Children's Authors/Allen Say

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Biographical Information[edit | edit source]

Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Allen Say, award-winning illustrator and author of children’s books, was born in 1937 in Yokohama, Japan. His father was a Korean orphan raised by a British family in Shanghai. His mother was a Japanese American born in Oakland, California. His parents divorced when Say was only eight years old. His sister lived with their mother, while Allen lived unhappily with his father. When Allen was twelve, he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother and was enrolled in Aoyama Gakuin in Tokyo. His relationship with his grandmother was no better than that with his father. At the age of twelve, an agreement was negotiated that allowed Allen to live by himself in an apartment closer to the school he attended. It was during this time that Allen apprenticed himself to Noro Shinpei, a cartoonist whom he greatly admired. Say grew up during the time period of World War II when life was incredibly difficult due to the country's war effort.
When Say turned sixteen, his career in art had begun just as his father decided to move to America with his new family. Say was invited to immigrate to America as part of the family; however, to Say’s dismay, his father had enrolled him in the Harding Military Academy in Glendora, California. Say was eventually expelled for smoking cigarettes in his room. With nowhere to go, he walked to city of Azusa and began attending Citrus Union High School. It was there that he was encouraged to pursue his gift in art. He even attended a special weekend arts program at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and classes at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.
After graduation, Say moved back to Japan and vowed never to return to America. However, after a year back in Japan, he returned to America and worked as an apprentice to a sign painter. Say found very little satisfaction in painting the ideas of others. He quit, married, and moved to northern California where he began attending the University of California at Berkeley as an architectural student. In July 1962, Say’s student deferment was revoked due to a technicality, and he was drafted into the army. He spent the next two years in Germany. A commanding officer noticed some of his work, and he published his first work in photography in the newspaper Stars and Stripes.
When Say returned to California, he worked in commercial photography which connected him with numerous art directors and designers. It was the encouragement of these contacts that led Say to freelance as an illustrator. He published his first book, Smith’s Safari in 1972. For the next ten years, Say continued to alternate writing and illustrating with his photography. In 1979, Say published his only novel to date, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. This novel is an autobiography of the time period in his life when he realized he wanted to become an artist. After illustrating Ina R. Friedman’s book How My Parents Learned to Eat in 1984, he became discouraged by the color reproduction and actually vowed to quit illustrating altogether.
It wasn’t until Walter Lorraine, an editor at the Houghton Mifflin Company, convinced Say that the finest color reproduction could be used to replicate his artwork that Say agreed to illustrate The Boy of the Three-year Nap written by Dianne Snyder. In 1988, The Boy of the Three-year Nap won a Caldecott Honor Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Later that year, Say quit photography and dedicated himself to writing and illustrating children’s books.
The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hosted a retrospective of Say’s work in children’s literature in 2000. The exhibition was titled “Allen Says Journey: The Art and Words of a Children’s Book Author.” Fifty-five of Say’s original drawings and paintings were featured with original sketchbooks and autobiographical artifacts.
Allen Say weaves elements of his own life into many of his stories. His books pay tribute to Japanese culture and folk tales as well as his own personal experiences. Rick Margolis wrote, “For Say, each book that he undertakes continues to represent a personal journey, but each work also gives space to the reader, whether young or old, and allows for new interpretations based on others’ experiences.”

Allen Say’s Journey: The Art and Words of a Children’s Book Author.
School Library Journal Interview with Allen Say by Rick Margolis
Caldecott Medal Award Acceptance Speech by Allen Say
Essay written by Allen Say's daughter Yuriko Say when she was 13 years old

Books of Interest[edit | edit source]

Girls reading

Say, A. (1997). Allison. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

When Allison realizes that she is adopted she questions where she came from, her name, and whether her adoptive parents are her real family. “Where’s my Mommy? Where’s my Daddy,” Allison cried. Say’s simple prose is direct and full of empathy as themes of adoption, family, home and belonging are examined. The ending provides an unexpected insight into the power of acceptance. The themes of family, home and belonging are also in A Stranger in the Mirror. However the emphasis in this story is on the need to belong. Full-page watercolor pictures vividly illustrate Allison’s world. Complex emotions are captured through Say’s text and illustrations. This book would be an excellent addition to a classroom library, and useful in the exploration of the general themes of adoption, culture, families and our need to belong.

Say, A. (2010). The Boy in the Garden. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A young Japanese boy sets out to explore a beautiful garden while his father visits with a friend. A bronze crane statue graces the garden, and reminds the boy of an old legend his mother had told him about a woodcutter setting a crane free. He runs deeper into the garden when adult laughter cuts into his imaginative play. “That’s only a statue, Jiro!” Father called from the house. Say’s prose is precise. It is understated, “showing the reader,” rather than “telling the reader.” Say’s rich illustrations invite you into the little boy’s dream; the little boy’s face is expressive, the panels of the teahouse are softly illuminated, the Crane Woman skin is porcelain white. A wonderful story about the power of storytelling even when we know the story isn’t true. It also speaks to the power of our imagination to “see” the stories around us. This would be an excellent book to inspire a look at the stories our students’ parents have told them, as well as a discussion on the place of imagination and dreams.

Say, A. (2010). Drawing From Memory. New York: Scholastic Press

This is a poignant memoir written by a master storyteller and artist. “Let your dear child journey,” an old Japanese saying, is the path Say’s personal narrative travels upon. It is a delightful book filled with anecdotal stories, photos, pen and ink sketches and water colored illustrations. He maintains a tension between pursuing one’s dreams and the expectations of others, and the difficult choices this creates. It is a window into all of the books that he has written. The range of his unique illustrative style is shown throughout. Through his memoir one sees the threads of moving against the tide, belonging (as found in Allison or The Stranger in the Mirror), displacement, family (as found in Grandfather's Journey), dreams , perseverance(as found in Music for Alice), loyalty, creativity (as found in The Boy in the Garden), and fulfillment that are woven into his stories. This book could be used in many ways. Here are a few possibilities: to showcase a genre, to provide an example of authentic voice, to use in a cultural or an author study.

Say, A. (1993). Grandfather’s Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

This is an intimate three-generational account of Say’s family’s bond to America and Japan. A Caldecott Medal winner, Grandfather’s Journey, is a story of family and place. It opens with his grandfather traveling by boat from Japan to America, and the seemingly endless horizons to explore once he reaches shore. It recounts his growing love for this new country, but also the tug of his heart to return to Japan. So, he does. It is in the spirit of his grandfather’s journey that Allen Say heads to America. Ultimately, it is a story of all who have traveled from home, to return home, and find that part of one’s heart is always in a land far away. The accompanying illustrations capture the rough ocean waters, the endless stretch of sea and sky, and America’s and Japan’s landscapes and people. This book sheds light on the cross-cultural connections of family and place, and the power of these in our lives. It could be used in a genre study, as well as a tool to explore the power of home and coming to understand those we call family.

Say, A. (2004). Music for Alice. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

A turn of events can appear to silence a dream. And yet, like a fire banked for the night, an ember quietly glows. Music for Alice, based upon Alice Sumida’s life, unfolds in unanticipated ways, requiring the reader to stop and reflect upon the tragic and triumphant, and her ability to move through it all with grace. The artwork carries the tone of the text, ranging from somber grays and browns to splashes of color that glow, painted with precise strokes with a soft-focused backdrop. The prose falls upon your ear like the familiar voice of a grandparent speaking of a life and time you have not known. Based on a true story, this book is a wonderful example of historical fiction. It provides opportunities to discuss the Japanese-American experience during World War II, perseverance, seeing opportunities among dashed hopes, and other life topics. Perhaps the strongest theme is the power of an individual’s dream and its unexpected fulfillment.

Say, Allen. (1995). Stranger in the Mirror. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

After the departure of Sam’s grandfather, Sam awakens to find that he has the face of an old man. Everyone who sees him stares, even Sam’s closest friend turns from him. Sam decides to run away. Reminiscent of Chris Van Allsburg’s merging of the real and the surreal, this story explores the inner identity held by self and the shaping power of people’s perceptions and reactions. The full-page watercolor illustrations capture the reactions of all that meet Sam. The transformation is believable, and readers will feel the impact of Sam’s alienation. What an interesting story to use in the classroom to discuss the value of the old and others different from ourselves. It highlights the difference between who we are and how we are perceived.

References[edit | edit source]

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