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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Top 100 Picture Books #46: Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say

#46 Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (1993)
39 points

Love, love, love this book! Was so sad it didn’t make the list last time, I am moving it up on my list! Say’s illustrations are poetic and gorgeous. First time my pick won the Caldecott. – DeAnn Okamura

I love the elegance of this book – the detailed and formal illustrations, the spare and controlled text – but am sucker-punched every time by the final line. Very moving. – Emily Myhr

1993 – this beautiful book captures the dichotomy felt by dual nationals and many of my students [American school abroad]: “The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.” – Diantha McBride

As DeAnne rightly points out, Say’s Caldecott Award winner didn’t make the Top 100 Poll last time, much to my surprise.  Now it has crested the Top 50, and the love is certainly there.  Just last year Say earned a bit of additional attention thanks to his illustrated memoir Drawing From Memory. Could that have contributed to its appearance on the list now?  Let’s just say it probably didn’t hurt.

Publishers Weekly summarized the book in this way, “A portrait of Say’s grandfather opens the book, showing him in traditional Japanese dress, “a young man when he left his home in Japan and went to see the world.” Crossing the Pacific on a steamship, he arrives in North America and explores the land by train, by riverboat and on foot. One especially arresting, light-washed painting presents Grandfather in shirtsleeves, vest and tie, holding his suit jacket under his arm as he gazes over a prairie: “The endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed.” Grandfather discovers that “the more he traveled, the more he longed to see new places,” but he nevertheless returns home to marry his childhood sweetheart. He brings her to California, where their daughter is born, but her youth reminds him inexorably of his own, and when she is nearly grown, he takes the family back to Japan. The restlessness endures: the daughter cannot be at home in a Japanese village; he himself cannot forget California. Although war shatters Grandfather’s hopes to revisit his second land, years later Say repeats the journey: “I came to love the land my grandfather had loved, and I stayed on and on until I had a daughter of my own.” The internal struggle of his grandfather also continues within Say, who writes that he, too, misses the places of his childhood and periodically returns to them.”

According to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, the pictures in this book came first.  The text?  Second.  And getting it to publication wasn’t easy.  “Reproducing that art, and keeping the colors clean and pure, proved extremely difficult; the publisher rejected three attempts to print the book.  Finally, Walter Lorraine, the editor; Donna McCarthy, the production manager; and Say decided on an innovative but effective production technique that helped capture the vibrancy of the colors.”

It won the Caldecott Medal in 1994, a particularly strong year if you consider the sheer number of Honors.  These included Ted Lewin’s Peppe the Lamplighter, Denise Fleming’s In the Small, Small Pond, Gerald McDermott’s Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, Kevin Henkes’ Owen, and Chris Raschka’s Yo! Yes? Now there’s a committee with tales that could be told!

  • There’s a learning activity with the book found here.

Kirkus said of it, “In lucid, graceful language, he chronicles these passages, reflecting his love of both countries–plus the expatriate’s ever-present longing for home–in both simple text and exquisitely composed watercolors: scenes of his grandfather discovering his new country and returning with new appreciation to the old, and pensive portraits recalling family photos, including two evoking the war and its aftermath. Lovely, quiet- -with a tenderness and warmth new to this fine illustrator’s work.”

PW said, “The internal struggle of his grandfather also continues within Say, who writes that he, too, misses the places of his childhood and periodically returns to them. The tranquility of the art and the powerfully controlled prose underscore the profundity of Say’s themes, investing the final line with an abiding, aching pathos: `The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.’ ”

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. DeAnn O says:

    Hooray for Allen Say! So happy to see this book made the list this time!