Up until this year I’ve missed the boat on Allen Say, a prolific, widely-admired writer and painter of picture books. Imagine my surprise to find he’s a resident right here in Portland! At the Atkinson Elementary Scholastic book sale I saw his new book, Drawing From Memory. For me it’s just irresistible. What a format, a multi-media memoir of his path to becoming an artist in WW II era Japan. It’s a large 64 page book that feels quite a bit like a graphic novel. It’s an absolute perfect blend of photos, painted illustrations in color and black and white, and even color comics.
His parents aren’t pleased with his art inclination. Dad tells him artists aren’t respectable. Then in first grade his teacher tells him he has a wonderful talent. It’s a blast to see his color drawing of her that he’s done from memory over 50 years later.
Remarkably he ends up living alone at age 13 in a room in housing for the poor so his family can send him to a prestigious school in Tokyo. His room becomes his art studio. He makes sure to do well in school but dives into art. Soon he’s an apprentice working for his favorite cartoonist in Postwar Japan. Amazing! The cartoonist even puts two new characters in his comic strip based on Say and the other apprentice that this book shows a sample of. Allen Say gets to see his sensei (teacher) again more than 50 years later. (Say had immigrated to America in 1952
I’m trying not to tell you too much. But I hope you’ll enjoy the wonderful ride through Say’s early life and his art development. Subsequently, I read two more Say books, Erika-San and Tea with Milk. They don’t have the exciting multi-media format, but they are lovely stories about cultural displacement and assimilation.
One more thing: at one point Allen Say’s sensei tells him he’s a young Hokusai, the great Japanese painter (everybody knows his painting of the great wave). Speaking of Hokusai, I just have to tell you about a fabulous French book by Francois Place called The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai (2004 American edition). It’s a terrific, genre-bending book. It’s a sort of small format biography full of color illustrations telling us the story of the great man. It’s a book you want to tell everyone about. Feels like a perfect biography hitting on themes of talent and persistence. Cartoon-y color pictures make it feel like a graphic novel.
Hope the “graphic memoir” genre continues and thrives. Remind me to tell you sometime about the compelling and remarkable book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis about growing up in Czechoslovakia. Some books are perfect!