Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Drawing from Memory

One of my favorite books of the year that I can’t seem to find a Newbery argument for is DRAWING FROM MEMORY. We bandied it about lightly for our shortlist… but while I think it’s easily one of *THE* best children’s books of the year…I couldn’t find truly distinguished elements in the text alone on par with our other contenders. Where in WONDERSTRUCK or I BROKE MY TRUNK or THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE I feel the words and text play equal, related parts, here I feel like the text plays under the illustrations, and it’s truly in their interaction (and sometimes, solely in the illustrations) that I find it shoots the moon. I don’t know how to argue that with the Newbery criteria. Can you? It’s certainly on many favorite lists, and keeps on getting mentioned here and there on this blog.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. This was one of my favorite books of the year, as well, and I definitely think it fits in with the Newbery criteria. I am not familiar with Allen Say’s work, and I think (Newbery criteria-wise) that might have been a benefit here; I didn’t have any concept of him as primarily an illustrator. I didn’t think Wonderstruck was anything special without its illustrations, and I didn’t think either I Broke My Trunk or The Money We’ll Save was anything special with or without. In this (and it’s partly because I made an effort to look mostly at the text, this isn’t any criticism of its illustrations), I hardly remember any of the pictures. I definitely don’t think they’re inseparable from the text or that they’re what makes this book special.

    What I thought was particularly outstanding in this book were the voice/characters and the style. Perhaps the setting, as well. The stark, simple word choice and sentence-crafting highlight (but do not dwell on) the startling events of this book admirably. I wrote down a few sentences several months ago, waiting for this discussion. I didn’t write down WHY I thought they were good examples, unfortunately; I probably good have written this better back then.

    “While I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t need toys or friends or parents.”

    The power of those sentences is impressive. (For those who haven’t read the book: the situation is a 12-year-old boy living in his own apartment, basically because no one in his family wants him.) We see that he is at times “happy”, that it wasn’t all bad, that there are things about being on his own that a kid might love. But there’s a tug in “while I was drawing”. Otherwise he ISN’T happy. But the way he says it escapes melodrama and self-pity. “Toys or friends or parents”–that progression starts with something easy to accept that we might expect for a devoted young artist–moves to something sad, that he doesn’t need friends, or so he feels–and ends in something shocking and sad, something no 12-year-old should be saying or needing to say. Besides being an admirably crafted two sentences, so much is conveyed about Say’s character at this time in his life without being a sentence that is “about” portraying characterization.

    This next sentence is about the time he was younger and staying with an older relative (I can’t remember now if it was a grandfather or an uncle) during World War II. “One day I would write a story about him in the language of the people who were bombing us.” That sentence told me much I was urgently wanting to know about the conflicting feelings Say must have when he thinks back on his childhood from his current home in the US. And it creates an atmosphere of fellow-feeling that rounds out the setting in time and place, in what it was like to be Japanese at that time.

    Jonathan mentioned this once or twice as being a “young” book, and I would disagree. And that’s where I’m afraid this book might get overlooked. It looks somewhat like a picture book for young elementary school, and my understanding is that that’s the audience for most of Allen Say’s work. My seven-year-old test reader was not as interested in it as I anticipated. When I went back to read it again, to see if I thought I was wrong about it being a book for children, I realized that rather than a failed book for young kids, it is an excellent book for 10-12-year-olds. Once I understood this, any lingering doubts about presentation for a child audience disappeared.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is also one of my favorite books of the year. I don’t have a problem seeing distinguished elements in the text: I think there is grace and elegance and simplicity in the writing style as well as clarity and organization in the presentation of the information, not to mention an extremely tight focus on interpretation of theme and concept. While I still have AMELIA LOST rated as the best nonfiction book, I could also vote for BOOTLEG and DRAWING FOR MEMORY, too, especially if I could convince enough people to join me. I agree with Wendy that this is not a book for the very young, and indeed Scholastic has designated it for ages 10 and up, but relative to AMELIA LOST, HEART AND SOUL, BOOTLEG, and FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP, this book still seems young. Consensus is difficult enough to build around nonfiction without also having to fight the additional battles of too old/too young and pictures vs. text. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, however, and perhaps we have done some of these other nonfiction books a disservice by not giving them their just due earlier.

  3. Ok, I’m going to reread the text only and think of a 12/14 yr old audience, which I do think is the best target. I do think that for the text to be distiguished, the reader has to bring a lot to it, read for subtlety between the lines. Again, for me, on first impression, I found that subtley was completey nuanced and made distinguished by its pairing with the illustrations. Kind of like (I was just reading) GRANDPA GREEN. Which, don’t worry, I’m not going to argue for the Newbery….

  4. What do you think the reader has to bring to this book, Nina? And how is it different from what the reader has to bring to The Money We’ll Save in order for it to make sense and be enjoyable?

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I had a chance to look at this again at lunch.

    First of all, I don’t think the reader needs to bring anything to the text of MONEY WE’LL SAVE to see distinguished elements in that text. But it was a weak argument for me to say re DRAWING that “for the text to be distiguished, the reader has to bring a lot to it, read for subtlety between the lines” because I meant “for the text to be distinguished without the pictures.” And the reader doesn’t have to read the text without the pictures.

    I agree with you that the spareness of the voice her is its strength. It’s a very strong text. But the text itself isn’t what creates “disinguished” plot, characterization, interpretation of theme to me. To me it really becomes distinguished when the spare text reverberates against a given illustration. Some examples:

    p. 12 “When the war ended four years later, eveything was broken.”

    This text floats on a sepia watercolor of rubble….and in the midground is a photograph of a smiling playful 4 yr old Say with his babysitter. The starkness of that juxtaposition is what gives the text multiple meanings.

    p.42-45….the riot scene. There’s a progression of four different illustration styles that shifts the narrative tension as the text gives an almost journalist description of the scene.

    p.55 “The next ten months passed like a speeded-up movie. I looked hard at everything and tried to remember what I saw and felt. Soon all would be memories.”
    We see a photo-montage … never before have we been treated to so many photos packed on a page, and the way they’re jammed in makes palpable the “hungry” feeling that’s alluded to in the text.

    Almost every spread is like this, but these were some that popped out at me over my soup. But I’m going to look at it at dinner too, with your comments in mind…

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Is anybody surprised this is not getting any Caldecott buzz? I mean even HEART AND SOUL, which seems like a bigger leap to me, is getting more!

  7. Nina, to be honest, I didn’t notice ANY of the things you list regarding interplay between text and pictures–presumably because I was concentrating on the text purposely. I can see that those pages are richer for the interplay, and that the book would seem less distinguished without having that relationship. Just like, say, a reader can enjoy A Wrinkle in Time without understanding any of the philosophy or metaphors, just as a science fiction/fantasy novel, but we might think that was a sad way to read it. But from my not-having-noticed-those-before perspective, I still think the book really is THAT GOOD even without them.

    I spoke of what one has to bring to The Money We’ll Save because of some points brought up by (I think it was) Eric. I felt, after reading about his experience sharing this with children, thinking about it, and discussing it with a couple of people, that this book primarily works for people with a certain level of knowledge–either about New York tenements or about the way white middle-class people live in this country. (I know the family in the book isn’t middle-class. I think the presumed reader is.) I haven’t harped on this in discussion because audience issues aren’t always so relevant, and because, to be honest, I don’t care enough about the book.

    Not that I have any idea how Drawing From Memory would be received by a classroom full of the children of immigrants. (Actually, I would love to know that. But I think Eric’s class is too young, isn’t it?)

  8. I haven’t shared DRAWING FROM MEMORY with my fourth graders, but I feel very much as Nina does that the text and art interact with each other. There is a spareness to both, but they feel incomplete to me as a reading experience without each other. I also think that is as it should be given this is about drawing both as the pulling sense and the paper and pencil since.

    I read aloud THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE to my NYC fourth graders who when I read it were not familiar with tenements as such and it worked beautifully. I was absolutely convinced then that the text did not need the art to be complete and distinguished Newbery-wise

  9. Right, Monica, but your kids (from what I understand about your classroom) are entrenched in a world where it’s funny to bring home a live turkey and undesirable to kill that turkey for food. They bring THAT knowledge.

    I’m not saying that the illustrations in Drawing From Memory aren’t good or that they don’t work together beautifully–just that the text alone is also distinguished. That doesn’t diminish the experience of the book as a whole. If I can go way back in Newbery history to one of my favorites from earlier years, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a picture book about an artist painting the images talked about in the text; the illustrations are integral and the text isn’t meant to be read alone; but the literary elements of the text are truly distinguished.

Speak Your Mind