Allen Say’s father did not approve of his dreams of becoming an artist. After his parents’ divorce, Say is shunted off to the home of his harsh maternal grandmother, who offers him to set him up in his own apartment if he passes the entrance exam for a prestigious middle school. He passes and at twelve is on his own, able to make his own decisions about his future. He seizes the opportunity and arranges an apprenticeship with a prominent cartoonist. This decision sets Say on the road to becoming an artist and an eventual Caldecott Medal Winner.
Drawing from Memory
Ages 10+; Grades 5+
Scholastic, September 2011, ISBN 978-0-545-17686-6
64 pages, $17.99
Say’s childhood memories seem like the stuff of fantasy, following the format of the classic hero’s journey, but his calm, matter-of-fact voice rings with harsh realism. At the Scholastic brunch at ALA Annual, his moving reading from this short memoir had the librarians at my table sniffling into our tea and coffee and lunging for our bags of ARCs to make sure Drawing from Memory was included. We weren’t disappointed and, once I got a chance to read through Say’s story, it was as good as I’d hoped. The tone of the book is delicately flavored by Japanese history, but the pain of a neglected child and a broken family is sadly all to modern. Say doesn’t belittle that pain or linger on it; it is his tenacious desire to achieve his dreams that keeps the reader riveted to the page. The teacher in me was touched by the compassion shown to Say by the teacher who takes him under his wing, even as the child-I-was was mesmerized at the thought of being on my own at age twelve.
My one complaint, if I can come up with one, is that Say’s story is far too short. I wanted to know more about his life and what happened to him after the events of the book. But that is only speaking as a reader. As a reviewer, I have to admire the cleanliness of the memoir’s arrangement. It is not meant to be a full autobiography, but rather the story of one of the most important parts of Say’s life–his time living on his own in an apartment in Tokyo. Say tells his story using a mix of narrative, photographs, drawings, and cartoons. Though it is not a memoir told completely in graphic novel format, I’m choosing to review it here because Say’s training during that time is with a manga-ka (a comic artist) and because the struggles that Say must overcome will speak to any reader longing to create art, no matter the style or format.
Drawing from Memory has the potential to reach a wide range of readers: those who have loved Say’s picture books and want to know more about his life; those who dream of being an artist, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their way; those who are curious about life in Japan just after the end of World War II; and, of course, those who want a sweet, lightly melancholy, and touching story of the effect a good and loving teacher can have on a child in need.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Scholastic.