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Review of the Day: Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Drawing from Memory
By Allen Say
Scholastic Press
ISBN: 978-0-545-17686-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I am happy to report that there has been an uptick in options for those children handed the standard “You Must Read an Autobiography” assignment in school. Which is to say, more and more people are writing their autobiographies for the younger reading set. The catch? Well, it appears that the only people who tend to do this are children’s authors themselves. So it is that you’ll find autobios by folks like Jean Fritz, Jon Scieszka, Ed Young, Jerry Spinelli, Ether Hautzig, and others. What you won’t find are autobiographies by much of any other profession. That is usually because folks in other professions don’t care about promoting themselves to kids or, if they do, it’s for the wrong reasons. There are exceptions to this (Rosa Parks, for example) but generally speaking that’s the long and short of the matter. What’s interesting to me is that the authors that write their memoirs for kids tend to do so ONLY for kids. Even when the material they’re covering is deeply personal. Allen Say is a pitch perfect example of precisely this and his memoir, Drawing from Memory serves the dual purpose of tipping its hat the man who became a kind of surrogate father, as well as teaching kids about a chapter in the life of one small determined boy.

Imagine that you are twelve, you have your own apartment (which your parents pay for), and you get to study comics with a master sensei. Sounds a little bit like heaven, no? Well welcome to Allen Say’s world. As a boy growing up in WWII era Japan, cartoons were his life. Unfortunately they were not the kind of thing a serious young man was supposed to study. While living with his grandmother for a time, the older woman came up with a serious proposition. If he studied hard and got into the prestigious private Aoyama Middle School he would be given his own apartment and stipend for food. Young Allen leaped at the chance and before he knew it he had his own pad. Soon thereafter he read a newspaper article about a boy like himself who traveled hundreds of miles to become a cartoonist and was taken on by the great Noro Shinpei. Inspired, Allen also introduces himself to Shinpei and is taken on as well. Through this great man he learns what it truly means to make art, and when an opportunity to go to America comes up, he takes it, never forgetting the man who helped him all those years ago. The book is told through Say’s own drawings, both from his past and from his memories today, as well as photographs, comic panels, sketches, and more. An Author’s Note in the back explains what happened to his old sensei years and years later.

The name of this book is Drawing from Memory and periodically throughout the text you’ll see Allen mention a teacher or a moment and then say something along the lines of “a sports day scene at school that I had drawn from memory”. Truth be told, most of the images here are drawn from memories of Allen’s past. What’s interesting is that the Allen that we read about is doing anything BUT drawing from memory. He’s drawing from life and the world around him. Or, as his sensei puts it, “Drawing is never a practice. To draw is to see and discover. Every time you draw, you discover something new. Remember that.” And if true, that means that Allen discovers something about himself and his own past every time he draws from his own memory.

It’s easy to make assumptions about Allen’s life through this art. For example, when we read his story we detect quite a bit of resentment coming off of him towards the father that left his wife and child to start a new family elsewhere. Near the end Allen sees his father as a means of getting to America, but there is no reconciliation here. No love lost. And when I examine the art itself I see that nowhere is Allen’s father present and accounted for. Which is to say, he’s mentioned all right but try to catch so much as a glimpse of his face. The first and last time he appears in any kind of a picture is on page nine. There you can see him only from the back, hands on hips, glaring down at young Allen’s forays with his crayons on the wall. You never see his face. His mother’s yes. His grandmother’s, oh yes. But not Father. Telling.

Praise to the writing, by the way. It’s all well and good to create an illustrated narrative like the one we’ve found here but another thing entirely to write it in such a way where the words and pictures are quite so inseparable. Drawing from Memory is a brilliant example of a book where the words and the images heighten the reading experience. There is a belief amongst parents that graphic novels are a kind of lesser form of literature because there is something about the use of images with words that, when combined, renders both weaker. To people who feel that way I would hand them Say’s memoir. His is a brilliant mixing and melding of the two art forms. And while the pictures, photographs, and cartoons tell a moment in a life well, his words really steal the show. Say is honest about his young self. It’s interesting to watch him interact with fellow student Tokida about the demonstrations for equal rights in Japan. Allen calls such actions “riots”. Tokida says it’s staying and standing up for what’s right, not running away to America. Say never puts down the hammer and says who is right, leaving it up to the reader’s interpretation. Pretty classy for children’s fare. It’s the same kind of levelheaded writing he brings to his canny observations of Japan’s past. At one point he shows an image of his mother’s uncle. Underneath it reads, “One day I would write a story about him entitled Under the Cherry Blossom Tree. It would be told in the language of the people who were bombing us.” Chew on that one a while, kids.

To call this an autobiography isn’t strictly true. The book doesn’t have a timeline. It doesn’t contain much of any information about Say’s life after he arrived in America. What we have here is just a snippet of the turning point in a man’s life. Whether it still fulfills the requirements of an “autobiography” for a class assignment is up for debate. Probably more important is the fact that a kid reading this book is going to see firsthand how the decisions they make even at as young an age as twelve can affect their entire life. A memoir as well as a tribute to an old friend, Say’s book fulfills its purpose so well that one can’t help but hope for a sequel someday. This is nonfiction for kids at its best.

On shelves now.

Source: Reviewed from galley sent from publisher.

Notes on the Cover: What the . . . . ? Scholastic, honey, are you feeling okay? Cause I just read this amazing book you put out, and if I didn’t know better I’d swear you were trying to sabotage it by slapping on it what may be the year’s worst jacket. First off, I did notice that you made some changes between the galley and the final edition. On the galley young Allen is feeling like he’s floating off the floor so there’s a floor there. On the final copy you decided that the real problem with this jacket wasn’t the fact that it is utterly unappealing and sends the wrong message about this book, but rather that it was the color of the background and the fact that there was a floor there. Darlin’, I don’t like to tell you when you’re wrong, but in this case you were way way way off base. Not that this could have been an easy book to find a cover for. No sir, no way. But surely Allen has some ideas of his own of what kind of jacket to do? Because as it stands we’re going to have a devil of a time getting kids to open this one up, even if they have autobiography assignments. I mean, compare this to Knucklehead. Which one do YOU think the kids are going to gravitate towards, hmm?

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  • Oh!  Saw this after I wrote my review.  Seems like I wasn’t too far off on Say’s relationship with his father.
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I also loved this book, and also wondered what on earth was going on in the choosing of the cover. I’m glad to see that I wasn’t the only one disappointed in the cover–I know of many kids who would love the book, but many of that many would be put off by the cover too much to open the book.

    My review here:

  2. After seeing ads for this next to your blog on a succession of days, I got curious enough about this to purchase it, since I am a HUGE fan of “here’s how I found my future career” stories. It came two weeks ago, and I instantly read it and loved it. Wonderful book!