|Drawing from Memory
by Allen Say
|Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
Pen vs. Brush
I drop two books on the table in the Turf Club. No big surprise. Bobby and I are always bringing things to read. We’re at the races four days a week, but we’re not degenerate gamblers. Sometimes an hour goes by before there’s something worth betting.
Sammy, another regular, picks the books up. Weighs them. The cover of Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram features a lethal-looking rocket. On Allen’s Say’s Drawing from Memory, a dreamy boy in a blue sweater and blue socks appears to be flying.
“What’s the deal?” Sam asks.
“I have to decide between them,” I tell him. “It’s like a match race.”
“Doesn’t seem fair. One of them is thin like a pizza; the other’s fat like a sandwich.”
“Mal Peet’s book starts during WWII and goes to 2001. That’s more like a five-course meal.”
“And the other one?”
“Allen Say’s life in 62 pages.”
Sam flips through Drawing from Memory. “It’s got pictures,” he says. “Has the other one got pictures?”
I shake my head.
Sam says, “Doesn’t sound fair to me.”
“They’re both really good.”
Sammy grunts. “So, do you like anybody in the first race?”
Just then Bob shows up. He drops his copy of Daily Racing Form, picks up Life: An Exploded Diagram and flips through it. “Bold historical sweep, epic in scale with keen insight into the human condition?”
“Very funny, but, actually, yes. You can say that about a lot of books, though. I like this one because I’m crazy about Clem and Frankie.”
“And they are?”
So I quickly tell my friends about Clem, a working class boy from Norfolk, and Frankie, a rich girl. Clem’s father works for Frankie’s father, so when the two kids fall in love and meet secretly they’re playing with fire. If they’re discovered, Clem’s father is out of a job and Clem will never see Frankie again.
I finish with this, “And that’s all set against the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Clem’s and Frankie’s world is liable to explode and so is the real world.”
Sam stands to watch the post parade. “And this is for kids? It sounds pretty grown-up. And God knows, it’s long!”
I tell him, “Don’t underestimate kids these days, but anybody could read Mal Peet’s novel.”
“What about the other one?” asks Bob.
“I’ll tell you later. That grey filly looks live to me.”
Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon I come back to the table with some drinks and Bob is flipping through Drawing from Memory.
He says, “This is very nice.”
“Isn’t it? Memoir, graphic novel, watercolors, cartoons, photos: you name it, it’s in there.”
“This guy can really draw.”
“And the book is flat-out inspirational. Say’s father pretty much gave up on his son when Allen only wanted to be an artist.”
“Wanted only to be an artist.”
“Spoken like a former English teacher. OK, so all he wanted to do was draw. He’s shunted off on his cranky grandmother who says if he can pass an exam to get into a middle school, she’ll let him live in an apartment by himself.”
“How old is this kid?”
Bob puts the book down. “Thanks a lot, Dad.”
“And the only time the father is in the book….” I stop for a minute and flip to page nine, “… is right here and he’s got his back to everything. His son, his wife and the reader. I, love that! So, anyway, Allen studies, passes the exam, and gets this cool place to live.” I tap the cover. “That’s how he felt when he moved in. Like he was floating on air.”
“But he’s 12.”
“Right. And all alone. Here’s the good news. He finds a mentor, this famous cartoonist named Noro Shinpei who takes Allen on as a student.”
“So a happy ending, right?”
I hold up Life: An Exploded Diagram. “This one is like a wave that washes over you and threatens to carry you away.” Then I hold up Drawing from Memory. “This one is like a deep well. Not much shows on the surface but it’s cold down there. Allen Say has a pretty light touch, but I thought the book was melancholy as hell.”
Sam returns, thanks me for the drink, then asks, “Can I take these books of yours home?”
“Sure, if you want to.”
He stacks them by his coffee. “Whatever it takes to get you guys to remember what we’re here for. Gambling, OK?”
Sam wanders off to bet. Bob says, “No offense, Ronnie. I like Sam and he knows a good horse when he sees one, but he’s no literary critic.”
“But I’m not a critic this time, either, not if critic means don’t-read-this-book. I’m a reviewer. I want everybody to read both of them.”
“But you have to pick one.”
The next day, Bob and I are working our way through the opening races.
“Have you decided yet?” he asks.
“The first is 30 minutes away.”
“You know what I mean.”
I shake my head. “Allen Say’s book is what ‘s called a real visual experience. But , man, as far as the story goes he is really reined in. How did he eat? Did he go shopping and cook for himself? Was the only friend he had another cartoonist who worked for Noro Shinpei? In Mal Peet’s novel I know a lot about everybody. But it’s also got rich girl/poor boy and sadists in the boarding school.”
“What does Sam say?”
I point toward the saddling paddock. ‘Here he comes. Let’s ask him.”
Sam drops the books in front of me. “No way,” he says, “are kids going to trudge through the first part of Life. What do they care about Clem’s parents and how they met and all that stuff.” He waves Drawing from Memory at me. “This one really got to me. With my old man it was his way or the highway. Forget what I wanted or was good at. OK, the Peet novel is a page-turner. I’ll give it that. But Say’s book is like a GPS for your soul: just pay attention to the little voice inside.”
Bob puts arm around Sam’s shoulder. “You’ve risen to new heights of eloquence, my friend.”
Sam shrugs the arm away. “Well, that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth.”
Off and on all day, I think about what Sam said. I know exactly what he means and even agree with him, but Drawing from Memory doesn’t stay with me like the funny and touching Life: An Exploded Diagram. So I just don’t know yet. I’m glad to have horses to distract me.
About 4:30 I head for the parking lot. My friends always stay for the last race, but I don’t like to fight traffic. As I walk, I think how much I admire Allen Say’s talent and how glad I am that his life turned out so well. But I don’t feel close to him. I like to really know the characters in books. I like to ride around in cars with them, eat dinner with them, sleep in their spare rooms and poke around in their medicine cabinets.
That’s how it was with Clem and Frankie , Clem’s baffled, unhappy father and his frustrated mom. I ate dinner with them and listened to them talk. I went to the beach with Clem and Frankie and got sand in my shoes. I was with Clem on that terrible day in November.
I lean on my car and listen. The announcer’s voice drifts out over the grandstand and the roofs of 2,000 cars, then quickens as the horses turn for home and two of them draw away from the field to run neck-and-neck toward the wire.
It’s a close call But the winner is Life: An Exploded Diagram.
— Judge Ron Koertge
And the Winner of this match is……
LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM
Oh, well done, Ron! In terms of creativity, this decision ranks up there with Adam Rex and Barry Lyga from last season. If any match represents the complete absurdity of judging apples and oranges, perhaps it is this one which features both the “youngest” book in our field and the “oldest” one. Unlike the previous match, I had always hoped to see DRAWING FROM MEMORY and LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM square off in this round (with apologies to Gary Schmidt). But be careful what you wish for, eh? Now that it’s here I am loathe to pick a winner, but I would ultimately pick LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM, too. And I’m picking LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM to beat BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. But then there’s the matter of the Undead Poll winner. Any guesses? I wouldn’t mind seeing a juvenile book to counterbalance this pair of YA titles. I also think at some point our Undead Poll winner will actually win. Could this be the year?
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
With both books very close to my heart, I knew that I would have difficulty coming up with a conclusion to this match. With the competitors so different in general, pictures vs. prose, there would be a lot of discussion and arguments about this battle. Drawing From Memory is a fantastic picture book, graphic novel, and autobiography all in one, while Life: An Exploded Diagram is the exact opposite, a historical fiction novel that stands at 416 pages. While Drawing From Memory stays consistant in its fast paced charm, Life often drags on in its plot, especially in the beginning. Although its characters are lovable and a perfect fit for the book, overall I must say that it was more historical than fiction. Despite Mr. Koertge’s fabulously witty and respectable commentary, I believe that the better book in this match is Drawing From Memory. As much as I loved learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis in Life: An Exploded Diagram, it did not compare to Allen Say’s illustrious masterpiece.
— Kid Commentator GI