Books by Allen Say

ALMOND by Allen Say
by Allen Say, illustrated by Allen Say
Released: March 3, 2020

"A slight story coupled with puzzling illustrations, this doesn't quite hit the mark. (Picture book. 4-7)"
Sometimes it takes meeting someone new to help us learn what we can really achieve. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 31, 2017

"With sensitive text and powerful illustrations, Say brings this remarkable, inspiring life to poignant reality. (author's note, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 8-15)"
An imagined biography in words and pictures of the self-taught white artist James Castle. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 29, 2015

"This small but firm step on an artist's journey is both inspiration to his fellows and an informative window into a particular slice of the nation's history. (afterword, with photos) (Graphic memoir. 10 & up)"
In this continuation of Say's graphic memoir, Drawing from Memory (2011), he travels to the United States and receives a decidedly mixed welcome.Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 2013

"This is as much a story about cultural pride as it about self-esteem and problem-solving, from which all can draw a lesson. (Picture book. 5-8)"
When an episode of teasing makes Yuriko doubt herself—her name, her heritage, her interests—her father gently guides her back to her roots and herself. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 2011

"Aesthetically superb; this will fascinate comics readers and budding artists while creating new Say fans. (author's note) (Graphic memoir. 10 & up)"
Exquisite drawings, paintings, comics and photographs balance each other perfectly as they illustrate Say's childhood path to becoming an artist. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 2010

Say is at the height of his artistic achievement in this tale of a little boy named Jiro and the powerful impact that a story has on him. It opens with a retelling of "The Crane Wife," with a heading telling readers that this is "the story that Mama read to Jiro." He recalls the tale about "the crane that the woodcutter saved from the trap" when he sees a crane statue in a family friend's garden and then imagines a teahouse on the property's outskirts to be the woodcutter's cottage. A woman arrives, prompting Jiro to ask if she is the Crane Woman, but she just smiles, feeds him and cares for him, praising his imagination. A series of dreamlike paintings done in the Caldecott winner's customarily precise and beautifully lit watercolors blurs the lines between reality and fantasy and limns Jiro's conflicted emotions as he seems to enter the story that bonds him to his mother, only to awaken to his father's voice telling him it is time to return home. This is a beautiful, moving, quietly mysterious read, ripe with possibilities for interpretation and contemplation. (Picture book. 5-8)Read full book review >
ERIKA-SAN by Allen Say
by Allen Say, illustrated by Allen Say
Released: Jan. 26, 2009

Say's hallmark watercolors, beautifully composed and superbly detailed, illustrate this slightly unsettling shift of homeland. As a small child, Erika—white, probably American—is enraptured by a framed Japanese print on her grandmother's wall. She yearns to move to the cottage in the picture, studies Japanese for years and secures a job in Japan after college. But Tokyo is too populated for her taste, and, wanting somewhere quieter, she requests "old Japan." Her longing for a timeless land imagined from a childhood picture would better suit a fable than a realistic story about a real country; here it seems to reduce Japan to Erika's fantasy. Friend-cum-fiancé Aki inquires whether Erika's grandfather was a soldier when in Japan, but Erika neither knows nor cares, making World War II seem less irrelevant than ignored. Erika finds her romanticized Japan, complete with kimono, tea ceremony lessons and a farmhouse that Say paints gorgeously—in the same hues and values as the old print. Expert angles and a touching sense of stillness make this piece visually masterful even while conceptually disquieting. (Picture book. 5-7)Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 24, 2005

Kamishibai means "paper theater" in Japanese, and when Caldecott artist Say was a boy in Japan in the 1940s, a "kamishibai man" on a bicycle used to sell sweets and tell serial tales of heroes and heroines, using picture cards and a wooden stage. This nostalgic story begins when Grandpa, once a kamishibai man, gets a hankering to resurrect his show. Unfortunately, it's been so long he finds himself in an unrecognizable city with tall buildings and rude drivers. Dismayed, he parks his bike in a vacant lot and begins to recount not the beloved "Peach Boy," but his own story of how his show was eventually replaced by television (initially referred to as denki, or electric kamishibai!). Soon enough, Grandpa's surrounded by a crowd of adults who remember him from their childhood, and, ironically, he ends up on the evening news. Say effectively incorporates two illustration styles here—lovely soft watercolors and a more cartoonish style for flashbacks to the heyday of kamishibai. A fascinating window on a bygone art form. (Picture book. 6-10)Read full book review >
Released: March 29, 2004

Understated full-page water-color paintings and a spare text tell the life story of Alice Sumida, who "loved dancing more than anything else." As a child, Alice wished that "Daddy's tractor would turn into a coach and take me dancing." After college she married Mark, who sold seeds. Like thousands of other Americans of Japanese descent, the couple was forced to evacuate during WWII. In the sandy desert of eastern Oregon, they leased land to start a farm of their own, and after years of hard work became "the largest gladiola bulb growers in the country." Eventually, they sold the business. "What good is success," Alice thought, "if we can't enjoy ourselves?" After her husband's death, Alice visits the farm, now in ruins. In a poignant moment, Alice realizes that now she can dance: "And dance I do—all that I can." Each of Say's exquisite paintings tells a story; together they create a moving testament to a life of hard work and dreams—dreams that find fulfillment in unanticipated ways. (Picture book. All ages)Read full book review >
Released: April 30, 2002

Say (The Sign Painter, 2000, etc.) takes readers on a very personal and perplexing journey in this latest outing, melding together, in dream and nightmare-like fashion, the past, present, and future. This non-linear, fantasy story-within-a-story begins in present day with a man setting off in his kayak and being carried over an enormous waterfall. Here, minus kayak and equipment, he finds himself in a cave at the foot of a ladder, which leads him to the desert above. At this point, Say establishes a Native American connection—an Indian reservation. But then, finding two lost children who are unable to tell him where their home is, he leads them toward the lights of an internment camp that is both present-day deserted and in full WWII use. At the camp, the man finds an ID tag with his own name on it, and a large group of Japanese-American children chanting, "Take us home." Searchlights from two watchtowers scan the group and everyone runs. In the next painting, the man appears beside a Pueblo kiva. He climbs down another ladder and falls asleep. The children he sees when he wakes are Native American, not Japanese; those children have gone home. In this cryptic story, which relies on both words and pictures, Say exhibits a political tone not seen in his previous work. He explores difficult pieces of US history (Indian reservations, Japanese internment camps), making a tenuous, but powerful, connection, and focusing on the sadness and bewilderment of the children. Adults and families are absent here. The images are photographic and hauntingly beautiful, but the symbolism is not always clear, especially for a child reader who lacks historical context. While providing much to speculate on, this will probably find its rightful audience with teens and adults. (Picture book. 10+)Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 2000

Say scatters references to other artists through a typically elliptical tale of an itinerant painter and a man with a lonely, soaring vision. No sooner does the young wanderer step off a bus in a small town to take a job with a commercial artist than a new commission comes along: to paint a dozen huge desert billboards with a woman's face and the single word "ArrowStar." He finds out what it all means when the work is nearly done; the billboards lead to an immense roller-coaster, built by an enterprising dreamer in the middle of nowhere, near the route of a future highway. However, with the news that the road might not come, the woman to whom the billboards are also a tribute drives off, leaving the man alone with his grand construction. In Say's art, every figure is a lonely one, seen at a remove, placed into wide, O'Keeffe-like landscapes or stepping into one Edward Hopper painting or another Norman Rockwell-like design. As with much of Say's work, this spare episode will appeal most to readers of an inward, analytical bent who enjoy winkling out hidden meanings and subtle allusions. (Picture book. 10+)Read full book review >
TEA WITH MILK by Allen Say
by Allen Say, illustrated by Allen Say
Released: April 1, 1999

In describing how his parents met, Say continues to explore the ways that differing cultures can harmonize; raised near San Francisco and known as May everywhere except at home, where she is Masako, the child who will grow up to be Say's mother becomes a misfit when her family moves back to Japan. Rebelling against attempts to force her into the mold of a traditional Japanese woman, she leaves for Osaka, finds work as a department store translator, and meets Joseph, a Chinese businessman who not only speaks English, but prefers tea with milk and sugar, and persuades her that "home isn't a place or a building that's ready-made or waiting for you, in America or anywhere else." Painted with characteristic control and restraint, Say's illustrations, largely portraits, begin with a sepia view of a sullen child in a kimono, gradually take on distinct, subdued color, and end with a formal shot of the smiling young couple in Western dress. A stately cousin to Ina R. Friedman's How My Parents Learned To Eat (1984), also illustrated by Say. (Picture book. 7-9) Read full book review >
ALLISON by Allen Say
Released: Oct. 1, 1997

Say's trademark nuanced and limpid watercolors convey and complete the emotional resonance of this adoption story. When Allison's grandmother sends her a kimono and Allison tries it on, she sees that she resembles her doll, Mei Mei, more than she resembles her parents. Allison is terrified and unsatisfied by her parents' explanation (in a conversation that sounds as if the subject has never been broached) that her birth parents couldn't keep her, and that they brought her home (with Mei Mei) from another country. She withdraws from her playmates and her family, and then lashes out by destroying her mother and father's cherished possessions from childhood. A stray cat who has been hanging around their house provides Allison with another—albeit unstated—view of adoption and she cheers up enough to rejoin her family. Say masterfully captures Allison's expressions: She is surprised, wounded, sullen, hurt and hurtful, and finally reassured. He addresses the dark side of an adoptive child's feelings carefully, and while the resolution is a bit convenient (and may require interpretation for younger children), it still carries truth. (Picture book. 4-8)Read full book review >
EMMA'S RUG by Allen Say
by Allen Say, illustrated by Allen Say
Released: Oct. 1, 1996

Readers who found Say's Stranger in the Mirror (1995) opaque will welcome his return to limpid, ruminative form as he weighs in with a characteristically terse, oblique consideration of the wellsprings of artistic creativity. After spending hours staring at the small white rug given to her as a baby, Emma produces drawings and paintings of such promise that soon she has a roomful of prizes. "Where do you get your ideas?" her classmates ask. "I just copy." One day while Emma is out, her mother washes the rug. Horrified to find it "very clean," Emma stops drawing, and after a time throws her art supplies away—"Kid stuff." In losing one source of inspiration, however, Emma gains many more as visions begin to appear everywhere she looks. Emma is last seen working on a drawing more developed than her previous work. Say depicts Emma's art in a wholly believable way, as a combination of childlike subjects rendered with a sophisticated sense of color and composition; his well-lit, neatly drawn scenes—plus Emma's nearly indiscernible expressions—make the turbulent illustration of her anguish intense, her subsequent delight, vivid. (Picture book. 6+)Read full book review >
EL CHINO by Allen Say
Released: March 3, 1996

The true story of a Chinese-American bullfighter. Born in Arizona, Billy Wong's dream of becoming a star basketball player was thwarted by his average stature. Though his mother was a grocer's widow, he and his four brothers and sisters all pursued professional careers. But later, as a young engineer traveling in Spain, Billy discovered and trained for his second calling, despite local opinion that only natives could he matadors; his skill, plus a well-timed appearance in Chinese costume, won him a trial that was the beginning of his success. Though bullfighting is hardly everyone's favorite sport, this cross-cultural story of perseverance is an unusual, authentic bit of history, told with simplicity and grace. Say's watercolor illustrations—including representations of b&w family photos—are handsomely designed, his trademark use of architectural lines and angles lending serenity, the more active scenes beautifully composed. A note telling more about this unusual figure would have been enlightening. Still, interesting as far as it goes. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1995

Thinking about his grandfather, Sam decides that he doesn't want to grow old—but he wakes up the next morning with an old man's face. His parents are shocked, the doctors are amazed, his schoolmates jeer. Isn't he the same Sam inside? He grabs a skateboard to prove it, and wakes up the next morning with his familiar, unlined kid's face back. Though not as spare as Grandfather's Journey (1993), this has been pared down considerably, sometimes to the point of confusion (Where has the grandfather gone? Is this a dream or not?), and a mastery of skateboard tricks isn't the most convincing peg on which to hang a sense of self. Elegant lines, clean curves, and uncluttered backgrounds give Say's paintings a tidy, controlled look that works better in the first half (scenes of people with astonished looks) than in the second (Sam on the skateboard). The artist's flair with facial expressions wavers at the end; it's hard to tell whether Sam is laughing, crying, shouting, or sneezing. Readers willing to dig deeply may find here a protest against marginalizing the elderly; most will see it as a transformation story, more stridently earnest than David Small's Imogene's Antlers (1985), Arthur Yorinks's Louis the Fish (1980), or Anthony Browne's entire oeuvre. (Picture book. 8+)Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1993

"The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other," observes Say near the end of this poignant account of three generations of his family's moves between Japan and the US. Say's grandfather came here as a young man, married, and lived in San Francisco until his daughter was "nearly grown" before returning to Japan; his treasured plan to visit the US once again was delayed, forever as it turned out, by WW II. Say's American-born mother married in Japan (cf. Tree of Cranes, 1991), while he, born in Yokohama, came here at 16. In lucid, graceful language, he chronicles these passages, reflecting his love of both countries—plus the expatriate's ever-present longing for home—in both simple text and exquisitely composed watercolors: scenes of his grandfather discovering his new country and returning with new appreciation to the old, and pensive portraits recalling family photos, including two evoking the war and its aftermath. Lovely, quiet—with a tenderness and warmth new to this fine illustrator's work. (Nonfiction/Picture book. 4+)Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1991

When the young Japanese narrator comes home with a cold after playing in a forbidden pond, his mother "barely looks at him" and puts him into a hot bath and then to bed without so much as a story. She's busy folding silver paper cranes; later, she brings in the little pine planted when the boy was born and decorates it with candles and the cranes, explaining for the first time how she celebrated Christmas in California, where she grew up. The boy is allowed to light the candles, and next day he receives a gift—a kite he especially wanted—for his first Christmas. Say's exquisitely designed illustrations are as elegant as those for The Boy of the Three-Year Nap (1988, Caldecott Honor). Geometric forms in the austere Japanese architecture provide a serene background for softer lines defining the appealing little boy and his pensive mother. As in Say's other books, there is an uncompromising chill here from parent to child: it's true that the boy has disobeyed, that his mother warms and feeds him, and that in the end they share the tree's beauty; still, her longing for "peace and quiet" seems exclusionary, and her cold uncommunicativeness while preparing the lovely tree is at odds with its message. Beautiful, honest, but disturbing. (Picture book. 4-8)Read full book review >
THE LOST LAKE by Allen Say
Released: Oct. 1, 1989

When Luke (who might be as young as six or as old as ten in different illustrations) spends the summer with Dad, he's virtually ignored—until the morning Dad suddenly announces that they're going camping at Lost Lake, a spot Dad fondly remembers as solitary. When it turns out that Lost Lake has been found by others, Dad and Luke lug their packs another day's journey through the California mountains—and then find another lake for just the two of them to share. This oriental Dad is almost excessively taciturn, yet he and Luke do become more companionable in the course of their trek. But Say's spare, meticulously composed watercolors are the book's outstanding feature. Read full book review >
A RIVER DREAM by Allen Say
illustrated by Allen Say
Released: Oct. 1, 1988

Ill with fever, Mark receives a gift from Uncle Scott: a box of trout flies. Opening it, he is transported to the river Where they had fished together, sees his uncle catch a fish and then free it, and does the same himself before returning home, fever-free. The quiet text here is pleasant enough, but unexceptional; the message that "it's good to leave the river the way [you find] it" is flawed: the joy of the catch is well known, but it is surely cruel to the fish to hook it merely for sport. Nonetheless, Say's watercolor illustrations are outstanding: spare interiors rendered into elegant patterns by light shining through windows, the play of late afternoon shadow on trees bordering the river, mayflies dancing like stars, the warm link between the boy and his uncle (orientals, incidentally), the drama of the catch. Reason enough for purchase; and the story may prompt thought among would-be fisher-people. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 13, 1982

A delightful story, reportedly a memory from Say's childhood, of the children's first encounter with American soldiers at a 1946 spring sports day in a Japanese elementary school. Say shows us charming little figures, with just a whiff of resemblance to early Sendak tykes, rushing about in streaming red headbands: preparing the playground, then dashing around the track in the first-grader's race, and later racing piggyback and pulling in the tug-of-war. Boxed prizes are awarded, and then we see the families picnicking on their mats, unloading spiced rice and fish cakes and other "good things to eat" from their layered lacquer boxes. It is during the grownups' three-legged race that the soldiers appear—one of them "with bright hair like fire," the other "black as the earth" and "the tallest man I had ever seen. And his clothes! Such sharp creases! And his shoes shone like polished metal!" Borrowing the principal's bicycle, the black American then puts on a show that leaves the crowd agape—from the first wheelie ("What an athlete!" exclaims the art teacher) to the flying finale. When the cheering stops, the principal leads the soldier to the platform and presents him with the largest box from the prize table. Handing it over, "He looked like the emperor awarding a great champion." And so, with an "Ari-ga-tow, ari-ga-tow" (thank you, thank you), the two soldiers go off down the mountain, "waving and laughing." Say makes no comments and none are needed. Savor it, share it, and let the Japanese traditions and the wonderful meetings speak for themselves. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 1979

Kiyoi is thrilled when the "great master," a famous cartoonist, takes him on as a student-assistant, and from that moment his life becomes rich and exciting. There are heady discussions, festive celebrations, and above all the honor of filling in the backgrounds for the master's published cartoons. There are life drawing classes, where the new student has trouble getting used to the nude models, and horizon-expanding outings—a Van Gogh show, a demonstration that turns into a riot—with his fellow apprentice, a somewhat older youth who seems disturbingly attracted to violence. There is also the pleasure of living alone in one shabby room, and the terror of discovering, when a neighbor there takes him out on the town, that the aggressive bar girls in the sinister, dim cafe are men. Say's autobiographical novel would be vibrant and affecting even if Kiyoi's were a typical art student's existence. As it is, two unusual circumstances heighten the interest: it occurs in post-World War II Japan, which gives the experience a special texture (bean cakes and kimonos and samurai tradition coexists with the Van Gogh show, Degas reproductions, and Hesse's novels); and, though it's hard to believe his grandmother's allowing him to live alone, Kiyou is only 13 when he begins his apprenticeship, 15 when he leaves to accompany his remarried father to America. A sparkling, touch-true portrait of a young person coming into his own. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1976

In a small, unorchestrated story that reads a bit like a memory, Bozu and Kozo leave their tiny fishing island of Kamome Jima to visit the mainland, which they call "the better place." Snitching Uncle Tojo's boat on the first day of the Feast of the Lanterns, they drift across to a cove and—alternately frightened, astonished, and very hungry, frequently scolded for smelling like fish and having no money—they roam the market, follow a troupe of clowns with a monkey onto a train, watch a fireworks display that turns into a town fire, and huddle for the night in a roadside shrine where a policeman finds them and takes them to their father. Say turns out to be less adept at realistic narrative and conversation than at the tall/folk tale (Once Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, 1975), but somehow the very lack of polish to the prose adds to the credibility here. And even if children don't know where Kamome Jima is, they'll appreciate the chance to share the exploration of a different (if not better) place without being subjected to a geography lesson—or any other kind. Read full book review >
Released: March 20, 1974

This traditional Japanese joke/tale (called a "pillow" or makura according to Say's introduction) proceeds from the ridiculous to the outlandish in relating the fate of a stingy old landlord who swallows a cherry pit. Furious with the beautiful tree which then grows from his head, he pulls it out by the roots — leaving behind a large hole which fills with rain and becomes a home for fish. Sure enough, one afternoon while he is asleep (sitting up) in his garden, some village boys decide to go fishing in his head, and sure enough again the landlord wakens and starts to chase them. But then he trips and flies "head-over-heels" and falls feet first into the hole in his head. . . and only a pond (full of magnificent fish) is left of him. Say avoids the temptation to ham it up, and his misty fine line illustrations, which reflect the Japanese setting, help to make the far-fetched developments dreamily believable. Read full book review >
Released: March 8, 1972

Jaunty Dr. Smith's safari begins with sunny promise in a luxuriance of fauna and foliage that recalls a spruced-up Ungerer, but the outing ends with the sportsman destroying his gun in remorse after dining with a happy assortment of jungle animals and shooting at an unseen disturbance that turns out to be-some odd little men throwing coconuts. The message is obvious but the delicately cross-hatched black-and-white pictures aren't. Though there are shades of the Wild Things in the jungle scenes and perhaps a distant relationship between Dr. Smith and Lobel's Mister Muster, Say's slyly amusing animals, flowered fields, and candlelit interiors have their own hospitable appeal. Read full book review >