Author and illustrator Allen Say has won numerous awards for his children’s stories, including the 1994 Caldecott Medal for Grandfather’s Journey. Many of Say’s stories draw on his experiences as a child growing up in Japan before moving to America at 16. In this graphic memoir, Drawing from Memory, Say pays tribute to his mentor, Noro Shinpei, who was Japan’s leading cartoonist at the time Say, then 12, approached him seeking artistic guidance. Here Say discusses art, writing and how Shinpei’s generosity changed the course of his life.
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Your memoir is wonderfully enriched with old photographs, sketches and cartoons from the past, though you note that you burned all your drawings and sketchbooks except one before leaving for America. When putting this book together did you wish that you’d kept more, or do you still see this as a freeing act?
It was freeing. Also, there was no way I could carry that stuff with me. I started my life in a new country with what I could carry in a cardboard suitcase.
The drawings I miss were the ones I gave away so freely. The artist Saul Steinberg said to me that an artist should never give his work away but sell it, even for little money. Then you can forget about the work you sell, and the buyer appreciates it more for having paid for it. If you give it away, you are working for more than money. I have given away so many, and I miss them.
That one sketchbook I didn’t burn I carried with me because it was only half full. I brought it with me to Southern California—one of the owners of the military academy I attended admired it, and I gave it to her. About four years ago, I learned that one of her daughters had come across the sketchbook when sorting out her belongings. That diary from 1953 was returned to me. Coincidences like this happened, things suddenly came together as I prepared to do this book.
You’ve said in a number of interviews that writing is a “very unnatural act” and causes anxiety each time you engage in it. Has this gotten any better with time?
Oh no, it gets worse actually! My anxiety and insecurity writing in English began when I first came to this country at 16. I couldn’t speak or write English. My father spoke the King’s English, but that was a high crime during the war, so I lost my chance in that way. When I came to the U.S. I was put in military academy—a 16-year-old put in sixth grade. I never got over that shock, trauma. I never imagined that I would be called an author in this country, in this second language. It embarrasses me. I freely admit to being an artist of some kind, but an author?
I am very suspicious of people who claim to love writing. I somehow feel that they haven’t really discovered writing yet.
Drawing, in contrast, seems to bring you joy—I am thinking of your description of “sleep drawing.”
That time was like a Dalí painting: My eyeball floated up to the ceiling, watching me draw below. Then I’d done this wonderful drawing, and I didn’t feel responsible for it. I am not a natural drawer by any means. I don’t have the good hand. But sometimes I feel I can draw freely when I am not thinking about drawing. Now as an illustrator, I think about it too much—and that thinking cramps my line, my hand doesn’t flow. I can draw freely, but when doing the final art, frequently I hit a stone wall.
This book honors your sensei, Noro Shinpei, who took you in and mentored you.
When I was growing up, I thought I was following the Samurai tradition of looking for a master to serve. I didn’t realize until my 20s that wasn’t what I was doing at all. In fact, I was actually trying to replace my father. Looking for a man I could love and admire.
It was a remarkable gift he gave you, letting you be his apprentice, very generous.
I have thought about this all my life. Would I have the nerve to let a 12-year-old boy come in and work on my original drawings? The answer is no. He was an amazing man.
Do you continue to live so sparsely, traveling with just a suitcase full of photographs, or do you have more things now?
More than I would like to have. I have practically no furniture. This makes our guests very nervous. I’ve always wanted to live in a big, pure space—a barn would be ideal. I live in this big house now, going on 11 years. I’ve put it on the market twice. But I am also an ardent fly fisherman and I go fishing, get an idea for a book, then dash home and take the for sale signs down.