An Exile Finds a Home in Art for Kids

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

“My work is essentially the work of an exile,” observes Japanese American artist and author Allen Say. He is referring to the themes and illustrations of his children’s books, especially those created in the latter half of his three-decade, 19-volume career. In these works, his meticulously composed watercolors convey tales of the dislocations and challenges of being a foreigner, a traveler among cultures.

These depictions are on view in an exhibition that opened this weekend at the Japanese American National Museum, “Allen Say’s Journey: The Art and Words of a Children’s Book Author.” Fifty-five pieces of original artwork, from pen-and-ink drawings of the 1970s to watercolor paintings from the ‘80s and ‘90s, are augmented by a selection of photographs and sketchbooks from Say’s personal collection.

The museum considered the works worthy of showcasing in retrospective form. The genre itself inspires such treatment, says Kaleigh Komatsu, curatorial assistant and one of the show’s organizers: “When you look at a children’s book, it’s like looking at a self-contained gallery.” And the fact that Say’s works address the issue of Japanese American culture in a diverse population, she says, makes them especially appropriate to the museum.

Museum store manager Maria Kwong brought Say to the museum’s attention, having discovered him in 1992 while searching for books for her 6-year-old daughter. She came upon “El Chino” (1990), based on the true story of Bong Way “Billy” Wong, a Chinese American who decided to become a bullfighter on a trip to Spain--and did.


“The illustrations were so beautiful,” Kwong says, “and he showed Asians in a different way. In children’s books, Asians always either have a queue or wear a kimono!” This one ended up in a matador’s outfit.

Say’s characters may triumph or find reconciliation in the end, but the beautiful and different way he portrays Asian Americans includes an honest dose of the exile’s melancholy. Indeed, the covers of his last six books show a single youth in a moment of disconcerted discovery or pensiveness. “Grandfather’s Journey,” which won the 1994 Caldecott Medal (the nation’s highest honor for children’s book illustration), is about his Japanese grandfather’s sojourn in the United States, and how he hoped to return but never did. The cover shows a very serious boy holding down his bowler hat, his long coat blown to one side as he stands alone on the deck of an ocean liner. The cover for “Tea With Milk” (1999), Say’s most recent, is unusually bleak for a children’s book. An intensely solitary girl (based on Say’s mother) stands in an empty schoolyard in Japan, a visual metaphor for her isolation as an American-born Japanese.


Say’s exile identity is a condition passed down from his parents. His Japanese American mother was U.S.-born, but her parents took her back to Japan to turn her into a proper young Japanese woman; she ended up running away. His Korean father was raised in Shanghai by two British foster parents, and, as an adult, went to work in Japan, where Koreans were historically unwelcome. The surname “Say” is his father’s guess at what his family name might have been.


The two outsiders met in Osaka and married. Their only son, Allen, was born in 1937 in Yokohama. When his parents separated, the boy was sent to live with his grandmother in Tokyo.

“We hated each other, quite frankly,” Say, 62, says bluntly in a phone interview from his current home in Portland, Ore. When he managed to pass the exams to enter an exclusive school, she let him, a boy of 12, live on his own near the school. And that was when his real life began.

Long an admirer of the serialized cartoons of Noro Shinpei, Say gathered his courage and sought him out. Impressed by the boy’s determination, the famous cartoonist took him on, at first putting him to work doing office chores and observing a senior apprentice, Tokida, then training Say to fill in details and do backgrounds on his art boards.

“I thought I was going out there in the old samurai style, looking for my master,” Say says. “What I was doing was trying to replace my father. From that day on, Noro Shinpei has been my spiritual father--I was just incredibly lucky.”

Indeed, Noro Shinpei was not only a cartoonist, he was a philosopher and bon vivant, who lectured his apprentices on life and art, as well as treating them to delectable meals. In 1979, Say captured these three years of his adolescence in “The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice.” In a foreword added in 1994, Say recalls that one of the key lessons his master taught was “that to draw is to discover.”

In 1953, when he was 15, Say came to California with his father. After being kicked out of military school for smoking, he drifted through a series of jobs and art schools, until he was drafted into the Army in 1962.

When released two years later, he was keen on making money and turned to commercial photography, working on advertising and corporate assignments. But he always had qualms about his occupation. “I never considered photography an art form,” he admits. “I really hated everything about the advertising business--all the backstabbing. They’re not really whole human beings. They look at life through a different colored glass.”

Meanwhile, he began writing and illustrating children’s stories as a sideline. The first was “Dr. Smith’s Safari” in 1972, an anti-gun fable with talking animals and fanciful black-and-white line drawings.


“I did my first book, and it was kind of fun, then I did a second one,” he says, “and then at age 50 I realized that I’m really a storyteller!”

More than that, his second career met the standard his day job couldn’t. As Say says himself, “I feel that I’m doing legitimate art disguised as juvenile literature.”

The 10th book he illustrated, “The Boy of the Three-Year Nap” (1988), with text by Dianne Snyder and published by Houghton Mifflin, was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal. Sales shot up. “That sort of changed my life,” he says. “I then realized I might be able to support myself with this work.”

Shortly thereafter, he quit commercial photography for bookmaking full time. Many of his recent books have sold in the range of 40,000 to 50,000 copies, with “Grandfather’s Journey” approaching the 300,000 mark. "[That] is a very solid sales figure,” says Walter Lorraine, Say’s longtime editor at Houghton Mifflin. “To me, this proves that there are readers out there who recognize and appreciate substantial content.”


Say’s first books were drawn in pen and ink--black-and-white reproduction being the standard for little-known authors. With a growing track record, he moved to color illustrations, but the early ones, for “The Bicycle Man” (1982) or “The Boy of the Three-Year Nap” (1988), still relied heavily on line. Since then, his style has become more nuanced and painterly.

“What I generally do is to draw and paint first,” he explains. “I go through many, many sketches and doodlings. Then I do a kind of storyboard, then I start painting.”

Sometimes he finds the story through his own illustrations--in “El Chino” he had drawn Billy about to embark on his chosen career, dressed in a bolero jacket, cap slung low over his forehead. “I had meant to put in the eyes last, but when I looked at this picture, I realized that’s what the story meant--[at that point] Billy had no identity,” Say recalls. “So I never painted in the eyes.”


Say does acknowledge elements of “classic Japanese aesthetics” in his art. For example, he points out, there is “a dislike of symmetry . . . of all unnecessary things.”

By the time he writes the usually spare text, the words can pour out in a day or two. Although he has done illustrations for the words of others, he is now focused on illustrating only his own material. And while many of the stories are based on him or his family, he readily changes the details to tell a better story.

More than half his stories have an Asian theme. Nearly all have characters who are cultural or social outsiders who manage to find some balance in life. In “Tea With Milk,” when American-raised Masako is forced to go back to Japan, she rebels by running away and finding a job to support herself. In “Allison,” the heroine discovers to her horror that she looks more like her Asian doll than her adoptive, white parents. She has an extended temper tantrum.

And even when ethnicity is not an overt part of the story, Say’s characters are usually Asian or Asian American--the title character of “Emma’s Rug,” for example, who sees pictures in her white rug and draws them, to the amazement of adults who begin to call her special. Or the young man in “The Sign Painter,” which will be published in the fall, who drifts into a small Western town in the late ‘50s and becomes an apprentice to a signboard painter. In the opening and closing pictures, he is placed against scenes straight out of two Edward Hopper paintings--the small-town facades in “Early Sunday Morning” and the diner of “Nighthawks"-- but he looks decidedly Japanese. “That’s because he’s me,” Say declares proudly.

The Asian population of his books is what comes naturally, he says. But he is also aware of the power of suggestion. “I’m the guy who put the Asian child into mainstream American life, without any fanfare,” he says wryly. “It’s a very subversive act, if you like.”


While Say lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly four decades, last year he decamped to Portland. His last marriage, his third, ended years ago, and his only daughter left for college in 1998. Free to move on, he did. “I needed a change of scenery,” he says. “I have this weird idea that artists should never be too comfortable--we need emotional jolts now and then.”

He calculates the Portland move to be his 37th, which means he has averaged a move every 1.7 years. He gives a laugh. But he’s not happy with Portland--"It’s very boring,” he confides--and is already thinking about his next destination.

When he accepted the Caldecott Medal for “Grandfather’s Journey,” Say eloquently summed up the life of an exile-- and clearly his own world view. “Life’s journey is an endless dreaming of the places we have left behind and the places we have yet to reach.”


“ALLEN SAY’S JOURNEY: THE ART AND WORDS OF A CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR,” Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., downtown L.A.

Dates: Through Feb. 11, 2001. Prices: Adults, $6; seniors 62 and older, $5; students and children 6-17, $3. Phone: (213) 625-0414.