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An Exile Finds a Home in Art for Kids

Japanese-born Allen Say views his illustrations and stories, filled with an outsider's melancholy, as more than mere child's play.

July 30, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

"My work is essentially the work of an exile," observes Japanese American artist and author Allen Say. He is referring to the themes and illustrations of his children's books, especially those created in the latter half of his three-decade, 19-volume career. In these works, his meticulously composed watercolors convey tales of the dislocations and challenges of being a foreigner, a traveler among cultures.

These depictions are on view in an exhibition that opened this weekend at the Japanese American National Museum, "Allen Say's Journey: The Art and Words of a Children's Book Author." Fifty-five pieces of original artwork, from pen-and-ink drawings of the 1970s to watercolor paintings from the '80s and '90s, are augmented by a selection of photographs and sketchbooks from Say's personal collection.

The museum considered the works worthy of showcasing in retrospective form. The genre itself inspires such treatment, says Kaleigh Komatsu, curatorial assistant and one of the show's organizers: "When you look at a children's book, it's like looking at a self-contained gallery." And the fact that Say's works address the issue of Japanese American culture in a diverse population, she says, makes them especially appropriate to the museum.

Museum store manager Maria Kwong brought Say to the museum's attention, having discovered him in 1992 while searching for books for her 6-year-old daughter. She came upon "El Chino" (1990), based on the true story of Bong Way "Billy" Wong, a Chinese American who decided to become a bullfighter on a trip to Spain--and did.

"The illustrations were so beautiful," Kwong says, "and he showed Asians in a different way. In children's books, Asians always either have a queue or wear a kimono!" This one ended up in a matador's outfit.

Say's characters may triumph or find reconciliation in the end, but the beautiful and different way he portrays Asian Americans includes an honest dose of the exile's melancholy. Indeed, the covers of his last six books show a single youth in a moment of disconcerted discovery or pensiveness. "Grandfather's Journey," which won the 1994 Caldecott Medal (the nation's highest honor for children's book illustration), is about his Japanese grandfather's sojourn in the United States, and how he hoped to return but never did. The cover shows a very serious boy holding down his bowler hat, his long coat blown to one side as he stands alone on the deck of an ocean liner. The cover for "Tea With Milk" (1999), Say's most recent, is unusually bleak for a children's book. An intensely solitary girl (based on Say's mother) stands in an empty schoolyard in Japan, a visual metaphor for her isolation as an American-born Japanese.


Say's exile identity is a condition passed down from his parents. His Japanese American mother was U.S.-born, but her parents took her back to Japan to turn her into a proper young Japanese woman; she ended up running away. His Korean father was raised in Shanghai by two British foster parents, and, as an adult, went to work in Japan, where Koreans were historically unwelcome. The surname "Say" is his father's guess at what his family name might have been.

The two outsiders met in Osaka and married. Their only son, Allen, was born in 1937 in Yokohama. When his parents separated, the boy was sent to live with his grandmother in Tokyo.

"We hated each other, quite frankly," Say, 62, says bluntly in a phone interview from his current home in Portland, Ore. When he managed to pass the exams to enter an exclusive school, she let him, a boy of 12, live on his own near the school. And that was when his real life began.

Long an admirer of the serialized cartoons of Noro Shinpei, Say gathered his courage and sought him out. Impressed by the boy's determination, the famous cartoonist took him on, at first putting him to work doing office chores and observing a senior apprentice, Tokida, then training Say to fill in details and do backgrounds on his art boards.

"I thought I was going out there in the old samurai style, looking for my master," Say says. "What I was doing was trying to replace my father. From that day on, Noro Shinpei has been my spiritual father--I was just incredibly lucky."

Indeed, Noro Shinpei was not only a cartoonist, he was a philosopher and bon vivant, who lectured his apprentices on life and art, as well as treating them to delectable meals. In 1979, Say captured these three years of his adolescence in "The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice." In a foreword added in 1994, Say recalls that one of the key lessons his master taught was "that to draw is to discover."

In 1953, when he was 15, Say came to California with his father. After being kicked out of military school for smoking, he drifted through a series of jobs and art schools, until he was drafted into the Army in 1962.

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