Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Lynn: I am fascinated by stories of an artist’s journey and how better to tell that story than through illustration!  Renown illustrator Allen Say tells his story from his early years in Japan to his immigration to the United States with text, pen and ink drawings, watercolor paintings and family photographs.  Drawing from Memory (Scholastic 2011) is a captivating peek into the heart and mind of a young artist and the visual storytelling is a delight.

Say’s parents, especially his father, were not pleased by his interest in drawing.  But when he was only 4 the war began and then so much changed.  With enormous understatement Say writes, “When the war ended four years later, everything was broken.”  When he was only 12, Say’s grandmother offered to send him to one of the best schools in Tokyo if he could pass the exams and allow him to live alone in his own apartment!  What an incentive!  Once there Say convinced the great master Noro Shinpei to take him on as pupil and Say’s world blossomed.  Say chronicles his time as a young teen working with Sensei (as Say called Shinpei) and developing as an artist.

This is a truly lovely book – a charming hodge-podge of drawings, cartoon panels and photos that begs to be dawdled over.  Say’s text is spare and often humorous, teaming effectively with the illustrations to tell a story of a young man who knew his  life’s purpose and a mother who had the courage to “let her dear child journey.”

Cindy: What a great title for an artist’s memoir! As much as I learned about Allen Say’s journey in this book, I appreciated the peek into the life of a mentor who truly savors the role. With subtlety, Say reveals the importance of the relationship to both men. Sensei gave gifts of time, talent, space, supplies, wisdom, encouragement, and the invaluable gift of a supportive father figure. One who recognizes a boy’s passion and talent and does not try to mold him into something he is not.

Say and his fellow apprentice, Tokida, became characters in one of Shinpei’s famous comic strips…what an honor for young aspiring cartoonists. I love the scenes of these two boys exploring Tokyo and eschewing the drone-like appearance of the adults commuting to the same jobs every day…while dreaming about their lives as artists.  An author’s note contains information about Sensai’s final years and a reunion a few years before his death…and brought tears at the realization about how vital this relationship was to both men. I was left wondering about Tokida…is he still working in art…or did the drone world consume him?

I can’t wait to show this one to my art teachers and to booktalk it to my middle school students. It’s a good title to pair with artist Peter Sis’ memoir, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.

For more Nonfiction Monday reviews visit Amy O’Quinn.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

6 Comments on "Drawing from Memory by Allen Say"

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  1. I have just recently borrowed quite a number of Allen Say books from our library, but I have not chanced upon this one yet -I borrowed his Caldecott honor ‘Grandfather’s journey’ – and I have just checked – this book is not in our community libraries yet, which I find surprising. Hmm. Now I’m definitely intrigued. I also have Peter Sis’ The Wall which I bought while I was in Prague – I haven’t had the chance to enjoy it as thoroughly as I would like to though – but perhaps I should feature that for Nonfiction Monday soon. 😉 Thanks for sharing this book. He reminds me a little bit of Shaun Tan – bits and pieces of Grandfather’s Journey made me recall The Arrival.

  2. Myra, don’t fault your libraries…the book doesn’t publish until September 1st. Just let them know you want it! Sorry to get you all excited before publication, but sadly for other reasons, September will be here before long! I’d like to read Shaun Tan’s memoir too…I don’t think he’s done one, has he?

  3. amymoquinn@gmail.com' Amy O'Quinn says:

    I’m familiar with and enjoy Allen Say’s books, so this will be one to definitely check out! Thanks for the recommendation, and thanks for participating in today’s Nonfiction Monday round-up. This has been my first time hosting, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience!

  4. Any chance either of you read Stitches: a memoir by David Small? Graphic novel format of his very troubling childhood. Not a picture book, I know but he is a picture book author/illustrator.
    Love Allan Say and his two books, Grandfather’s Journey and Tea with Milk will be used in an upcoming ‘mega-booktalk’ with a group of elementary teachers around the theme ‘journey’.
    Thanks for this recommendation. I will look it up.
    Apples with Many Seeds

  5. font@umich.edu' Kristin says:

    I savored this one just as you did! Great idea to pair it with THE WALL!

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