Week-end Book Review: Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Allen Say,
Drawing from Memory
Scholastic Press, 2011.

Ages 10+

Before even opening Allen Say’s latest book, the play on words of the title, Drawing from Memory, gives the reader a frisson of anticipation, enhanced by the simple cover illustration, a self-portrait of a young Allen Say floating, perhaps, in contemporary consideration of what has now become past. By the time we meet the illustration again in its context of an elated twelve-year-old Say having moved into his own one-room apartment, we are well and truly engrossed. Both before and after that defining moment in Say’s life, drawing is central to his existence. His childhood was not straightforward but Say recounts it with a lightness of touch in both words and pictures that is perfectly attuned to his readership. My favourite is perhaps the juxtaposition of a very small Allen drawing, drawing, drawing. Next along, a small boy walks away from his latest work, as his parents look in anger (father) and horror (mother) at the wall that has been turned into an artist’s canvas. The accompanying text, meanwhile, gives his father’s veto of art as a career for his son. This balance of humor and underlying tensions continues through the book, which ends with Say’s departure for America at the age of fifteen, “ready to start a new life with what I could carry on my back.”

Devotees of Say’s work will find vignettes linking to his previous books: however, the greatest parallels can be drawn with Say’s autobiographical novel The Ink Keeper’s Apprentice, for which Drawing from Memory is an absolutely must-have companion. For here at last is a full portrait of the real Sensei Noro Shinpei, the famous cartoonist to whom Say rather precociously and wholly pivotally apprenticed himself. Included in the narrative are photographs, nuggets of wisdom, and absorbing examples of Shinpei’s work. These include two cartoon characters that were Say and his fellow-apprentice Tokida, getting out of all sorts of scrapes. How wonderful is that! Further background about his later contact with Shinpei, who died in 2002, is given in Say’s moving Afterword.

Throughout the book, Say provides many vivid portraits: as well as his family, Sensei and Tokida, there is his art teacher Miss Goldfish, and her former pupil Orito-san, who taught Say karate as well as drawing from classical sculpture. And through it all is the self-portrait of a young man: his determination to be an artist no matter what, set against a complex family background and the cultural context of post-war Japan.

The story of Say’s childhood is a compelling one. It is fitting that, as an artist, he should tell it through pictures as well as words: and indeed, Say’s skilful combination of illustration and writing renders this account a masterpiece of graphic storytelling.

Marjorie Coughlan
December 2011

5 Responses to “Week-end Book Review: Drawing from Memory by Allen Say”

  1. jama Says:

    I love this book! Thanks for the great review :).

  2. Corinne Says:

    I agree with you Jama! It is definitely on my Best of 2011 list!

  3. Susan T. Says:

    I love this book, too. Great review! It’s now turning up on lots of Best of the Year lists–for good reason. My son & I read a library copy, but I want to buy the book for our home library.

  4. Marjorie Says:

    Yes, it’s definitely up there among my highlights for the year too. Thank you, all, for leaving comments. We’ll be featuring an interview with the book’s editor soon – Andrea Pinkney, whose idea it was to include some of Noro Shinpei’s work, as Allen indicates in his Afterword. The subsequent search for examples, including the introductory frame for Allen’s own transformation into a cartoon character, might have been missed without Andrea’s input!

  5. Sally Says:

    Oh, I’ve got to get this book too! And I’m going to share your post, Marjorie, with my architect brother-in-law who loves to draw and is from Japan.