|Drawing from Memory
by Allen Say
|The Grand Plan to Fix Everything
by Uma Krishnaswami
First up: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami.
This book tricked me. I looked at the cover. I read the title (which for some reason I have a hard time remembering). I read the flap copy. I perused the first few paragraphs. I glanced at some of the illustrations. And then I formed an opinion based on first impressions. This was going to be light, humorous, simply-plotted, realistic fiction.
I hunkered into my overstuffed chair, propped up my slipper-clad feet, and settled into Dini’s world. From the get-go, I found the subject fascinating: Bollywood films. Dini and her best friend, Maddie, are obsessed with them, and, in particular, the Indian Bollywood star, Dolly Singh. I loved reading about fillums and filmi and Filmi Kumpnee Magazine, all so foreign to me.
So, I’m reading along. La la la. Then I get to Chapter Four.
The point of view changed to omniscient. (I think that’s what it is. Perhaps one of those smart judges from previous years can jump in here.) This shift in point of view was totally unexpected.
But it wasn’t just the point of view that changed. There was an almost radical shift in tone and mood, from light and humorous to lyrical and serious-toned. It made me sit up and take notice. It made me think that my first impression of this book might have been wrong.
Fast forward. I’m well into the book now.
My first impression had been wrong. Yes, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything is humorous and light. But simply-plotted it is not. After that first unexpected point-of-view change came at least seven others! There’s the goatherd, the movie studio owner, the mail carrier, the bakery owner, and even letters from Dolly. They all weave in and out of Dini’s story at lightning speed.
And there’s Krishnaswami’s lovely use of language:
Dini will just have to listen-listen and look-look.
And so hours and minutes tick down the way hours and minutes do…
She draws a breath in, click-click, like a door locking.
Dini writes in her stripy notebook.
Much of the language was reminiscent of Kathi Appelt’s bluey-blues and greeny-greens in The Underneath. [Note to Ms. Appelt: Please forgive me if you never actually used the words bluey-blue or greeny-green in The Underneath. But in my mind, you did. I have the book on my shelf, but I have a deadline for this piece and no time to look.]
Then the author goes and tricks me again. Mixed in with that lovely lyrical language are the most deliciously campy words, like:
No one knows Dolly Singh’s superfine tip-topness like she does.
Like that first change in point of view, these were unexpected and rattled the cage of my first impressions.
Setting? Krishnaswami masterfully and seamlessly weaves both physical and cultural setting into the story.
And last: the art. It’s charming. Kids will love it. It contributes to the fun of the story. But could the book do just as well without it? Of course. Still, for kids, it’s a plus.
Two things did niggle at me throughout this unique weaving of a tale. For one, I had to call on that old phrase: suspension of disbelief. The author wants me to believe that the main character travels from Maryland to a remote town in the mountains of India and locates her favorite movie star and then fixes whatever problems are seemingly making her sad.
I really wanted to suspend disbelief. But I couldn’t. Did that make me enjoy the story any less? Nope. What it did was nudge my first impression away from the term “realistic fiction.” But to what? Fantasy? No, not really. Maybe an indefinable genre.
The other niggle is that old writing “cheat”: coincidences.
Dini’s unaddressed letter is actually delivered to Dolly Singh.
Dolly happens to be dating the owner of the cottage where Dini lives.
Dolly is friends with the principal at Dini’s school.
The mail carrier in Mumbai ends up in Dini’s town in the mountains.
But as with the suspension of disbelief, Krishnaswami makes no apologies. In fact, she admits, through the voice of Dini:
There it is again. Coincidence. Or kismet. There seems to be quite a lot of it in Swapnagiri.
More than in most places, Dini’s sure.
And it is that admission that makes those coincidences work. Krishnaswami is using them to weave her story. So just like my inability to suspend my disbelief, my sometimes eye-rolling awareness of all the coincidences didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.
So there you have it. Fascinating and unique subject. Indefinable genre. Sometimes lyrical. Sometimes campy. A Bollywood movie theme woven through ribbons of unbelievable coincidences culminating in an all-star cast of a scene worthy of the best fillum.
I closed the book with the same feeling one has when a movie ends, the lights go up, and, holding your empty popcorn box, you turn to your friend and say, “That was good,” before heading out into the squinty-eyed daylight of the real world.
Okay, wiggling right along, I now turn to Allen Say’s memoir/personal narrative, Drawing from Memory.
I don’t feel as if I read it at all. I feel as if I experienced it, as if I listened to Say telling me the story of his apprenticeship with renowned Japanese cartoonist, Nori Shinpei, while showing me an amazing array of art to accompany his tale: pen and ink sketches, paintings, photographs, cartoons, watercolors, a postcard, a map.
And the experience felt personal, intimate, and casual, as if Say might whip out a napkin and draw a sketch while talking, or pull out a few paintings tucked lovingly in a box from long ago.
The language is simple, yet melodic. Honest, conversational, easy to listen to. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Say, but I imagine the writing is exactly the way he speaks.
Drawing from Memory is a straight line of a story told by the one who lived and felt it. It takes the reader so fully inside the “character” of Allen Say, understanding his relationships with those around him, seeing his world and experiencing his culture. I watched, heard, and felt the evolution of Kiyoi (Shinpei’s name for Say) from a young boy with a desperate desire to learn from a master to a young man following his conscience by leaving Japan for an unknown life so as not to be a burden to his mother.
The art? Fascinating. I confess that I am woefully ignorant about art. I don’t know the terms. I don’t always recognize the medium. But I got every piece of art in this book and why it was vital to the story. I loved the diversity of the art and how it weaves in and out of the text. It accentuates and expands and teams with the words to create the total experience of immersion into Say’s world.
The art is sometimes serious. Sometimes playful. Sometimes colorful. Sometimes dark. And such variety: a sketch, a painting, a photograph. It was fun to move back and forth from the text to the art or into a graphic novelette (I have no idea if there is such a thing as that, but there ought to be), such as his account of reading the newspaper article that ultimately leads him to Shinpei. (Ironically similar to Dini’s search for her movie star idol, Dolly Singh.)
I understood Say’s relationships with the other “characters” in the story by the way they were depicted in the art. Shinpei looks kind and wise. Tokida, the other apprentice, appears resentful yet almost comical when Say first joins him and Shinpei. But as the relationship between the two young artists grows and matures, Tokida appears friendlier. There is the scowl on the face of Say’s rather distant and unsupportive grandmother and the charming smile on the face of Mrs. Morita, his first grade teacher who recognized and encouraged his artistic talent.
Say’s relationship with his father was short-lived and strained. Interestingly, the only drawing of Say’s father depicts him only from the back. (Okay, okay…. I stole that from the “very perceptive” Rick Margolis in his interview with Mr. Say for the September 2011 issue of School Library Journal. But I’m sure I would have noticed that eventually.)
The art also keenly reveals Say’s emotions. For example, the black-and-white drawing at the top of page 32, shows students at school, boys on one side, girls on the other, and Say in the middle, looking isolated and out of place. There is the dark, foreboding drawing of the police and strikers on pages 43 and 44. One of my favorites is the lovely cover image of a deliriously happy Say, floating around his first apartment as a very young boy.
I love the double entendre of the title, Drawing from Memory, and the theme of memory woven throughout.
The author writes early on, “I discovered I had a good memory.”
Some of the paintings and drawings in the book include in their captions the explanation that they were drawn “from memory.”
He even apologetically writes of one photograph, “My sixth grade teacher and me. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember his name. I hope his relatives will recognize him.”
In the words of Say’s sensei (teacher), Nori Shinpei: “Painting is a kind of writing and writing is a kind of painting. They are both about seeing.”
Drawing from Memory is both writing and painting. It definitely helped me see Allen Say.
And so, I must wiggle on to judging.
For the teamwork of art and words and for the total experience of this book, I choose Drawing from Memory by Allen Say.
– Judge Barbara O’Connor
And the Winner of this match is……
DRAWING FROM MEMORY
THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING, contrary to popular opinion, does not describe our annual attempt to manipulate the field of books and judges in such a way that our own personal favorites emerge victorious. Rather, it is—or was, I should say—the sleeper in this field. We really wanted to have something light, funny, and charming—and the improbable exploits of Dini, Dolly, and company fit the bill perfectly. I love it for all the reasons so clearly articulated here, but I would have picked DRAWING FROM MEMORY as well. We tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to tease out a discussion of its distinguished textual elements at Heavy Medal, but I believe Barbara nailed it quite succinctly: The language is simple, yet melodic. Honest, conversational, easy to listen to. The art is more overtly distinguished—I never understood why it didn’t have more Caldecott buzz—and the interplay between the words and pictures marks it as one of the best books of the year.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
I totally agree with Ms. O’Connor – It really is stunning how The Grand Plan to Fix Everything transforms from an extremely simplistic children’s book into a complex and delightful read for any age. Give me my curry puffs! I liked it a lot at the end of the book, and it still seems to grow on me. Even with the coincidences and the unrealistic storyline, it is still a great book. For that matter, Dini’s story could well be a dream. I probably would have gone with my first instinct, though, and picked Allen Say’s beautiful and honest Drawing from Memory. The experience was purely wonderful. The book was also extremely heartfelt and personal; I knew Allen Say by the end of it. These were two great books, and I’m sorry The Grand Plan To Fix Everything has to go.
– Kid Commentator RGN