Allen Say's Drawing from Memory
Book review by Monica Friedman
Caldecott Winning Artist Recalls, Illustrates Childhood
Fans of Japanese-American artist Allen Say have a new reason to rejoice. The illustrator has long been known for his beautiful picture books, which often prominently feature his family’s stories (Grandfather’s Journey, Tea with Milk) or his own memories (The Bicycle Man), but this sixty-three page book focuses on Say’s early years and his own development as an artist.
Book review - Drawing from Memory
Having been taught to read at a very early age, Say became popular in the neighborhood as the child who was able to read to other children. At the same time, he became fascinated with comic books and determined to perfect his own skills as an artist. An illustration from this section shows his parents reacting to a good-sized drawing of a passenger train and an airplane, lovingly inscribed on an interior wall of their house.
Not surprisingly, Say experiences opposition to his goals. His father says, “I expect you to be a respectable citizen, not an artist, and that means you’ll have to earn a living. Artists are lazy and scruffy people—they are not respectable.” Fortunately for Say, his parents divorce after the war, and eventually he ends up in his mother’s custody. Sent to middle school in Tokyo, he lives first with his grandmother, and then, when his grandmother becomes unhappy with the arrangement, he is sent to live in a small apartment, on his own. “I floated around the room all afternoon,” he remembers.
At last, he can spend all his free time on art! His first night on his own, he reads a newspaper article about a boy only a little older than him who left home and become apprenticed to Say’s favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei. Determined to do the same, Say screws up his courage, approaches the artist, and, after drawing a horse as the price of admission, finds himself working with his hero, along with the boy in the newspaper article.
Much of the story is about Say’s development as an artist and the unfolding of his relationship with Shinpei, his sensei. He continues studying to maintain his place in school while spending all his free time inking Shinpei’s work and honing his own abilities, until the age of sixteen, when he embarks on a journey to America and the story ends.
Like all of Say’s work, Drawing from Memory is lovingly illustrated, and while there is a great deal of text compared to his other children’s stories, there are also more pictures: full fledged color drawings, uncolored ink pieces, rough pencil sketches, reproductions of comics from decades past, and a few photographs to fill in the gaps.
A beautiful author’s note at the end details Say’s adult relationship with Shinpei, with whom he maintained contact until his mentor’s death in 2002.
There is sadness in Drawing From Memory: the aftermath of World War II, his difficult relationship with his father. But there is more joy, primarily, the joy of immersing oneself in art. For any child with a dream, this book is a perfect illustration of how to go about making it come true.
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