Allen Say 1937–
Allen Say 1937–INTRODUCTION
(Born James Allen Koichi Moriwaki Seii) Japanese-born American illustrator, photographer, and author of picture books and juvenile novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Say's career through 2005. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volume 22.
Winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal, Say is a Japanese-American author and illustrator who is best-known for his picture books. In addition to Say's Caldecott for Grandfather's Journey (1993), he also received a Caldecott Honor citation for his illustrations for Diane Snyder's The Boy of the Three-Year Nap (1988). Recognized for creating works which are notable for providing preschoolers, primary graders, and young adults with substantial messages in a gentle manner, Say focuses on such themes as the relationships between people or between people and nature in texts that characteristically include Asian characters and settings. Several of his picture books and juvenile novels are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical in nature. Say was born in Japan to a Japanese-American mother and a Korean father, and his unique family history has inspired several of his stories, helping to foster an often intimate atmosphere between reader and text. Among Say's most consistent themes are those relating to the preservation of nature and the relationships between boys and their male relatives.
Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, on August 28, 1937. His father was Korean, and his mother was Japanese, though born in Oakland, California, to a Japanese emigrant and his wife. His parents divorced in 1947, and Say was sent to live with his grandmother. The two did not get along, and, at the age of ten, Say was moved into his own apartment where he lived alone. Exhibiting an early interest in art, Say held a long-time desire to become a cartoonist and, at age twelve, he became an apprentice to the noted Japanese cartoonist Noro Shinpei. Say lived with Noro for four years, learning the Western "Beaux Artes" methodology as well as traditional and contemporary Japanese styles of art, and Noro has remained an important mentor figure in Say's life. At age sixteen, his father invited Say to move to the United States with his new family. Say joined them and was sent to a military high school. World War II was not long over, and Say felt the unpleasantness of anti-Japanese prejudice. After graduating, he returned to Japan, but soon felt out of place there too, and eventually returned to the United States. During his tenure in the military, Say took up photography, and several of his photos were featured in military magazines. After a brief stint as a sign painter, Say turned to commercial photography as a vocation, eventually earning a reputation as one of the top advertising photographers on the West Coast. Despite his success in photography, Say returned to illustration during the 1960s and 1970s, creating artwork for such works as Eve Bunting's Magic and the Night River (1978) and The Lucky Yak (1980) by Annetta Lawson. He published his first self-illustrated children's story, Dr. Smith's Safari, in 1972, and by 1979 he was awarded the American Library Association's Notable Book Award and Best Book for Young Adults Award for his juvenile novel The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice (1979). Following the critical and popular success of The Boy of the Three-Year Nap, Say chose to make a career of authoring and illustrating works for children and young adults. He has one daughter, Yuriko, from his previous marriage to Deirdre Myles.
While many of Say's publications draw on details from his personal past, perhaps the most clearly autobiographical of his works is his sole juvenile novel, The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice. The text offers a fictional recreation of his relationship with Noro Shinpei, following a talented young artist, Kiyoi, who studies and matures under the guidance of Shinpei. Say's first critical success as a picture book author-illustrator came with the 1982 publication of The Bicycle Man. Set in post-World War II Japan, the book depicts an encounter between a group of Japanese schoolchildren and two American soldiers—one Caucasian, one African American—who appear at their school's annual sports day. The pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations capture the tentative understanding that develops between the two groups as the African-American soldier performs tricks on the principal's bicycle. Say followed The Bicycle Man with his illustrations for the Christopher Medal-winning How My Parents Learned to Eat (1984), written by Ina Friedman, which also explores the crossing of cultures as a young Asian boy's parents learn a new way of approaching food. The importance of environmental awareness is a major recurring theme in two of Say's subsequent works, A River Dream (1988) and The Lost Lake (1989). In the former, a sick boy recalls happy times spent with his uncle learning the art of fly-fishing and, in a dream sequence, learns a valuable lesson about coexisting with nature. Its lush full-page illustrations earned the book a place on the New York Times' list of ten best illustrated children's books of 1988. A Tree of Cranes (1991) is based on an experience of Say's at the age of six, when his American-born mother taught him the customs of how Americans typically celebrate Christmas. The book clearly shows Say's use of action in pictures, and scenes of Japanese life introduce readers to the country's art forms and culture.
In his 1994 Caldecott-Medal-winning book Grandfather's Journey, Say's illustrations celebrate both the beauty of Japan and the richness and vastness of the American landscape as the story moves between the two countries. The pictures' varied styles show the influence of a wide range of different artists, from Claude Monet to Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth to Ansel Adams. Grandfather's Journey recreates the experiences of Say's maternal grandfather as compared to his own as an immigrant and rootless "cultural hybrid." In the book, a Japanese-American man tells the story of his grandfather, who left his native Japan in the early years of the twentieth century for America. Settling in San Francisco and raising a family, the man feels so strong a yearning for his homeland that he finally resettles his family in Japan. The protagonist in Say's next picture book, The Stranger in the Mirror (1995), is an eight-year-old boy who wakes one morning to see his own reflection in a mirror transformed into that of a seventy-year-old man. Subsequent events in the boy's life, including getting teased by schoolmates, explore the experience of being thought of as an outcast or freak. In Emma's Rug (1996), an Asian-American child becomes so attached to a rug given to her at birth that she carries it everywhere, using it as inspiration for her prize-winning artwork. When her mother thoughtlessly washes the rug, Emma feels bereft, unable to create. However, she ultimately realizes that true inspiration comes from within.
In Say's 1997 picture book, Allison, a young Asian-American girl is so distressed when she learns she has been adopted by her Caucasian parents that she angrily destroys mementoes of her adoptive parents' childhoods. But after she adopts a stray cat, Allison learns individuals can be families even if they aren't related. Say returns to autobiographical subject matter in Tea with Milk (1999), which tells the story of Say's mother, who was brought up near San Francisco and uprooted after high school to return to her parents' Japanese homeland. The young woman, Masako, feels out of place and foreign in Japan, but she soon meets a young man who prefers tea with milk, just as she does, and she begins to feel less alone. Inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, The Sign Painter (2000) is one of Say's more surreal picture books, in which an Asian-American drifter accepts a job painting billboards along a deserted stretch of desert highway, pondering the nature of dreams as the pin-up model from one of his advertisements drives past in a Pink Cadillac one day. Say continued his surrealist slant with Home of the Brave (2002), a picture book that follows a kayaking Asian-American man who is caught in a nightmare with two name-tagged young girls who are "waiting to go home." As the dreamlike environs progress, the man realizes that he is witnessing visions from the past, specifically, the plight of Japanese-Americans who were placed into internment camps during World War II. Say's next work, Music for Alice (2004), is based on the true-life story of another Japanese-American affected by the legacy of the internment camps. To avoid imprisonment during World War II, Alice Sumida's family chose to work as farm laborers and, in their effort to gather food for the war effort, ended up establishing the largest gladiola bulb farm in the country. In Say's most recent picture book, Kamishibai Man (2005), the story follows an elderly kamishibai ("paper theatre") performer who travels back to his old neighborhood to put on a final show. As the man tells stories with the miniature paper diorama on his bicycle, a crowd soon gathers of adults who remember the old man's performances from their youths.
Say's presentation with the 1994 Caldecott Medal for Grandfather's Journey—along with his 1988 Calde- cott Honor citation for The Boy of the Three-Year Nap—has made him a critically popular author and illustrator in the field of children's literature. Scholars have lauded his fluid fusion of traditional and contemporary art styles from both Asian and Western disciplines. Ann Charters has described Say's illustrations as "captur[ing] the straight-forward 1940s style of children's illustrations in the American books that I had grown up with, yet the setting and characters were unmistakably Japanese, and the book was introduced by classic orange and blue Japanese-style woodblock designs on its endpapers." While critics have routinely complimented Say's textual messages of nonviolence and coexistence with nature, more than any other aspect of his work, they have praised his consistently vivid, imaginative illustrations. Along these lines, Maria B. Salvatore has commended Say's graphic skills in Emma's Rug, suggesting that each image "conveys a sense of Emma's introspection and isolation as well as the unfolding drama created by the apparent loss of her artistic inspiration." Grandfather's Journey, his Caldecott winner, has remained among his most well-received and popular books, with Publishers Weekly stating that Say "transcends the achievements of his Tree of Cranes and A River Dream with this breathtaking picture book, at once a very personal tribute to his grandfather and a distillation of universally shared emotions."
Dr. Smith's Safari (picture book) 1972
Once under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale (picture book) 1974; re-issued as Under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale, 1997
The Feast of Lanterns (picture book) 1976
The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice (juvenile novel) 1979
The Bicycle Man (picture book) 1982
A River Dream (picture book) 1988
The Lost Lake (picture book) 1989
El Chino (picture book) 1990
Tree of Cranes (picture book) 1991
Grandfather's Journey (picture book) 1993
Stranger in the Mirror (picture book) 1995
Emma's Rug (picture book) 1996
Allison (picture book) 1997
Tea with Milk (picture book) 1999
The Sign Painter (picture book) 2000
Home of the Brave (picture book) 2002
Music for Alice (picture book) 2004
Kamishibai Man (picture book) 2005
Magic and the Night River [written by Eve Bunting] (picture book) 1978
The Lucky Yak [written by Annetta Lawson] (picture book) 1980
The Secret Cross of Lorraine [written by Thea Brow] (juvenile fiction) 1981
How My Parents Learned to Eat [written by Ina R. Friedman] (picture book) 1984
The Boy of the Three-Year Nap [written by Dianne Snyder] (picture book) 1988
A Canticle to the Waterbirds [written by Brother Antoninus] (juvenile fiction) 1968
Two Ways of Seeing: An Anthology of Poetry and Photographs [edited by Wilson Pinney] (poetry) 1971
Allen Say (essay date July-August 1994)
SOURCE: Say, Allen. "Caldecott Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 4 (July-August 1994): 427-31.
[In the following transcript of his 1994 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Say discusses his personal history, the start of his writing career, and the origins of Grandfather's Journey.]
I know that it's a tradition for the recipients of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals to talk about what they were doing when fate called. It always gives me pleasure to break traditions, and if that's rebellion, I must be young at heart. Anyway, when I received my call, and when it became clear that the news wasn't some cruel prank or a grotesque mistake, I called Walter Lorraine, my editor. I asked him if I was the oldest person ever to receive the prize. "Oh, no," he denied emphatically. Then there was a pause. He was thinking, He couldn't think of anybody older.
But I am in good company. Freeman Dyson, the physicist, had this to say about being a late blooming father:
Life begins at fifty-five, the age at which I published my first book. So long as you have courage and a sense of humor, it is never too late to start life afresh. A book is in many ways like a baby. While you are writing, it is curled up in your belly. You cannot get a clear view of it. As soon as it is born, it goes out into the world and develops a character of its own. Like a daughter coming home from school, it surprises you with unexpected flashes of wisdom.
A few days after the announcement, a librarian I know sent me a Caldecott fact sheet. I learned that the first award was given in 1938, and that I am its fifty-seventh recipient. It so happens that I am going to turn fifty-seven this August. And this honor is bestowed on the book that was published last year, which marked the fortieth anniversary of my coming to this country.
Then it gets stranger. When I was twelve, I attended a private middle school in a district in Tokyo called Shibuya. Just around the corner from the school, in an American housing compound called Washington Heights, there lived a twelve-year-old Lois Lowry whose father was General MacArthur's dentist. I like to think that we had seen each other in those days, two youngsters from very different backgrounds eyeing each other from opposite sides of the track. And tonight we've come to sit at the same table, to be honored with the highest awards in our respective crafts. And, astonishingly, we've arrived here under the wings of the same editor. I thank my good fortune that I didn't aspire to be a novelist.
For me, this prize represents the icing on the great gifts I have received in my life: Noro Shinpei for master, my own apartment at age twelve; acceptance of my first children's book by Nina Ignatowicz; birth of my daughter; my association with Walter Lorraine.
But I would like to tell you about the most wondrous gift of all. I was not yet four when I received it, and the donor was a lordly personage whose face I cannot remember. The present was a magnificent ceremonial sword. I could barely put my small hands around the heavy scabbard; I unsheathed it halfway, to make sure it was real, then closed it with a satisfying click, and laid it carefully on the long cherry wood table in the dining room. Then I went to the bathroom, and when I returned, the sword was gone. I asked the maid, then my parents. They gave me a blank stare. In a frenzy I searched the house from top to bottom, and when I could not find it I threw a tantrum, accusing the grownups of hiding it. My mother finally understood and tried to comfort me. It was only a dream, she said.
I never entirely believed that it was a dream. Even today, fifty some years later, the sword remains one of the most vivid objects I nearly possessed. And the incident marked the beginning of my lifelong confusion: I have a hard time separating my waking life from my dreams. Frequently, I am utterly lost in determining if a delicious pear I ate two days ago, or an interesting stranger I met three days ago, was real or a phantom.
While I was a student at Berkeley, I discovered the key to my dream life. It came in the form of a shiny silver coin, lying innocently on the ground. As I reached down toward it, another coin appeared, then another, and soon a fistful of them lay at my feet. That was when I knew I was dreaming. In real life, unclaimed or unearned money never presented itself to a poor student like me. Ever since then, when I see a cluster of coins, I know I can do anything my aching heart desires and not get arrested. My only fear then is of waking prematurely. So imagine my bewilderment when I spotted three coins on a sidewalk one time, reached down, and was stiff-armed by a panhandler. He was very real.
Back to square one.
My bewilderment deepened when I returned to Japan in 1982, to attend a grammar school reunion. The Bicycle Man had just been published, and, carrying a stack of brand-new books, I went back to the place where the story took place thirty-six years earlier. Mrs. Morita, my first-grade teacher, came to meet me at the train station. It was like one of those teary Japanese movies.
Nineteen classmates came to the party, and we had to point one another out in the old school photographs someone had the sense to bring. I handed out copies of The Bicycle Man, and the banquet suddenly died. No one remembered the incident. "That wonderful black American soldier, he rode the principal's bicycle, don't you remember?" I pleaded. They looked at me with embarrassment and incomprehension, even pity. Then they laughed and called me Urashima Taro, the fisherman of the ancient folktale who returns home after being away for four hundred years.
On the following day, some of my classmates took the day off and accompanied me to the street where I used to live. All the houses were standing, except mine. It had been demolished only a month before my return.
My homecoming wasn't turning out the way I had expected. Feeling a little woozy, I took the bullet train to Tokyo, to visit my prep school in the neighborhood where Lois and I had been children. Some of my old teachers were still there, and one of them presented me with a thirtieth anniversary school album. The slick book had pictures of anyone who had ever had anything to do with the school—teachers, parents, and caretakers. All except me. I had spent a fifth of my young life there, and yet I did not exist in the school history.
I went back to Yokohama, the place of my birth. I had to find some evidence—any evidence—of my childhood. I knew that my first house, where I had been given the sword, had burned down during the war, but I was not prepared for the changes that awaited me.
The big goldfish hatchery next to my old house, where the carp pond in Tree of Cranes had been, was now replaced with rows of ugly concrete apartment buildings. The ancient fishing village where my nanny had come from was gone. The fine beach where our maid used to pick seaweed for the evening soup was gone. In fact, the entire seashore had been buried, and a jumble of factories now stood over the playground of my memory. Like Urashima Taro, I had gone back to a world without a past. My childhood was entirely in my mind. A dream.
Feeling a sense of irretrievable loss and uncertainty, I came back to California. I was an advertising photographer at the time, and I think it was then that I began to lose interest in photography, a craft that relies entirely upon reality. It was like watching the dissolving of a sandcastle that had taken me twenty years to build. I began dabbling in commercial illustrations.
The malaise lasted four years. I was forty-nine, and I had a six-year-old daughter.
Then I got a call from Walter Lorraine. He asked me to illustrate a story by Dianne Snyder. Quite frankly, I didn't know who Walter was, other than that he was an editor and vice president. The world is full of vice presidents. In any case, I took on the assignment, with the idea that it was going to be my last children's book. The Boy of the Three-Year Nap came out in the spring of 1988, and a few months later, Walter called to congratulate me on winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. I didn't know what it was. But I did work on another book. Looking back on it today, A River Dream seems like a pocket mirror of the state I was in at the time—weaving in and out of reality.
Once I decided to work full-time on children's books, I had a memorable dream. In it, I was walking with a friend in bright sunlight when I spotted a shiny dime in the gutter, and, reaching down, I saw other coins scattered about. I picked up the dime, which was bent in the middle, and showed it to my friend. "Look, we're in a dream," I told him. "I know, but it doesn't matter," he replied. I tossed the dime back into the gutter and walked on.
The gutter needs no explanation. But why a bent dime? Well, you can't put a bent dime in a vending machine, not even a parking meter. It's useless. The coin had lost its meaning. And the friend is clearly the voice of my intuition, telling me that sleeping and waking are the two sides of the same continuum. "It doesn't matter," said the voice of wisdom.
This story gets even more interesting if I tell you that the friend in my dream was Walter Lorraine. What prompted him to call me that first time? I believe we are in the same dream.
I don't know how long the term multiculturalism has been around, but as I started to work in my new phase I suddenly came under the scrutiny of educators and book people. And caught up in the swelling wave of social awareness, I began to think of "building a bridge" over the two disparate cultures that nourished me. A pompous, self-serving delusion. Mercifully, the lapse was brief. What drives me is far more elemental—and honest, I hope. I am trying to give shape to my dreams—the old business of making myths—the fundamental force of art. And so, Grandfather's Journey is essentially a dream book, for the life's journey is an endless dreaming of the places you have left behind and the places yet to be reached.
I am deeply honored to be a part of a milestone in Walter Lorraine's inestimable career. My heartfelt thanks to Nina Ignatowicz, who so long ago helped me find my voice in our adopted language. I thank everyone at Houghton Mifflin Company for assisting me in bringing this baby into the world. I thank all the librarians and teachers and reviewers who have made me a very proud father. And I am most grateful to the members of this year's Caldecott Committee for acknowledging the beauty of this child, who has already embarked on a journey of its own, displaying flashes of wisdom, which are quite surprising to the dreamer. Thank you, and sweet dreams.
Allen Say, Jackie Peek, and Judy Hendershot (interview date December 1994)
SOURCE: Say, Allen, Jackie Peek, and Judy Hendershot. "An Interview with Allen Say, 1994 Caldecott Award Winner." Reading Teacher 48, no. 4 (December 1994): 304-06.
[In the following interview, Say discusses his creative process, his writing career, and the illustrations in Grandfather's Journey.]
When Grandfather's Journey was announced as the winner of the 1994 Caldecott Award, two RT associate editors, Jackie Peck and Judy Hendershot, began making plans to interview Allen Say during the International Reading Association Annual Convention in Toronto.* * *
Sharing coffee in a busy dining room at the Royal York Hotel, we asked Allen to talk about his career as an author and illustrator of children's books.
Allen recounted earlier art experiences and the ways that they influence his current work:
I've written a novel called The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice. It was published in 1979 and will be reissued this fall. It's a fairly accurate account of my boyhood in Japan and how I began as an artist when I was 12 years old as an assistant to a great cartoonist. I was also living alone by then. I was a strange artist, taught in the old "beaux-arts" way of learning how to draw…. When I came to this country, imagine the bewilderment on the part of artists and administrators of the art school in Los Angeles to see this boy who could barely speak English who could draw in this very French academic way.
I went into photography when I was 27 and just discharged from the army. I was tired of being poor in pursuing art; I sold myself to photography and I became very successful…. The lesson I learned from photography was that of lighting. Most people comment on the lighting in my pieces…. When I began Grandfather's Journey, I wanted to achieve the effect of old-time photographs.
We then asked Allen if he developed his books by first creating the illustrations or first writing the text. He described his creative process, particularly with this latest Caldecott winner:
Usually I paint first. I do the illustrations in sequence starting from number 1, page 1. I discovered that this is the easiest way for me to work, and I am blessed with a great editor, Walter Lorraine, who allows me to do this. Some editors expect the words first; I do exactly the opposite. It is my way of resolving the story and the characterizations. I do it visually. To give an example, in El Chino, I didn't know what the revelation of the story was until I came to the part that shows El Chino standing on the Spanish plain dressed like a Spaniard. I was going to do his face at the end; I painted everything else first. At one point I sat back, looked at the piece, and said, "My God, that's the story! The story of a Chinese man who has lost his identity."
The other advantage of working visually is that I don't have to write unnecessary words. What the pictures say, I don't have to write. I try to create tension between words and pictures.
However, Grandfather's Journey is one of those rare books that I did in the orthodox manner. I did write it first. It happened about 7 years ago in 1988, right after Boy of the Three-Year Nap. Before that I was a commercial advertising photographer. With Boy of the Three-Year Nap I decided to become a fulltime children's book author and illustrator. I sat down and came up with about nine book ideas, one of which was Grandfather's Journey. I wrote the whole thing down in one afternoon, less than 600 words. And then it sat while I worked on other projects that I had to do. It was just as well because I wasn't ready to do Grandfather's Journey. I simply could not have pulled it off.
We wondered if Allen consciously knew he wasn't ready to do the book.
I didn't. But I think my dreaming self knew; that is, my subconscious mind knew that I wasn't ready. I started working on Grandfather's Journey right after Tree of Cranes.
Allen was asked if he felt that doingTree of Cranes helped him get ready to doGrandfather's Journey.
Well, obviously, it was a stepping stone.
We then asked Allen if he portrayed himself through the character of Grandfather.
I've essentially used my grandfather as my mask to tell my story. My grandfather is someone I knew only briefly in my life. I only met him a half dozen times. He was a gentle, lovely, lovely man.
Allen talked about the illustrations inGrandfather's Journey :
All the pictures are made up; they do not exist. I did a lot of research and relied on old books and photographs for architectural detail, the kinds of trees and rock gardens. But the faces are made up. I draw until I like what I see. It has taken me 40 years to become an artist. Most people aren't willing to spend that kind of time. I am very fortunate. The scary thing about art is that there is never any promise. You don't know if what you feel inside will ever come out….
I will work on a piece until I'm happy with it; but unfortunately, we have deadlines, so I'm never really quite happy. It's all about discovery. I learn something every day that I work. I learned a great deal from my mentor, the great cartoonist Noro Shinpei, to whom Tree of Cranes is dedicated. I sent him a copy of Grandfather's Journey when it was released last fall. I received a letter back from him saying he swallowed his breath when he first saw the cover. He said the boy who used to run around on the roof of the inn where he worked has become an artist. He said, "I am going to be 80 years old, but I can no longer think about dying because I must keep on living to watch your art mature." I cried when I read his words. That was the highest compliment I could ever receive.
We commented that both of these later books seemed to differ from earlier ones, which were more lighthearted. Allen offered this explanation:
In my earlier books, The Bicycle Man and others, I think I was consciously trying to entertain young people as probably most writers try to do. In Grandfather's Journey, I was trying to entertain myself. The appeal this book is enjoying comes to me as almost a shock. I don't quite know what to make of it…. There are always visions of the ideal, and I haven't quite achieved it. One of the great fears in winning an award like the Caldecott is that there isn't anything left, it's going to be downhill from now on.
But readers ofGrandfather's Journey will assuredly be watching for Allen's next book.
It has been tentatively called Stranger in the Mirror. But because of a recent television movie of almost the same title, I'll probably have to change it. I've been working on it for quite some time. It is the story of an 8-year-old boy who wakes up one morning, looks at himself in the mirror, and doesn't know who he is. His face has turned into that of a 70-year-old man; the rest of him is still that of an 8-year-old boy. It's a story of how society deals with, or doesn't deal with, old age. The inspiration for the story comes from a time when I was riding a very crowded bus; this little girl pulled on my sleeve and offered me her seat. I felt really devastated thinking that I looked that old. It haunted me for days. If I can pull it off, it should be a very powerful story.
When we asked Allen how he will know if it is, he answered:
What I look for when I am working is for the little hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end and my arms break out in goose bumps. Then I know that I have something. It doesn't really matter at that point if no one else likes it. I spend days and months and years waiting for my skin to break out.
Children's Books Cited
Say, A. (1979). The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice. New York: Harper & Row.
Say, A. (1982). The Bicycle Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Say, A. (1990). El Chino. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Say, A. (1991). Tree of Cranes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Say, A. (1993). Grandfather's Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Snyder, D. (1988). The Boy of the Three-Year Nap. Ill. A. Say. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Allen Say (essay date January-February 1995)
SOURCE: Say, Allen. "Grandfather's Journey." Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 1 (January-February 1995): 30-2.
[In the following essay, Say discusses his family history and how it affected his creation of Grandfather's Journey.]
At a party recently, a retired professor asked me what I thought was the meaning of the old Chinese curse, "May you have an interesting life." The version I knew came from author Alan Watts. According to that fifties Zen merchant, it was the worst malediction an emperor could hurl at his enemies. Through their long and turbulent history, the Chinese came to think of the uneventful life as the most desirable. And so the royal imprecation. But I've always been dubious of Mr. Watts's preaching. Why would the emperor bother to waste words on enemies? Wouldn't it have been more satisfying to have their heads cut off?
But it's a good story. And it reminds me of a similar Japanese saying with quite a different intent: "Let your beloved child journey." I first heard this from my mother, who'd learned it from her mother, who was full of such old sayings. My mother hated this expression. All her life she yearned for a stable and uneventful life, and she never found it. And when she had a family of her own, she made a vow that she would never let her children journey, but she was powerless to hold me back when the time came.
It all began with my grandfather, when he discovered steamships and lost his head. If my mother ever resented him for his wanderings, she never said so. But I have fond memories of him, even though I knew him so briefly, and now that I have written a book about him, he has in some sense gone out of my life. Lately, I have been thinking more and more about my mother.
We were separated when I was ten, and I don't know much about her, especially her early life, other than that she was born in Oakland, California, and that she had been taken back to Japan after she graduated from high school. Her Japanese probably wasn't acceptable in polite society, so she was sent to a school in Osaka, and she told me of one incident there that haunts me today. During English classes she was put out in the schoolyard to kill the time alone. I can see her standing in the deserted playground, maybe staring down at her own shadow, too old to doodle, or swing from the athletic bars, a foreigner in her ancestral island, ostracized by her own people. I wonder if she thought about her father then, whose wanderings it was that had made her life all too interesting.
While I worked on Grandfather's Journey (Houghton), the only photographs I used for reference were those of myself; the faces of the others are purely imaginary. For the last illustration of the book—the one of the framed photograph—I had initially planned to show the grandfather as an old man, but that seemed too logical and ordinary. One day I was lying on my studio floor, doing yoga and waiting for inspiration, when I saw pinned on the wall the original rough sketch of the first picture—the one of the young man in a kimono. The face is loosely modeled after me as a boy, and staring at it made the little hairs on the back of my neck rise. How right it seemed to end the story with the same image that begins the book! My grandfather's story merging with mine, one journey linking with another to form a circle. The endless circle.
When I was finished with all the paintings, one of them bothered me, and I didn't know why. It's the one of the grandparents and the daughter leaving San Francisco to return to Japan. Then I suddenly realized that the young woman, who is supposed to be my mother, looked exactly like the girl I had a crush on at my middle school in Tokyo. She appears in The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice (Houghton), the one who refused to see me outside the school. Even the girl's pose in the painting is exactly as I had captured her in a snapshot at some beach on a school excursion forty-three years ago. The little hairs on my neck rose the second time. I am probably a textbook case for the Freudians—may they have an interesting time in writing their own Grandfather's Journey.
Soon it will be time for me to let my child journey. I will do so with great reluctance. I have no choice, just as my mother did not, and her father before her. And my daughter no doubt will have an interesting life of her own. But how could my journey have been a curse when I am honored by you for musing and dreaming upon it? I feel very blessed, and I thank all of you for this coveted award.
Joanna Rudge Long (essay date November-December 1995)
SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. "The Long View: Stranger in the Mirror." Five Owls 10, no. 2 (November-December 1995): 45-6.
[In the following essay, Long identifies several recurring thematic motifs in Say's canon of picture books, including familial distance, longing, and loneliness.]
In his Caldecott acceptance speech, Allen Say described his curious relationship with dreams. His are so vivid, he confided, that "I have a hard time separating my waking life from my dreams. Frequently, I am utterly lost in determining if a delicious pear I ate … or an interesting stranger I met … was real or a phantom." A magnificent sword he recalls being given as a small boy never actually existed; and among classmates at his Japanese school, who gathered for a reunion soon after The Bicycle Man (Houghton Mifflin) was published in 1982, only Say remembered the American soldier who had charmed them, thirty-five years earlier, with impromptu stunts on the principal's bicycle.
Considering Say's books in terms of this intimate bond between dream and reality reveals a number of recurring themes, in his avowedly autobiographical books and in those with less personal subjects as well. Both express yearning for some kind of connection: between nature and man, artist and mentor, parent and child, past and present. Other paired, opposed ideas also govern these stories—for instance, the tension between obedience and a child's natural curiosity and playfulness. The blurring of distinctions between such apparent opposites as the dreaming and waking worlds also echoes the pull between other polarities, such as that experienced by the expatriate—whether Say's grandfather, memorialized in Grandfather's Journey (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) or Say himself, who comes to understand that he and the old man have each had the same unquenchable longing: "… the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other." Even as conventionally structured a book as A River Dream (Houghton Mifflin, 1988), in which a feverish boy joins his uncle on a twilight fishing expedition that seems, in the end, to have taken place only in his imagination, offers new depths when viewed in this light. The camaraderie between Mark and his uncle, the natural setting, the magnificent trout Mark hooks only to set it free, are all parts of an idyllic vision that (once Uncle has promised to make him a rod "‘Exactly like mine’") Mark relinquishes to return, fever abated, to bed.
Say's latest dream adventure, Stranger in the Mirror (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), is a subtler working of the pattern. Sam's unexpressed love for his grandfather is revealed obliquely, while Say focuses more directly (but only in the fantasy of a dream) on Sam's anxieties about what they may have in common. Reflecting on frail Grandpa, who has just moved away, Sam muses "‘I don't want to get old.’" But next morning, abruptly, Sam finds himself transformed; it's Grandpa's face that peers from his own mirror. What follows is so logical that children will probably find it comical. The boy's fear is that his parents will send him away (like Grandpa), but they actually take him to the doctor's, where "some sort of skin condition" is routinely diagnosed (though astonishment prevails in the illustrations). At school, the children speculate ("‘You must have done something bad. Smoking, I bet’"), and tease. Sam endures all this stoically, but is finally driven to escaping, on a skateboard. In performing the tricks at which he has always excelled, he's able to forget that he's "old." Returning home, he realizes that, as far as his little sister Jessie is concerned, he is what he appears to be—old, and therefore different; and yet, "‘I'm Sam. Nobody can change that.’" When Sam reawakens as a boy, his parents are oblivious to what has passed. Still, Sam's last childlike exchange with Jessie hints that the experience was more than a dream.
The elegant composition and technique that won Say his Caldecott are in evidence here, though the rendering is more relaxed, in keeping with the present-day setting, informal mood, and touch of humor. The characterizations, especially of the elderly Sam and his shrewd little sister, are particularly subtle. And though it can be enjoyed on its primary level, there's much in this enigmatic adventure for thoughtful readers to ponder.
Like so many of Say's books, Stranger in the Mirror is imbued with depth and poignancy by a character's yearning for a closer bond with a family member, a longing for reconciliation. Sam's dream may express the fact that he misses Grandpa; it also dramatizes his anxiety that his parents may reject him. The joyful amity between the African American "Bicycle Man," his red-haired buddy, and the Japanese children took place only in Say's imagination; Mark's communion with his uncle happens in a dream. Are these fantasies antidotes to the imperfections of real relationships, between conqueror and conquered or adult and child? The quiet, dreamlike hike in The Lost Lake (Houghton Mifflin, 1989) follows weeks during the boy's vacation visit when Dad's silence has verged on abusive. Even in Tree of Cranes (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), praised for its luminous depiction of a mother's introduction of the Christmas of her American youth to her Japanese son, the boy is confined to bed for a minor misdemeanor while his withdrawn parent, preoccupied by her lost past, creates alone the lovely symbol of peace they might have made together. On the surface, all is well; but beneath the formality and order, each of these stories seems to express the chilling isolation of a soul yearning for the warmth of true affection.
It is especially rewarding, after surveying Say's more recent picture books, to return to his autobiographical novel. In The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice (Houghton Mifflin, 1979; reissued, with a new introduction, in 1994), the young "Sei" has been sent by his divorced, absent parents to live with his irritable grandmother, but has opted instead (at thirteen!) to live alone in a tiny Tokyo apartment. Solitary but self-reliant, the aspiring young artist apprentices himself to Sensei, a well-known cartoonist who recognizes his talent and is extraordinarily generous with instruction and good advice. Even so, when Sei's father reappears five years later, Sei elects to go with him to America.
What is especially intriguing to an admirer of Say's picture books is his novel's forthright tone. This boy may be from a fractured, loveless family, but he's undaunted. Purposefully, he labors to master his calling while coping with a variety of experiences with his peers and the adult world. Say-the-author reports the progress of Sei-the-boy with a remarkably fair-minded assessment of his relatives, lively and affectionate portraits of his master and fellow apprentice, and a wealth of sharply observed detail that vividly recreates postwar Japan. Best of all are the glimpses of the emerging artist who won Sensei's respect at their first meeting and who had developed a passion for Degas's work by the time he was fourteen—but who still needed to be told, three years later, that "‘It's time you started paying attention to composition,’" and "‘You're drawing like Matisse. It's quite beautiful, really, but I feel you weren't really looking at her leg when you drew it, but drew it the way you thought her leg ought to look. It's important that you don't seduce yourself with your own talent.’" Fortunately, Allen Say was just the gifted pupil that this gifted master deserved; taking Sensei's lessons to heart, he continues to create books that do honor both to his master and to his own splendid abilities.
Ann Charters (review date summer 2002)
SOURCE: Charters, Ann. Review of The Bicycle Man and Grandfather's Journey, by Allen Say. MELUS 27, no. 2 (summer 2002): 254-55.
[In the following review, Charters argues that Say's picture books The Bicycle Man and Grandfather's Journey are predominantly focused on the nature of identity.]
How do grown-up men and women become children's book authors? Twenty years ago, shortly after Allen Say published his first book, The Bicycle Man, I was fortunate enough to meet him in San Francisco. The visit was arranged by our mutual friend, the small press publisher Robert Hawley, who had known Say as a photographer in California for many years. Robert thrust a copy of The Bicycle Man at me, saying, "You'll love it. It's a beautiful book." I read it straight through, fascinated by the cool perfection of the realistic drawings of Japanese children attending a rural village school on the south island of Japan, who were unexpectedly entertained during a sports-day festival by the bicycle-riding bravado of an American soldier stationed in their country after World War II. Say's impeccable drawings captured the straight-forward 1940s style of children's illustrations in the American books that I had grown up with, yet the setting and characters were unmistakably Japanese, and the book was introduced by classic orange and blue Japanese-style woodblock designs on its endpapers.
When I met Say, he was just as elegant and composed as his drawings. He told me that he had been born James Allen Koichi Moriwaki Seii in 1937 in Japan. His father was Korean, and his Japanese mother had been born in San Francisco, where his Japanese grandfather had emigrated years earlier with his childhood sweetheart. As a young woman, Say's mother was brought back to Japan by his grandparents, where she married Say's father and the family survived World War II. Say's book was based on an incident that had happened to him as a young schoolboy in Japan. He was as skillful as a draftsman and watercolorist as he was as a photographer, and so—with considerable courage—in San Francisco he had decided to start a new career, writing and illustrating children's books based on his own life. The emotionally loaded topic of his first book—how American soldiers occupying Japan in the late 1940s were regarded with wonder as exotic and fun-loving creatures by their young Japanese hosts—seemed to him to be appropriate for American children, somehow.
Nearly twenty years later, from November 2000 to February 2001, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles featured a show of 55 watercolors by Allen Say titled "Allen Say's Journey: The Art and Words of a Children's Book Author." Say had become an important author, whose books included Allison, Emma's Rug, The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice, Grandfather's Journey, Tree of Cranes, El Chino, The Lost Lake, A River Dream, Stranger in the Mirror, and Tea with Milk, in addition to The Bicycle Man. Grandfather's Journey, which told the story of his grandfather's travels in North America and return to Japan, had won the Caldecott Medal in 1993. In The New York Times review of the museum show on November 22, 2000, Say remarked that "What I do is the work of an outsider." If a sense of rootlessness permeates Say's books, it is a gently melancholic, philosophic condition rather than a desperate angst about his Japanese-American identity. In his images and text, Say communicates a Buddhist calm: a "letting go" acceptance of life's flow of changes and complexities expressed through the confident celebration of his own unique history. With his feet in two cultures, Say stays firmly anchored, yet spiritually free to move wherever he chooses. "There are a lot of doorways in my drawings," he said. "I think it's pretty unconscious, but it has meaning."
EL CHINO (1990)
Mary M. Burns (review date January-February 1991)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of El Chino, by Allen Say. Horn Book Magazine 67, no. 1 (January-February 1991): 88-9.
Allen Say has mastered the genre of picture-book biography with [El Chino, ] this handsomely designed account of the very first Chinese matador. Named Bong Way Wong by his parents—who emigrated from Canton, China, to Nogales, Arizona—he is called Billy by his brothers and sisters. Home is a small comer grocery store, "open for business every day of the year." Constantly reminded by their father that "in America, you can be anything you want to be," the children aspire to professions ranging from education to medicine—except for Billy, who wants above all to be a great athlete. Although an ace basketball player in high school, he is too short to continue in college and so becomes an engineer, while never quite forgetting his early dream. Unlike many dreamers, he finally finds his niche while vacationing in Spain, where he sees his first bullfight. Realizing that the bullfighter is even shorter than he, Billy decides to train as a matador, only to hear again and again that he can never succeed because he is not Spanish. Not until he decides that ethnicity is not synonymous with success does he triumph over the obstacles placed in his path. The text, written in the first person, is direct, colorful, and economical. The illustrations are particularly remarkable as an integral part of the whole. For the first half of the book, they are executed in modulating brownish-gray tones reminiscent of old photographs. Then, as Billy witnesses his first bullfight, they undergo a dramatic transformation into full color, echoing the vibrancy of the Spanish setting and the pageantry of the bullring. The technique matches the pacing of the story, highlighting the moment of change and underscoring the emotions of the narrator. The effect is as stunning as it is appropriate, demonstrating once again that Allen Say is a versatile and noteworthy talent.
TREE OF CRANES (1991)
Dorothy Houlihan and Jane Marino (review date October 1991)
SOURCE: Houlihan, Dorothy, and Jane Marino. Review of Tree of Cranes, by Allen Say. School Library Journal 37, no. 10 (October 1991): 33.
Gr. 2-Up—[Tree of Cranes is a] poetic and poignant reminiscence of a small boy's introduction to Christmas, told with the immediacy and authenticity of an autobiographical sketch. A Japanese boy wonders why his American-born mother is digging up a bonsai tree from their garden. She tells him that this day, the seventh before New Year's Day, marks a special holiday in the land of her birth, a time for decorations and presents. Together, mother and son decorate their little tree with silver origami cranes and small white candles; as the boy watches his mother dream about holidays past, he sees a tree more beautiful than any he could imagine possibly existing in that far off land, California. Thoughtfully and cleanly laid out, the watercolor paintings and each opposite page of brief text are bordered by a simple black line and a band of white space. Economically rendered in muted tones, the illustrations depict a traditional Japanese lifestyle, quietly drawing readers into the artist's childhood memory. A rare and timeless portrayal, this well-crafted picture book transcends its holiday theme and reveals the bittersweet joy of blending the past width the present.
GRANDFATHER'S JOURNEY (1993)
Publishers Weekly (review date 23 August 1993)
SOURCE: Review of Grandfather's Journey, by Allen Say. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 34 (23 August 1993): 70.
Say transcends the achievements of his Tree of Cranes and A River Dream with this breathtaking picture book [Grandfather's Journey ], at once a very personal tribute to his grandfather and a distillation of universally shared emotions. Elegantly honed text accompanies large, formally composed paintings to convey Say's family history; the sepia tones and delicately faded colors of the art suggest a much-cherished and carefully preserved family album. A portrait of Say's grandfather opens the book, showing him in traditional Japanese dress, "a young man when he left his home in Japan and went to see the world." Crossing the Pacific on a steamship, he arrives in North America and explores the land by train, by riverboat and on foot. One especially arresting, light-washed painting presents Grandfather in shirtsleeves, vest and tie, holding his suit jacket under his arm as he gazes over a prairie: "The endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed." Grandfather discovers that "the more he traveled, the more he longed to see new places," but he nevertheless returns home to marry his childhood sweetheart. He brings her to California, where their daughter is born, but her youth reminds him inexorably of his own, and when she is nearly grown, he takes the family back to Japan. The restlessness endures: the daughter cannot be at home in a Japanese village; he himself cannot forget California. Although war shatters Grandfather's hopes to revisit his second land, years later Say repeats the journey: "I came to love the land my grandfather had loved, and I stayed on and on until I had a daughter of my own." The internal struggle of his grandfather also continues within Say, who writes that he, too, misses the places of his childhood and periodically returns to them. The tranquility of the art and the powerfully controlled prose underscore the profundity of Say's themes, investing the final line with an abiding, aching pathos: "The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other." Ages 4-8.
STRANGER IN THE MIRROR (1995)
Hazel Rochman (review date 1 October 1995)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Stranger in the Mirror, by Allen Say. Booklist 92, no. 3 (1 October 1995): 320-21.
Gr. 3-6—Say's exquisite watercolors, realistic and filled with light, show gothic horror in ordinary life [in Stranger in the Mirror ]. Children will recognize the nightmare: What if I turned into a freak? As always with say, under statement adds to the intensity. In the first frame, Sam stands in the doorway looking into his home; he's a kid in baggy jeans and T-shirt holding a book bag and a skateboard. He's sad that his grandfather has been taken away. "I don't want to get old," Sam thinks. The next morning he wakes up and sees a stranger in the mirror with a child's body and an old man's wrinkled face and gray hair. His parents are appalled. His little sister insists he's Grandpa. The doctors give his condition a technical label. The kids at school jeer; even teachers stop and stare. Alone and outcast, he plans to run away. There's some plot contrivance—he's saved when he discovers he can still fly and jump on a skateboard ("I'm Sam. Nobody can change that"), and he wakes up looking like a boy again. But the uneasiness remains. The pictures are nearly all set in doorways, before mirrors, on thresholds. Sam is transformed, and he discovers himself. As in the best monster stories, the clean, well-lit, uptight world holds terror.
EMMA'S RUG (1996)
Maria B. Salvatore (review date September-October 1996)
SOURCE: Salvatore, Maria B. Review of Emma's Rug, by Allen Say. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 5 (September-October 1996): 586-87.
The small, ordinary, shaggy rug was given to Emma, a beautiful Asian-American child, when she was born [in Emma's Rug ]. As she grows older, she carries the much-loved rug everywhere, often staring at it (though never walking on it). Emma amazes her parents and teachers when she begins to draw and paint. Her artwork is so skillfully done that no one believes Emma when she tells them that she simply copies what she sees. And then Mother washes the rug. A horrified Emma believes she can no longer create, until she sees images on bare walls, in the garden, all around her: "‘I can see you!’ Emma cried with joy." A straightforward text and arresting, translucent watercolors dramatically portray how the young artist sees her world. Each carefully rendered illustration conveys a sense of Emma's introspection and isolation as well as the unfolding drama created by the apparent loss of her artistic inspiration. Color provides an effective focus in each portrait of Emma as the story moves to its gratifying conclusion.
Susan Dove Lempke (review date 15 December 1997)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of Allison, by Allen Say. Booklist 94, no. 8 (15 December 1997): 693.
Ages 4-8—The cover [of Allison ] is made of thick, glossy gold paper with a square cut out of its center. The face of a beautiful but sad little girl, Allison, peeks out through the square, with the gold paper making a frame for her small, worried countenance. Allison has reason to be perturbed. One day, after looking at herself, her parents, and her doll Mei-Mei in the mirror, she realizes that she looks more like Mei-Mei than like her Caucasian mother and father. Her loving parents tell her how they traveled to a faraway country to bring her and Mei-Mei home. "Allison stared. ‘You're not my Mommy and Daddy?’" They try to tell her how much they love her, but Allison is distraught. The other children at day care stare curiously at her when she asks if any of them have another mother, and when Allison returns home, she destroys beloved objects belonging to her parents. But when a stray cat comes along, Allison begins nurturing it and learns that families can grow in all sorts of ways. The time frame of the story seems too quick given the enormity of Allison's adjustment (she comes to terms with things in just two days). Her feelings, however, seem very real, and Say captures every nuance in poignant, exquisite paintings, taking great care not to overdramatize or embellish. The high point of the book is a picture of Allison lifting the large, unwieldy cat with a pleading expression on her face that reflects her need for forgiveness and reassurance. An adoption book that deals honestly with the confused feelings all children experience when the world they know unexpectedly shifts.
TEA WITH MILK (1999)
Jennifer M. Brabander (review date July 1999)
SOURCE: Brabander, Jennifer M. Review of Tea with Milk, by Allen Say. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 4 (July 1999): 458.
[In Tea with Milk, c]ontinuing to explore place and home, Allen Say tells the story of his mother (first introduced to readers in Tree of Cranes ). Born in California to Japanese immigrants, Masako has a home life that's very Japanese, but outside her home she's "May" and all-American—a scenario captured in an illustration resembling a sepia-tinted photo. In it, she stands outside her house, an American flag flying in the doorway, her mother peering out from inside the house. A turn of the page, and May is posing for the camera once again, but now the setting is pure Japanese—after her high school graduation, she and her parents move to Japan. Wearing a kimono, she seems bowed down with unhappiness, and young readers will commiserate—she misses fried chicken, has no friends, and has to go back to school all over again. To escape, May runs away to Osaka. She dons western clothes, rides a train, and marvels at the big, noisy city—just as her father did in America in Grandfather's Journey. Also like him, she soon finds her place, making a home in a foreign (to her) country by learning to combine both cultures. Working as a guide for international businessmen, she has to wear a kimono but gets to speak English. She marries a man who's had a similar experience to hers, who tells her "home isn't a place or a building that's ready-made and waiting for you, in America or anywhere else." She agrees, settles down to "adopt this country," and has a son who, like his parents, drinks his tea the western way, with milk and sugar. The longer, more detailed text lacks the simplicity and understatement of the first two books, but readers will be pleased to hear this young woman's story at long last.
THE SIGN PAINTER (2000)
Publishers Weekly (review date 18 September 2000)
SOURCE: Review of The Sign Painter, by Allen Say. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 38 (18 September 2000): 110.
Like a 1930s cinematographer, Say (Grandfather's Journey ), in perhaps his best work to date, pays tribute to a bygone era with a brief slice-of-life story about a boy's encounter with a sign painter [in The Sign Painter ]. Neither the boy nor the sign painter has a name; what carries their connection and the story is their mutual love of painting. In the opening scene, Say depicts an Asian-American boy standing in front of an urban backdrop, right out of Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning: the red and green strip of storefronts and barber pole provide an ideal backdrop for the young painter's uniform of black trousers and white button-down shirt. From here, Say's full-page panel paintings almost tell the story by themselves. As the boy helps the sign painter work on a billboard, they receive a commission to paint a dozen more, all featuring a woman's face. Thus begins a journey across barren landscapes, through dust storms and into the foothills of a spectacular mountain range. The blonde woman on the billboards could have stepped out of a Hopper painting; one day, in a fleeting moment, she drives past the two painters—like Barbie in her pink Cadillac, in stark contrast to the desert scene. The purpose of the painters' enigmatic mission comes together like pieces of a puzzle through snippets of an overheard conversation. And when the job is finished, the boy, now returned to the city, stands in front of the corner bar from Hopper's Night Hawks, empty of customers. One can't help feeling wistful while gazing at this final scene. Say subtly and ingeniously blends a feeling of nostalgia with a hard-hitting immediacy. Even though young readers will not grasp its message as fully as adult readers, the images and the boy's passion as an artist will remain with them. All ages.
HOME OF THE BRAVE (2002)
Marianne Saccardi (review date March 2002)
SOURCE: Saccardi, Marianne. Review of Home of the Brave, by Allen Say. School Library Journal 48, no. 3 (March 2002): 238.
Gr. 4-Up—While Say strives to call attention to the plight of Japanese-Americans unjustly interred in camps during World War II [in Home of the Brave ], this enigmatic picture book may serve only to confuse. A man embarks on a kayak trip, loses his boat and gear in churning rapids, and ends up in a cave. He emerges in a desert where he encounters two girls wearing name tags who are "Waiting to go home." The three struggle through the wind-swept desert to what they believe is a town, but in reality is a row of wooden, tar-papered buildings. There the horrified man stares through a window to find nothing but a tag with his name on it, while outside a large group of children chant, "Take us home!" Bellowing loudspeakers send the children scampering away, leaving behind a tag bearing the name of the man's mother. The weary traveler climbs back down into the cave and falls asleep. When he awakens, he and a different group of children watch as the wind sends name tags lying on the ground flying into the air. The man releases the two tags he has found as well. Say's large, realistic watercolors bordered in white appear to the right of each page of text. The desert scenes are rendered in gray and sepia tones and aptly convey the starkness of the surroundings. The cover picture in which the man and girls appear as tiny figures before an endless row of barracks and immense mountains emphasizes their powerlessness. Pictures of the empty buildings and the children, their mouths rounded in pleas for "home," are particularly chilling. The released tags at the end offer some hopeful light, but readers will need help finding their way through this dark, puzzling journey.
MUSIC FOR ALICE (2004)
Barbara Bader (review date May-June 2004)
SOURCE: Bader, Barbara. Review of Music for Alice, by Allen Say. Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 3 (May-June 2004): 321-22.
The fortitude of Japanese Americans uprooted from their West Coast homes during World War II takes an unusual form—not surprisingly—in [Music for Alice, ] Allen Say's story of Alice, who, as she confides at the outset, loves nothing so much as to dance. After college she marries Mark, and though he isn't "much of a dancer," they are a match in quiet mettle. Assembled for internment, Alice and Mark volunteer to do field work instead, then escape the beet fields by transforming an abandoned farmstead into a productive farm. The war over, no home to return to, they turn (Mark's masterstroke) to growing gladioli: "two hundred acres … of sword lilies of pink and white, yellow and purple, apricot and orange"—pictured from the ground as rippling waves of color, from the air as a carpet of multicolored ribbons. In time, working ceaselessly, they become the largest gladiola bulb growers in the country; but "what good is success," Alice thinks, "if we can't enjoy ourselves?" Part memoir, part documentary, Music for Alice is at a far remove from Say's hallucinatory internment-camp fable Home of the Brave ; its closest counterpart is Tea with Milk, his book about his parents—another pair of down-to-earth visionaries. In a delicate coda, Alice and Mark sell the bulb business, resettle on a small farm in California, and, after Mark has died, Alice, in confirmation of their good life together, dances again, "all that I can." Say's exquisite jacket portrait of the elderly, ageless Alice and the last, filmy image of Alice on the ballroom floor are set off by successive scenes-from-the-life: a grim field of stones, drab crates of onions, the trim farm buildings aglow under a high-desert moon. There is more variety of pictorial expression alto- gether than is usual in Say's work, and a telling conjunction of his feeling for character and for the landscape of the American West.
KAMISHIBAI MAN (2005)
Publishers Weekly (review date 22 August 2005)
SOURCE: Review of Kamishibai Man, by Allen Say. Publishers Weekly 252, no. 33 (22 August 2005): 63.
Caldecott-winner Say (Grandfather's Journey ) has often written about children adrift between the cultures of East and West. Here [in Kamishibai Man ], he imagines an old man straddling past and present. The kamishibai man of pre-war Japan brought to neighborhood children cliff-hanger tales, storyboard paintings and homemade sweets. Say's retired kamishibai man—lean and spare, with a face full of kindness—decides one day to return to his old route, familiar landmarks of the city having disappeared under a blanket of asphalt. This time, he tells a new story: his own. "Ah, yes, I can see you now, all your bright faces," he remembers, "clasping coins in your little hands … Patience, everyone! You'll get your sweets." When television arrived, he recalls, his once-eager listeners disappeared, too. "One day a little girl poked her head out the window and shushed me." As he talks, and passersby realize who he is, a great crowd gathers around him—"We grew up with your stories!" "Tell us ‘Little One Inch’ again!" Say's gift is to multiply themes without struggling under their weight. Aging, cultural change, the way humans seem to lose warmth with technological advances—he gestures toward all of these while keeping the lens tightly focused on the kamishibai man. Readers who worry that Say may be thinking about the fate of his own career should be reassured; his artistry and power of invention are as strong as ever, and so will be his readers' enthusiasm. Ages 4-8.
Hearne, Betsy. Review of Music for Alice, by Allen Say. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 8 (April 2004): 349.
Describes Music for Alice as "eloquently personalized and elegantly visualized."
Long, Joanna Rudge. Review of Kamishibai Man, by Allen Say. Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 6 (November-December 2005): 709.
Compliments Say's "eloquent characterizations" and "evocative landscapes" in Kamishibai Man.
Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Kamishibai Man, by Allen Say. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 59, no. 3 (November 2005): 154-55.
Lauds the effectiveness of Say's protagonist in Kamishibai Man.
Additional coverage of Say's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 30, 146; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vols. 28, 69, 110, 161.