small things by Mel Tregonning is a picture book about a boy who feels alone with his worries, but who learns that help is always close by.
There is no dialogue in the black and white story, which works on many levels. Without dialogue, the focus is on the actions and reactions of the boy and those around him. Symbolically, I also interpreted the lack of dialogue to the sense of voicelessness sufferers of depression and anxiety feel. The lack of dialogue also lends itself to the notion that actions, even something as simple as a touch or a hug, can have more of a profound and uplifting effect on sufferers than words might.
The sorrow the boy feels is conveyed through shadows that float up and attach to the boy, which then take away parts of the boy. The shadows convey that worries are always lingering, and after a while they cause the boy’s skin to crack and crumble, but not all hope is lost, as the shadows retreat when the boy reads or interacts. So, while the sorrow the boy is experiencing is life-threatening, there are signs that the sadness can be kept at bay.
The narrative is beautifully balanced, as not only does it convey the boy’s sense of sorrow and how he feels he is perceived by others, it also shows how his angry reactions negatively impact on close friends and family. There is no sense of blame or judgement on the boy, but more so an eventual awareness of the suffering of others. This is exemplified as the boy accepts his sister’s help and then, upon returning to school the next day, sees shadows attached to his classmates. There is also the added comfort that the boy is not alone, as he has friends and family who also have shadows.
This is a beautiful book. It is a moving read, but not bleak. It is perfectly balanced, as it does not attempt to offer any magical fix-it-all solution, nor does it convey a sense of hopelessness. It is the perfect book for those who may be struggling to articulate or understand their own depression, although perhaps not suitable for young children as the images of his cracked and dissolving body are confronting. It is also recommended reading for those who may have a loved one who is suffering, but not understand what they’re going through.
I don’t usually write reviews on picture books, but I believe small things is such an important resource, for all the reasons listed above. Mel Tregonning took her own life before she finished the book. It’s so sad to think she will never know the positive impact this book will have on so many people. Her family have spoken publicly about her death, as they believe her story “has the power to make this book even more important”.