Tosltoy began Anna Karenina with these, now famous, words:
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
He was suggesting that there are many ways to be unhappy, yet only one way to be happy. I’m not sure I agree.
The experience of living with profound unhappiness may well have its genesis in a myriad of circumstances and feelings but the feeling itself is frequently transferable.
In Small Things, a young boy is beset by feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness as small things happen to and around him.
There are no words and no colour in this moving picture book, instead:
We follow the boy through the monotone grey of his school day where he feels excluded and ignored, where he underperforms on tests and feels that he has failed, to his home where he is loved but still feels pressured and stressed.
His experiences may not be ours, but he is unhappy in ways that every reader will understand. In contrast to Tolstoy’s unhappy families, we are, in the end, all unhappy in the same way. Small Things' detailed and evocative images help us to sink deep into the boy’s heart – where we will see ourselves, and all who have felt alone and disheartened.
As the boy becomes increasingly weighed down by his worries and sorrows, more and more demons attach themselves to him.
Parts of his very being start to break away.
He becomes less and less himself.
It’s a wearying journey to follow – albeit one that rings of truth and of heartache. But it’s also a journey that speaks to resilience, determination and, most of all, love!
The boy has a sister who has her own scars and imperfections but who is still able to reach out and show concern. He has parents who love him and support him too.
When he is finally able to take a tiny step towards the love that is waiting for him, the demons start to leave and he becomes more and more whole.
Eventually, we see that everyone has demons to deal with and the boy is able to reach out and help a girl who is broken - because he knows what it is to be unhappy.
Small things built up and gave strength to the demons, and small things overcame them in the end.
The boy himself does small things to help another person too.
This is a serious book about a serious subject, it’s one that bears thinking about. And while it may resonate with someone in the midst of despair, it will also help the friends and family of someone who is struggling to understand and to empathise.
Although this is a story without words, told entirely in pictures, it is a book for late pre-teens, teens and adults - because the depth of the boy's experience is best understood with some small amount of life-experience.
(There's a terribly sad back-story to this picture book about Mel Tregonning’s life, her struggles and eventual loss to suicide. Tremendous love and admiration are shown by her sister, Violet, who tells Mel’s story.)
If I were asked to describe Small Things in one sentence, I'd say it is a lovely meditation on the impact that small things can have on one life or on many lives.