Allen Say. Where do I begin? Grandfather’s Journey was the book that introduced me to Say’s work. It hit a nerve because it’s about home and the absence of home. All Say’s books are rooted in a certain time and place. In specificity. They are beautiful, realistic watercolor paintings accompanying unadorned text. They are straightforward and they always seem true. They have compassion for their characters. They reflect on the past in a way that is satisfyingly bittersweet.
Say deals with culture in such a fluid, loving way. Culture and place are things we can leave and return to, things that will always be with us no matter where we travel or how we change. We can return to a culture or adopt parts of a new one. We can have two cultures simultaneously, always with our hearts leading the way.
Nature. Generations. Japan. California. Immigration. Family. Duality. Kindness. Moments of beauty and connection.
This is a book I fell hard for, long before I was immersed in picture books as I am now. It was a gateway for sure! Three generations. Two places. Journeys back and forth. About the book, here, Say remarks: “it is essentially a dream book, for the life’s journey is an endless dreaming of the places we have left behind and the places we have yet to reach.” Also, the way Say portrays light in these pages is incredible.
“Painting is a kind of writing, and writing is a kind painting—
they are both about seeing.”
A story of a dream of visiting a Japanese Internment Camp. A bad dream that ends with hope.
“Most people seem to be interested in turning their dreams into reality. Then there are those who turn reality into dreams. I belong to the latter group.”
A story of adoption in which a girl who questions why she isn’t with her “real” family eventually adopts a new family member of her own—a stray cat. It’s heartbreaking and poignant.
Another favorite. This one encompasses so much, as chronicling one specific life does. Alice loved music and dancing, but so many things got in the way. World War II and being an enemy in her own country, building a farm and a life with her husband, colorful fields of gladiolas in the desert. And then, after a life lived, a husband passed away, Alice can finally dance.
A celebration of Japan’s tradition of “paper theater,” an old form of storytelling that requires presence and attention (and, fittingly, one might say is a relative of picture books).
Erika is an American who sees a print of a tea house in Japan and it guides her through life. She travels there to teach after college and meets a Japanese man who drinks coffee like an American, not tea. This is part of Say’s brilliance—the way he deals with traditions. You can find new ones and discover old ones whether they “belong” to you or not.
Masako is also called May. She moves to Japan and finds herself a foreigner. In San Francisco: “At home she had rice and miso soup and plain green tea for breakfast. At her friends’ houses she ate pancakes and muffins and drank tea with milk and sugar.” In Japan: “They called her gaijin [foreigner] and laughed at her.” But then, she finds a way for herself.
This is a story of a father and daughter, a daughter who doesn’t feel quite at home with her name, Yuriko. But, in line with the themes Say returns to again and again, she comes home to her name, to herself, to her identity—as Japanese-American, as an artist, as herself.
This is Say’s illustrated biography and it also gives the backstory of where some of his stories came from. He was a boy who loved comic books and had to prove himself to his father who didn’t believe in him. He was so independent that he had his own apartment at the age of 13. But he found a sensei, and that made all the difference. In a way, the whole book is a tribute to his teacher and he even describes it in the afterword like they wrote it together. Like his stories and fiction, Say’s memoir brings tears too.
“I wasn’t a good student. It was depressing to count the years before I could be a cartoonist.”
A sequel to Drawing From Memory, this memoir picks up when Say arrives in America at the age of fifteen in 1953 and, once again, is very much on his own but in a new land, California.
“A panic came over me. But the singing crickets calmed me a little—they sounded just like Japanese crickets.”
Remarkably, he manages well in a place where he doesn’t know the culture or language well and, to some, is still seen as an enemy. There are kindnesses of a few strangers in addition to his own determination despite a father who is not just unsupportive but cruel. His own drive and talent carve his way. The most amazing part is the end, where you find out Say’s mother had been born in San Francisco and that’s where Say heads after his high school graduation. There’s that connection with his mother from the first book coming back around and that duality from all his stories. His mother had told him, “Let your dear chid journey,” a Japanese saying. He journeyed. All the way to her other home.
Because I love sharing books, especially by creators I admire, I’m giving away a copy of THE INKER’S SHADOW! Simply leave a comment on this post about Allen Say’s work to enter!
(Open to U.S. only; ends Sunday, March 20 at midnight.)