How Allen Say found his way: His journey to becoming an artist



By Allen Say (New York: Scholastic Press,
2011, 64 pp., $17.99, hardcover)

Here is the personal story of acclaimed artist/storyteller Allen Say. In this memoir he tells us how he found his way to become an artist. He includes photos, sketches and drawings.

Born in 1937 near a fishing village near Yokohama, Japan, Say began drawing at an early age, scribbling on walls and copying illustrations from comic books.

His childhood was dominated by the war, moving from place to place, staying with different relatives, shuttling between his parents after their divorce, and living alone in a Tokyo apartment at age 12 to attend private school. He is delighted to be living alone. To show his excitement, he draws himself floating.

In Tokyo, Say read a newspaper article about his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei. Learning that Shinpei had taken in a 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist named Tokida, Say presented himself to the master and asked to be allowed to study with him. He was thrilled to be accepted.

Discouraged from pursuing art by his parents, Say now feels like a minor celebrity as he draws the backgrounds, sky, hair, and clothing for master Noro’s comic books. He and the other two apprentices work in Noro’s studio in a grand inn and are waited on by maids. The master eventually introduces a character, Kyusuke, modeled after Say, in his comic book.

What was life like for Say as a middle school student working as master Noro’s apprentice in his spare time? Carrying a sketchpad, he practiced drawing street people on weekends and was learning oil painting and karate from an older art student. He was accidentally drawn into a workers’ strike one day and was frightened by the riot that ensued. Like other boys his age, he had difficulty making friends at school and was anxious to have a girlfriend. He and Tokida, another apprentice, vowed never to accept jobs as “office slaves,” saying they would rather starve.

After three years in Tokyo, Say accepts his father’s invitation to travel to America in 1953 with his second wife and their children. This is where the book ends.

In the postscript Say tells a little about his return to Japan after three years in the U.S. and his reunion with Noro Shinpei, whom he fondly refers to as his spiritual father. Say explains that writing this book has allowed him to “journey through my memories of becoming an artist” and “travel through the master/disciple relationship I enjoyed with Noro Shinpei.” Master Noro died in 2002 after having expressed a wish to work on a book with Say, whom he called “the treasure of my life.”

I have always been puzzled by Say’s last name. It doesn’t look Japanese, yet he looks Japanese in his photos. I wondered if he were adopted or if his father was Caucasian. In this book I learned that his actual surname is Sei. Mystery solved.

If you have enjoyed Allen Say’s books, this autobiography of the Caldecott Medalist will give you a glimpse of his childhood. If you have not read “Grandfather’s Journey,” “Tree of Cranes,” “Tea with Milk,” “Erika-San,” “Music for Alice,” “The Boy in the Garden,” and others, this book gives you a reason to read them now. You will know where some of those stories originated. For example, Say tells us that American soldiers who visited his elementary school after the war inspired “The Bicycle Man.” Pick up one of Say’s books and admire the elegant paintings that nearly tell the story without the text.

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