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Allen Say (1937–) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1937, in Yokohama, Japan; immigrated to the United States c. 1953; Education: Studied at Aoyama Gakuin (Tokyo, Japan), Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles Art Center School, University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco Art Institute. Hobbies and other interests: Fly-fishing.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Houghton Mifflin, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116-3764.


EIZO Press, Berkeley, CA, publisher, 1968; commercial photographer and illustrator, 1969–; writer and illustrator. Exhibitions: A retrospective exhibit of Say's works was staged at the Japanese American National Museum, n Los Angeles, CA, 2000. Military service: U.S. Army; served in Germany.

Honors Awards

American Library Association Notable Book designation, and Best Book for Young Adults designation, both 1979, both for The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice; New York Times Best Illustrated book award, 1980, for The Lucky Yak; Horn Book Fanfare list, 1984, and Christopher Award, 1985, both for How My Parents Learned to Eat; New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Children's Books listee, 1988, for A River Dream; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and American Library Association Notable Children's Book, both 1988, and Caldecott Honor Book, 1989, all for The Boy of the Three-Year Nap; Reading Magic Award, 1990, for El Chino; Bay Area Book Reviewers Association award, and PEN Center USA West award, both 1992, both for Tree of Cranes; Caldecott Medal, 1994, for Grandfather's Journey.



Dr. Smith's Safari, Harper (New York, NY), 1972.

Once under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale, Harper (New York, NY), 1974 published as Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1977.

The Feast of Lanterns, Harper (New York, NY), 1976.

The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice (young adult), Harper (New York, NY), 1979.

The Bicycle Man, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.

A River Dream, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1988.

The Lost Lake, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1989.

El Chino, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1990.

Tree of Cranes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1991.

Grandfather's Journey, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1993.

Stranger in the Mirror, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995.

Emma's Rug, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1996.

Allison, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1997.

Tea with Milk, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1999.

The Sign Painter, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2000.

Home of the Brave, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2002.

Music for Alice, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2004.


Brother Antoninus, A Canticle to the Waterbirds, EIZO Press, 1968.

Wilson Pinney, editor, Two Ways of Seeing, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1971.

Eve Bunting, Magic and Night River, Harper (New York, NY), 1978.

Annetta Lawson, The Lucky Yak, Parnassus Press, 1980.

Thea Brow, The Secret Cross of Lorraine, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1981.

Ina R. Friedman, How My Parents Learned to Eat, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1984.

Dianne Snyder, The Boy of the Three-Year Nap, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1988.


Allen Say is an author and illustrator of children's books who is noted for his "masterfully executed watercolors," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer appraising Say's 1999 work, Tea with Milk. Say's books, often dealing with the lives of young Asian Americans, focus on the search for identity, the multicultural experience, and respect for the environment. An apprentice to well-known Japanese cartoonist Noro Shinpei as a youth, and a photographer for twenty years, Say creates artwork that demonstrates influences from both quarters: Vibrant and action-filled layouts result from his apprenticeship, while attention to lighting gives his work a photographic quality. Say's book Grandfather's Journey won the Caldecott Medal; other award-winning titles include the novel, The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice and picture books such as A River Dream and A Tree of Cranes. In an interview with Lynne M. Burke for Five Owls, Say commented that "I do children's books because I am haunted by my childhood."

Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937, Say grew up during World War II, when Japanese society endured many privations in support of that country's war effort. While Say formed a love of drawing early on, he was discouraged from pursuing that interest by his father, who hoped that his son would become a successful businessman. Say's mother, born in America to Japanese parents, later returned with her family to Japan. There she married Say's father, but by the time Say was twelve his parents were separated and the boy was left in the care of a grandmother. This tumultuous heritage has played an integral part in Say's development as an artist.

Fortunately for Say, a teacher at school made him feel that drawing was an acceptable thing to do. Other encouragement came from famed cartoonist Shinpei. On the strength of his early work, Say convinced the well-known cartoonist to take him on as an apprentice, an unusual practice in postwar Japan. Shinpei proved to be more than a mentor, however; in addition to teaching the budding artist Japanese and Western drawing styles, the older artist became something of a father substitute to the young Say during the four-year apprenticeship.

Leaving Shinpei at age sixteen, Say moved to the United States and at his father's urging attended military high school. Returning to Japan for a time after graduation, he discovered that he was no longer comfortable at his family's traditional home. He had changed, become a person between cultures, a "cultural hybrid," as he described himself to Hazel Rochman in a Booklist interview. Returning to America, he studied art and architecture, then was drafted and sent to Germany. In one of life's bitter ironies, Say became the firing-panel operator of a missile system that carried the same type of atomic warhead used to devastate Hiroshima during World War II—an incident Say remembered from his childhood in Japan. During his service years, he took up photography, in part to stay sane in what seemed to him an insane occupation.

After completing his military service, Say became a commercial photographer, but continued to work on his drawing between shoots. As he told Burke, "photography lacked the mystery and depth of painting." His first illustrations were for A Canticle for the Waterbirds by Brother Antoninus, published in 1968 by the small press Say established in Berkeley, California.

Soon Say was writing and illustrating his own picture books, including retellings of Japanese folk tales. In Once under the Cherry Blossom Tree he reworks a classic Japanese joke-tale about a mean landlord who sprouts a cherry tree atop his head after swallowing a cherry pit. This event heralds a better life for the villagers. Sada Fretz noted in a Washington Post review that "Say illustrates the story with fine line drawings that make the absurdities precisely imaginable." The Feast of Lanterns tells of two brothers living on a small Japanese island who steal their uncle's boat in order to visit the mainland for the first time. Writing in School Library Journal, Cynthia T. Seyboldt commented that Say's "appealing full-page black-and-white drawings" "enhance the ordinary plot line."

Say recounts his early apprenticeship with Shinpei in the award-winning novel The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice. In this work thirteen-year-old Kiyoi is excited when the great master cartoonist takes him on as an apprentice. Living alone in a shabby room, he goes for lessons at the artist's studio, is briefly distracted by Tokyo night-life, and by the time that he departs for America with his newly remarried father, is well on the way to becoming an artist in his own right. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called this book a "sparkling, touch-true portrait of a young person coming into his own."

The Bicycle Man, with its vibrant watercolor illustrations and sensitive text, attracted a great deal of critical attention to its young author-illustrator. Drawing from childhood memory, Say tells the story of an encounter between Japanese school children and two American soldiers in occupied Japan. As a finale to the school sports day, the soldiers perform tricks on a borrowed bicycle and thereby establish a tenuous link to the children. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book a "delightful story" while Karla Kuskin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Say "a master of his art." Noting that the author/illustrator wields a pen "as unerring as his eye," Kuskin added that Say's images of the Japanese schoolyard are "alive with wonderfully individual children and adults."

While by the mid-1980s Say had decided in favor of photography over book illustration, a unique book-illustration project caused him to reconsider that choice. Talked into creating artwork for The Boy of the Three-Year Nap by Dianne Snyder, Say earned a Caldecott Honor, one of the highest awards given for illustration. In addition to the award, working on Snyder's book was illuminating. As he told Leonard S. Marcus in a Horn Book interview, "I decided, at age fifty, that this, more than anything else was what I wanted to do. I reverted to my childhood, to my happiest days when I used to go to my master's studio, warm my hands in front of one of the charcoal braziers, loosen my fingers, and start working on his beautiful drawings." Say has continued that commitment, mining the years of his youth in Japan and of his arrival in America for a series of highly praised picture books, and has also found inspiration in being a new parent as well as in the world of nature.

Recalling the lost and lonely time when he first came to America, Say created El Chinho, a picture book detailing the life of an actual boy who in the 1960s became the first Chinese matador in history. Billy Wong, known in Spain as El Chinho, was a hero to many Asians of Say's generation. After meeting a relative of Wong's, Say decided to write a book about the matador. Working with borrowed family albums and scrapbooks, he spent eleven months on the illustrations. As he noted in Children's Books and Their Creators, "a wonderful thing happened" during this work. "I began to see through Billy's eyes. Not only that, I began to think with his mind and feel with his heart." Reflecting the transition that comes when one finds one's life's work, Say illustrates the early years of Wong's life in sepia tones; when Billy finally realizes his dream, the palette switches to vibrant watercolors.

Say weaves elements of his own life into several other stories, among them Tree of Cranes, Home of the Brave, and Grandfather's Journey. In Tree of Cranes a young Japanese boy's American-born mother recalls the Christmas times of her youth when she decorates a pine tree with paper cranes. A Kirkus Reviews commentator noted the "uncompromising chill … from parent to child" in this "beautiful, honest, but disturbing" book. In Booklist Stephanie Zvirin viewed Say's "quiet, graciously told picture book" as "a perfect blend of text and art," and pointed out the wealth of detail in the illustrations depicting the "complex bond between mother and child that underlies the story." Norma Field, reviewing Tree of Cranes for the New York Times, maintained: "Readers will linger over Mr. Say's richly austere watercolors, with their clean lines and refreshing space."

Grandfather's Journey recreates the experiences of Say's maternal grandfather as compared to his own as immigrant and rootless "cultural hybrid." In the book, a Japanese-American man tells the story of his grandfather, who left his native Japan in the early years of the twentieth century for America. Settling in San Francisco and raising a family, the man feels so strong a yearning for his homeland that he finally resettles his family in Japan. "The brief text is simple and unaffected," noted Kate McClelland in School Library Journal, while the illustrations "are astonishingly still, like
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the captured moments found in a family photo album." The beauty of both Japan and the United States is celebrated in this Caldecott Medal-winning book, with a palette almost totally void of reds in order to impart a quiet spirituality to the whole. Burke noted in a review for Five Owls that Grandfather's Journey "is at once an intimate reminiscence and a broad reflection upon the immigrant experience," while a Publishers Weekly critic concluded that the "tranquility of the art and the powerfully controlled prose underscore the profundity of Say's themes."

In Home of the Brave Say grounds his story in a communal history: that of the 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent who were relocated to government internment camps during World War II. The story, described by a Kirkus contributor as a "nonlinear, fantasy story-within-a-story," combines time travel elements with history in an almost surreal tale about a kayaker who is carried over a waterfall and, in dreamlike fashion, journeys through a desolate Indian reservation and discovers abandoned two children. In an effort to aid them, the man travels with the children toward a group of lights in the distance; those lights turn out to mark a Japanese internment camp. As the story continues to unfold, the plight of Native Americans is melded with that of Japanese detainees through what the Kirkus contributor dubbed "hauntingly beautiful" images and a story that makes "a tenuous, but powerful, connection" between several difficult periods in U.S. history.

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While School Library Journal reviewer Marianne Saccardi echoed the view of several critics by writing that some "readers will need help finding their way through this dark and puzzling story," a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that in moving into "the realm of dream—or rather, nightmare," the images in Home of the Brave "create an internal logic of their own, as emotionally convincing as any waking experience."

While Say generates his most resonant work when focusing on his cultural heritage, he has also created effective picture books that focus on more universal themes of childhood. In Stranger in the Mirror Sam, a young Asian-American boy, awakes one morning to discover that his face has suddenly become old and wrinkled. He subsequently has trouble convincing family and friends that he is still the same Sam inside. Wendy Lukehart commented in School Library Journal that this "haunting story exposes the agony caused by American attitudes toward aging and differences," while Booklist critic Hazel Rochman noted that "Say's exquisite watercolors, realistic and filled with light, show gothic horror in ordinary life."

In Emma's Rug, a budding young artist finally discovers—upon the destruction of the rug she has always relied upon for inspiration—that the true source of creativity comes from within. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called this book an "impressive creation, to be appreciated on many levels." In Allison, a young Asian-American girl discovers that she is adopted when she realizes that she resembles her doll, Mei Mei, far more than she resembles her Caucasian parents. Her initial anger at the discovery is diffused when she takes in a stray cat and begins nurturing and loving it, much as her parents love her. A Publishers Weekly critic called Allison a "subtle, sensitive probing of international adoption," concluding that it will encourage "thoughtful adult-child dialogue on a potentially difficult issue."

With Tea with Milk Say returns to personal history, telling the story of his mother, brought up near San Francisco and uprooted after high school to return to her parents' Japanese homeland. In Say's book the young woman, Masako, feels out of place and foreign, but she soon meets a young man who prefers tea with milk, just as she does. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "Through choice words and scrupulously choreographed paintings, Say's story communicates both the heart's yearning for individuality and freedom and how love and friendship can bridge cultural chasms." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Margaret Moorman noted that Say deals with the type of character he understands well, "a person whose heart is divided between one home and another." Moorman concluded that "Say's family history … makes for intensely memorable reading, as he records the individual longings, losses, compromises ad triumphs of lives lived between the poles of adventure and tradition."

Say's books have continued to explore similar, sometimes sophisticated, themes, depicting individuals who experience dislocation and setbacks, but who then find a new path, often empowered by small opportunities to make large changes. In Music for Alice, based on a true story, a young Japanese-American couple find a way to avoid internment but in the process lose everything. Living out the war on an abandoned farm, they eventually turn to their love of gladiolas to create a new, stable life. The Sign Painter follows a young boy as he wrestles with the choice between following his dream of becoming an artist and opting for a more stable life, a choice similar to that faced by the author many years before. Praising Music for Alice, a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that through his "exquisite paintings" Say presents "a moving testament to a life of hard work and dreams … that find fulfillment in unanticipated ways." Citing the "photo-like realism" of Say's watercolor art, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that the author/illustrator "practically takes one's breath away with the
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understated beauty" of his illustrations of the elderly Alice, her portrait reflecting "an inner peace and elegant beauty."

For Say, each book that he undertakes continues to represent a personal journey, but each work also gives space to the reader, whether young or old, and allows for new interpretations based on others' experiences. As the artist explained to a Publishers Weekly interviewer, "When I work on a book, I don't have a particular audience in mind. But it's been my experience that if I develop an idea as well as I can, both adults and youngsters seem to get something out of it, and that's the best I can ask for."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995, p. 576.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 208-212.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Sixth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1989.


Booklist, September 1, 1988, Ilene Cooper, review of A River Dream, p. 84; October 1, 1989, Ilene Cooper, review of The Lost Lake, p. 355; September 15, 1991, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Tree of Cranes, p. 166; July, 1993, Hazel Rochman, "Focus: A Restless Journey," p. 1974; October 1, 1993, Hazel Rochman, interview with Say, pp. 350-351; October 1, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Stranger in the Mirror, p. 320; October 1, 1996, p. 359; December 15, 1997, p. 693; October 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of The Sign Painter, p. 341; February 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of The Sign Painter, p. 1015; February 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Music for Alice, p. 977.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1991, p. 21; November, 1996, p. 114; January, 1998, p. 175; June, 1999, pp. 341-342.

Five Owls, January-February, 1991, Lynne M. Burke, "Conversation: Allen Say," p. 51; November-December, 1993, Lynne M. Burke, review of Grandfather's Journey, p. 36.

Horn Book, March-April, 1989, pp. 174-175; May-June, 1991, Leonard S. Marcus, "Rearrangement of Memory" (interview), pp. 295-303; September-October, 1993, p. 590; January-February, 1998, p. 69; July-August, 1999, pp. 458-459; May-June, 2004, review of Music for Alice, p. 321.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1979, review of The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice, p. 267; July 15, 1982, review of The Bicycle Man, p. 796; October 15, 1991, review of Tree of Cranes, p. 1349; October 1, 1993, p. 1280; September 15, 1995, p. 1357; September 1, 1996, p. 1328; April 1, 1999, pp. 537-538; April 15, 2002, review of Home of the Brave, p. 578; March 1, 2004, review of Music for Alice, p. 229.

Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2002, Duane Noriyuki, review of Home of the Brave.

New York Times, November 10, 1991, Norma Field, "Mama Brought Christmas with Her," section 7, p. 33.

New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1982, Karla Kuskin, review of The Bicycle Man, p. 41; November 11, 1990, p. 51; April 19, 1998, p. 32; May 16, 1999, Margaret Moorman, "Stranger in Her Own Land," p. 20; May 19, 2002, Jose Padua, "The Dispossessed."

Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1993, review of Grandfather's Journey, p. 70; September 9, 1996, review of Emma's Rug, p. 82; August 4, 1997, review of Allison, p. 74; March 8, 1999, review of Tea with Milk, p. 67; September 18, 2000, review of The Sign Painter, p. 110; February 25, 3003, review of Home of the Brave, p. 64, interview with Say, p. 65; January 26, 2004, review of Music for Alice, p. 252.

Riverbank Review, fall, 1999, pp. 22-25.

School Library Journal, January, 1977, Cynthia T. Seyboldt, review of The Feast of the Lanterns, p. 85; December, 1988, pp. 101-102; December, 1989, Phyllis G. Sidorsky, review of The Lost Lake, p. 88; September, 1993, Kate McClelland, review of Grandfather's Journey, p. 245; October, 1995, Wendy Lukehart, review of Stranger in the Mirror, p. 117; September, 1996, p. 190; May, 1999, p. 96; March, 2002, Marianne Saccardi, review of Home of the Brave, p. 238; April, 2003, Diane S. Marton, review of Grandfather's Journey, p. 104; April, 2004, Heide Piehler, review of Music for Alice, p. 123.

Washington Post, May 19, 1974, Sada Fretz, review of Once under the Cherry Blossom Tree, p. 4.


Houghton Mifflin Web site, http://www.houghtonmifflin books.com/ (June 28, 2005), "Allen Say."

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