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allen say’s picture book life + giveaway!


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.






Grandfather’s Journey

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.”


Home of the Brave

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.




Music for Alice

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.




Kamishibai Man

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.




Tea With Milk

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.



The Favorite Daughter

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.



Drawing from Memory

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.”






The Inker’s Shadow

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.)



kamishibai man + microscope toy theater in L.A.

kamishibai_man_allen_sayKamishibai Man by Allen Say.


First, we need to know what kamishibai is. “Paper theater” in Japanese, it’s an ancient storytelling practice using storyboards/picture cards. One by one, the storyteller pulls a picture card away to reveal the next moment of the story. (Remind anyone else of reading a picture book at story time?)


Considered a precursor to manga and anime, in some form it dates back to the 12th century. It was most prevalent in the 20th century before the popularity of television.


In the foreword,  Allen Say remembers:


“Every afternoon, the kamishibai man came on a bicycle that had a big wooden box mounted on the back seat. The box had drawers full of candies and a stage at the top. We bought candies and listened to the man’s stories.”


Allen Say’s character, Kamishibai Man, is one of those.


Like most of Say’s work there’s a feeling of nostalgia in this book. A fond look back at the past along with a pang of sadness for what’s now gone. As always, Say teaches us history and culture along with how to be kind.




The book focuses on an old man who used to tell Kamishibai stories. One day, he decides to return to the city again after all this time, but it’s not how it used to be. There are no more trees and lots of shops and buildings.



Say seamlessly transitions from the present day to the past, the man growing young again and telling stories to children from his bicycle stage years ago.


kamishibai-man-4When we look up again from his tale, we’re back to today and there’s a crowd of people around Kamishibai Man, grownups who are the very same children who used to buy his wife’s candies and listen to his stories.



They’re thrilled to see him again!







I was fortunate enough to catch a kamishibai-style performance in Los Angeles over the weekend. And if you live in the area, there’s one more this weekend as well!

Microscope Toy Theater takes on this tradition of “paper theater” with Yulya Dukhovny performing “Star in a Glass Jar” at Automata (that’s one of my very favorite theaters in L.A. and known for experimental puppetry).

The show is a beauty to behold. Gentle, patient, gorgeous, and even funny. It’s a Christmas story of a girl—and her sweet, wise dog—who lives in the far North and who needs something for her holiday tree. She sends a letter: “to whom it may concern.”

That letter ends up in a fishing village in Japan, in the hands of a little boy.

The performance was mesmerizing as each new paper that slid from the theater frame revealed another one, just as captivating as the last.




For tickets and info about performances November 15h and 16th, click here.



9 picture books from the 90s


This is my latest installment of picture books by the decade. How great was the 90s for picture books? Seriously great. At least I think so. (Notice I’ve used bubble writing for the years in each picture!)


Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, illustrated by Barbara Cooney was on my PBs for summer list as well because it’s quintessentially summer and captures the magic of childhood at the same time. Ah, this book. A favorite. A classic. Perfection.


The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg is dark and clever and deals with (this is Chris Van Allsburg!) magic. A woman, a witch, a broom, what the neighbors think, and the meaning of evil.

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Pumpkins: A Story for a Field by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Barry Root. I’ve sung this one’s praises here before too. But really it just blows me away. Early Mary Lyn Ray is so so good. (As is later and current!)




Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say is a dear to my heart book about immigration, family, and having two homes. It’s one of the first picture books I loved as an adult.


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The Library by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small is a tribute to books and libraries and this lovable nose-in-a-book-character, Elizabeth Brown, who embodies both.



A Special Kind of Love by Stephen Michael King is quite an unusual book. It’s about a father who can’t say the words, “I love you,” to his son, so he shows him through the stuff he makes with his hands.




Night Driving by John Coy, illustrated by Peter McCarthy is another father/son book. It’s slow and quiet like a road trip and full of details for soaking up.



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A Picture Book of Amelia Earhart by David A. Adler, illustrated by Jeff Fisher. I do love a heroic  historical lady biography.



Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is one of my favorite books, period. Wesley is a bullied boy. He’s also an ingenious one. Over summer vacation, he turns his backyard into a veritable civilization by growing one staple crop. It’s strange and brilliant and empowering.



Looking at this list of my faves from the 90s, I’m not sure what conclusions to draw exactly. But I would note the magical realism threaded through this list. Relationships with family members figure into this bunch too, as well as relationships to special places.

Okay, your turn! Please tell me any of your favorite 90s picture books in the comments!

And check out 8 picture books from the 80s too!






grandfather’s journey + storycorps

grandfathersjourneybyallensayIt’s hard to pinpoint, but I think my love of picture books as an adult started with this one. Get out the tissue! At least I do when I read it. Every single time.

All  of Allen Say‘s books are gorgeous gems.

This one’s told so simply, mostly as biographical facts, but some of them will just break your heart. Every book Say makes has such straightforwardness, beauty, history, emotion.

And the illustrations. Each is an exquisite painting (not done justice by my photos). The book won a Caldecott Medal in 1994.




Grandfather’s Journey is a story of three generations and two places: Japan and California. The old place and the new world. Two homes, across the sea. Back and forth. Loving both. Belonging to both.


It’s s an immigrant’s story of course, told by a grandson about his grandfather.

Anyone who’s left one place for another place will deeply understand. I once moved from a place I loved in Asia, Hong Kong, to another unfamiliar place, California. It took a  long time, but I came to love that place too. I haven’t been back in eighteen years, but I badly want to go back and visit the first.


“He remembered the mountains and rivers of his home. He surrounded himself with songbirds, but he could not forget.”


 “Finally, when his daughter was nearly grown, he could wait no more. He took his family and returned to his homeland.”


“But a war began. Bombs fell from the sky and scattered our lives like leaves.”


“So they returned to the village where they had been children. But my grandfather never kept another songbird.”




An organization I think of  when it comes to stories, and family stories, is StoryCorps. They know what they’re doing. They’ve recorded 45,000 of them in the ten years they’ve been around. Regular people’s voices and true tales.

Here’s the deal. You take someone with you and interview her/him. StoryCorps records it. If there isn’t a booth near you, there’s a mobile airstream that travels around collecting stories. My friend Tracy, who interviewed her mother, describes the experience as: “a wonderful opportunity to connect with someone you care about and capture their story.”



“We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters. At the same time, we will create an invaluable archive of American voices and wisdom for future generations.”


 You can listen to the StoryCorps podcast. But my favorites are the select stories  animated by The Rauch Brothers. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll laugh and cry and be moved by these animated shorts.

These particular videos all deal, in some way, with living in two different worlds, like Grandfather’s Journey does:

Eyes on the Stars.” An African American little boy during segregation wanting to join a vast new world in space.


Sundays at Rocco’s.” The special gathering an Italian family created every Sunday  over a meal. Until they no longer could and everything changed.

Facundo the Great.” Elementary  kids in the 50s with Latino names went by Americanized names at school. Until a new kid arrived.

John and Joe.” The world before and after losing both your kids on September 11th.

And “Q & A.” In which a seventh grader who has Asperger’s syndrome interviews his mother. It’s a beautiful exploration of one other’s worlds.

I’m off to have a good cry.