Artist’s story of survival and success against the odds




By Allen Say (New York: Scholastic Press, 2015, 80 pp., $19.99, hardcover)

I am fascinated by Allen Say, the renowned painter, author and illustrator of many exquisite books for children. I welcome each of his new books. This one offers a peek into his move from Japan to California at age 15.

Upon landing in Long Beach in 1953, Allen’s father placed him in The Harding Military Academy, which was run by a Caucasian friend. Allen’s father went off to establish a family home for himself, his new wife and their baby daughter. Allen was charged with earning his room and board by washing dishes and assisting the handyman. Imagine the teenage angst created by being all alone in a foreign country, estranged from his father. I can’t think of many environments less nurturing than a military school.

Allen’s goal was to become a cartoonist in America, so he focused on drawing in his sketchbook when he wasn’t working. He learned English. He imagined himself as the cartoon character named Kyusuke created by the master cartoonist to whom Allen was apprenticed years earlier in Japan. Kyusuke, as Allen’s imaginary alter ego, was having adventures in America. Allen could talk to Kyusuke; he was an invisible companion during Allen’s lonely years.

After Allen ran away from the military school, he had to find a job and housing. Befriended by a high school principal who secured a job for him at a print shop, Allen enrolled at Citrus Union High School. The art teacher, Mrs. Swope, secured a scholarship for Allen to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles each Saturday. Later, the high school art teacher transferred Allen to the junior college for art class. As Allen continued to study art in junior college and at the Art Institute, he decided to focus on painting instead of cartooning.

At the end of the book Allen graduates from high school, bids farewell to those who had helped him. He takes a bus to San Francisco, his mother’s birthplace, ready now to begin a new life for himself.

This book includes photos from the 1950s, black and white sketches, and Say’s colored drawings. Even if Say were not a famous artist, I think readers would still be captivated by the story of a young man, rebuffed by his father, who survived and succeeded against the odds.

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