel. A child stares out from the front cover, large eyed, on the edge of tears, alone in his bed. Readers will wonder about the child and turn the pages uncovering the stunning black and white illustrations in this wordless graphic novel. Each set of illustrations propels the idea of the child's aloneness, even in the midst of people. In class there is no room for him, he is an extra person, isolated and excluded. No one chooses him when a game is played, and he eats lunch alone. With his confidence undermined he receives a C for class work, others receive an A or a B. At home his sister, a violin player is the only person to listen. She offers some comfort but she too is not holding herself together very well. Each child has their own worry monsters.
Tregonning depicts the loneliness and increasing mental ill heath of the child through her illustrations with small pieces of the child falling away as he walks or sits in class. He is becoming less of himself as small things fall from his body, with cracks appearing on his arms and face - just like his sister's. Each is unwell, ably depicted through the disturbing illustrations reiterating the feeling of being worthless and alone.
Even in a crowd he has pieces falling from him, and while in bed images swirl around him filling his head and disturbing his sleep.
He talks again to his sister, and the anxious feelings diminish, so he talks to his parents, and sleep comes. Finally when in a crowd he sees that many others are just like him, and he is able to hold out his hand to another.
This is an amazing book, full of ideas about mental ill health, showing how the child feels, but also offering some ways to deal with the anxiety.
The whole is made breathtakingly resonant when reading about Mel Tregonning who began this book nine years ago, and took her own life in 2014. Her family found the incomplete manuscript and with the aid of Shaun Tan, the work was completed as a memorial to their talented daughter and sister.
On the simplest level, younger children reading this book will see that many people have worries and concerns: they are not alone, and they can reach out to others for help. Mental ill health while not a common theme in children's books, has a growing presence. The recent issue of The Literature Base (August 2016) has an article about Mental Health in children's literature in which I pulled together a number of recent children's books with that theme as part of the story.
This book quantifies the anguish and lack of confidence felt by people in this position, the monsters which besiege them are always there but with help can be kept at bay. And this makes it a valuable tool to have in the classroom where one in five is likely to be suffering from some form of mental ill health.
Fran Knight