by Allen Say
Published in 2011 by Scholastic Inc.
In short, I LOVED this book!
It’s a picture book, soft cover, slightly narrower and shorter than an A4 size. And it’s probably meant to be a read-to-your-child type book. Let me say here that I prefer soft covers because they’re so much easier to handle, though a hard cover would probably be costlier to produce and therefore cost more, bringing more profit to the publisher.
But I digress.
Why did I like it? Oh, so many reasons.
First, it was a memoir. I absolutely love memoirs. I find memoirs so much more fascinating than fiction, probably because the plot of a memoir is written by God (or destiny, depending on your belief), and contains some divinely inspired theme and lessons. Whereas the plot of a novel is usually crafted in the mind of a human, even if the author drew examples from real life.
Secondly, the illustrations were a mixture of realistic watercolors, sketches, comics, photographs, and charcoal/pencil drawings. There was even a Chinese style calligraphy of the author’s Japanese name. Why was this was so joyful for me? Well, let me explain. I’ve been working on several different books, each on a different aspect of my autobiography. I have already drafted the earliest part, tentatively entitled Life of a Rooster, but I envision it as a picture book. I mean a thick book of 100-300 pages, but with illustrations on every page. Some would be sketches, some would be photos, and some would be realistic watercolors. So, you see, this is a thinner version of my book with just 63 pages. Someone else realized the same concept! and won a Caldecott medal in the process!
Thirdly, this memoir celebrated the success of determination and joy of living.
It’s the story of the author’s childhood and youth in Japan up till the day he left for the United States. Allen Say is both the author and the illustrator of this book though in his childhood he just wanted to be able to draw comics. Despite his parents’ and grandmother’s negative attitude towards his drawings, despite their divorce and his moving around, he kept on drawing. By the time he was the ripe old age of 13, he was sent to live by himself so he could attend middle school.
This made me tear up. All by himself? My own parents sent my sister and me back to Paris when I was 11 to live with my aunt and her family, also for the sake of education. Though I was in the middle of a loving family, I felt lonesome and rejected by my parents. I cannot imagine how this young boy felt then.
He describes his feelings as freedom at last. He could now draw as much as he wanted!
Next is something I would never ever have had the guts to do at age 13. He went to the studio of a famous cartoonist that he admired and asked to become his apprentice / assistant. And even more surprisingly, he was accepted.
The cartoons threading the story through the book are in the clean realistic style similar to the Tintin books I grew up on. Larger scale events depicted are given dramatic space. For example, the drawing of a anti-government demonstration he got engulfed in one day takes up the entire page. The police force that stood waiting for them were grimly depicted in black and white on the entire next page.
By the time he was 15, his father suddenly decided to include him in his new family and asked whether he would join him and emigrate to the United States. He ends the book with a five-page “Author’s Note” describing his return to Japan many years later to visit his old mentor.
It’s a very moving memoir. I enjoyed and admired the illustrations over and over again. But most of all, I feel now vindicated. My idea about how to present my childhood story is not so silly after all. If someone else did it, I can do it too.