A lesson in embracing one’s identity


The Favorite Daughter

The Favorite Daughter
The Favorite Daughter

The Favorite Daughter
Written and illustrated by Allen Say (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013, $17.99, 32 pp., hardcover)

I love Allen Say. This book, with its watercolor illustrations, has a gentle quality that makes me want to sit right down in a quiet corner to savor it.

In Say’s latest book, “The Favorite Daughter,” he and his daughter are the central characters. Set in San Francisco, the plot involves a father helping his young daughter Yuriko accept her Japanese identity.

During the first of four days Yuriko spends at her father’s home, she asks to borrow a baby photo of herself for a class photo album. He locates a photo of her at age 2 wearing a kimono. After school she recounts how her new art teacher mispronounced her name (Eureka instead of Yuriko); how her classmates later chanted “Yoo-REE-ko in ki-MO-na,” and told her that Japanese dolls have “black hair,” unlike her blonde locks. Wounded by the taunting, Yuriko declares her wish to change her name to an “American name,” perhaps to Michelle.

Father takes her to Friday dinner at her favorite Japanese restaurant (in what looks like Buchanan Mall in San Francisco’s Japantown), introducing her to the familiar sushi chef Kudo as his daughter Michelle. Confused, Kudo says he didn’t know Yuriko had a twin sister. Yuriko tries to explain her new name, and then tells the chef to just call her Yuriko.

Saturday he plans a quick “trip to Japan,” actually a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. They climb over the Drum Bridge, enjoy green tea and manju, and then Yuriko searches merchandise at the gift shop, lamenting the lack of souvenirs with the name Yuriko. A sumi-e demonstration (brush painting) catches their attention. The painter asks her name, and when she answers “Yuriko,” he tells her it means Child of the Lily, paints her a lily, paints her name in Japanese characters, and presents it to her as a gift. Delighted, she thanks him in Japanese, and decides to learn to write her name in Japanese, too.

The last stop of the day is a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, shrouded in fog. Yuriko frets over having to turn in a likeness of the bridge on Monday to the new art teacher. She complains that all the students’ drawings will look alike. Then she devises a secret project, and spends Sunday morning sequestered in her room working on her creation, a large cotton cloud with the tips of the bridge peeking through and the ocean below. Both father and daughter are pleased with the unique work of art. Signing her name, Yuriko (not Michelle), to her project, she asks her father to take her to Japan someday. And indeed, he does. The final page of the book is a photo of Yuriko in Japan, taken some years later.

Having this glimpse of Allen Say’s world is intriguing. Two previous autobiographical books, “Drawing from Memory,” and “The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice,” told the story of how he started his career as an artist in Japan. Say’s best-known book, “Grandfather’s Journey,” won the coveted 1994 Caldecott Medal.

Now, with “The Favorite Daughter,” he has added a story drawn from his life as a father, and we have 20 self-portraits throughout the book. Painting himself with hands in pockets, leaning against doorjams, peeking behind a door, Say reveals a low-key, non-confrontational, thoughtful parent who provides his daughter with experiences through which she can discover how she feels rather than giving her advice. Who wouldn’t want to be The Favorite Daughter?

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