Author and illustrator Allen Say answers questions from students.
When you were younger and thinking of being a cartoonist, did you ever think of being an animator?
No, that [animation] came much later. When I was growing up, there was no such thing as animation. I was a war child; war was going on. There was no television; movies were utter luxuries. I was eight years old when the Second World War ended; I had probably seen three or four movies. Animation came much later with Walt Disney and Popeye. So the answer is no.
Do you sometimes write in Japanese?
Yes, not often.
Are most of your stories true?
Yes and no. I always say this to children: there is really no such thing as a true story. Once you put it on paper it becomes fiction. History is a big fiction.
Do you write the story or draw the illustrations first?
I do the illustrations first. I almost always draw first, except for the one I'm doing now. It's rare when I know the story beforehand.
What advice do you have to inspiring artists?
If you write something and it seems pretty to you, toss it out. Chances are it's cute and no good. Same thing with paintings.
Do you like your stories when you first write them or do you revise a lot?
You know, I paint the pictures first, in order from page one, page two, etc. I don't jump all over the place. Somehow when I finish the first painting, the second somehow pops in my mind. It's a sequential thing. It's almost like a cinematic approach. In other words, I tell my stories in pictures in my mind. I am not a trained writer and I never imagined I would be a writer especially in my acquired language. You know I didn't speak English until I was 16 when I came to this country, and it quite a shock. I never got over the shock of getting my papers back in college with all those red ink marks. It's still a great fear in me. Writing itself is one of the most unnatural acts, and writing English for me is doubly unnatural.
How has being an author illustrator changed your life?
I don't have to report to anyone, and I can do anything I want, which is exactly what I have always wanted to do (after a great painter).
How does it feel to be famous? Does your hand hurt from writing all these books?
I can draw in my dreams and my hand never gets tired; it's my mind that rots, and quickly too. I can draw much faster than I can write. I probably will never get used to this notion of being famous. It is frequently surprising and unnatural. It's just that I'm Allen Say. I suppose if I had been a younger man, it would have probably amused me, but at my age it is surprising and a little bothersome.
Why do you usually write about your family?
Write what you know is what I've learned. Also, I suppose in a way my family was dysfunctional from the word go. You always like to imagine it otherwise, and based on what I remember of it, I try to put it together in a way that I would have liked to see it.
Do you think it's important that your readers know something about you personally — your own heritage and history — when they read your books?
None whatsoever. I always resent this. I think the person is entirely superfluous. For that reason, I really think that my work will be appreciated much more when I'm gone. Then I think my books will be read for what they are. The reader doesn't have to make the association between the book and the author, the person that thought it up. I'm vehemently against the celebrity and personality cult.
Do you write any adult stories or chapter books?
I have tried to write adult stories in the past; but not since I've been doing children's books full-time. I've never had the desire to write books for adults.
Even though you write picture books, some of the themes are a little more adult. Who do you think about when you are writing?
I never think of children. If I ever think of an audience, it has been my great mentor, the cartoonist Noro Shinpei, who died this year. So I'm truly a ronin, a masterless samurai, an orphan. Or I think of Walter Lorraine, my editor. Walter and I have this agreement that I can do anything I want, so I often don't show him my work in progress — it's a deal we made long ago.
How did you come up with the idea for Home of the Brave?
In the epilogue of the book I mention how I was honored with a retrospective show at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I kept going back to L.A. (I live in Portland, Oregon) and seeing the ongoing exhibit of the internment camp at Manzanar. [Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of the ten internment camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II.] I kept seeing these photographs and artifacts, suitcases that people used to take their belongings. Each person was only allowed to take one suitcase. I had already begun a book and had the first four frames [paintings/illustrations] finished when I suddenly went off in a different direction.
Home of the Brave had initially started out as a love story. However, after seeing the photos and artifacts from the internment camps that is when the story changed. After about the third time I was down there, something just took over. I just completely went off in another direction with the same story I was currently working on.
I'm describing the mystery of creation, I don't quite understand. It just happened after seeing this exhibit several times. It wasn't a conscious effort on my part. I start out with paintings. In the process of painting a story emerges, which in turns suggests the following image, frame two. Then I follow that process.
The picture of the two girls (which is in the book Home of the Brave, p. 15) was a family portrait that I copied from a photograph taken in 1942 by Dorothea Lange. Lange was in California when she took the photo. The name of the family is Mochida. They were big-time farmers and lived near the Bay area. It's a photograph that Lange took when the family was just being bussed out to an internment camp and they are wearing nametags.
I kept looking at the picture, and I was very much haunted by these two girls in the photo. It occurred to me to lift the two girls out of the photograph and introduce them into my book. I decided to use the two girls in my book, and the story evolved. The two girls in the picture and their family came to a signing of my book (Home of the Brave). Miyuki is the older girl, and Hiroko is the younger girl. They are "normal" American people. They are seemingly very happy; they do not seem to display any anger or resentment. It is just something that happened to them.
Home of the Brave seems like a nightmare. What is the best way to share it with students?
Read it and discuss it. Talk about it. This is an introduction to recent American history, which so many people don't seem to know. It is astounding.
Steve Wasserman of The LA Times Book Review, posed three questions [to me]. One was, "Do you worry that this story is too nightmarish for children?" That question really upset me. Here was my answer, "My handling of this subject is mere intimation of the nightmare that real children were forced to watch and endure." However, after the editor read my response, he then edited his own question and changed the word nightmarish to the word difficult.
Do you usually do a lot of research for your books?
Yes, I do.
Did you have to do a lot of research for Home of the Brave?
Probably not as much as some. I didn't travel to the Southwest to view kivas [an underground Pueblo Indian ceremonial structure]. I rely heavily on photographs. I read up on Indian mythology - whatever I could find to learn more about kivas. Some of the internment camps were built on Indian reservations. When you think about it, they were all built on Indian land, and I wanted to make that connection. Nothing is resolved in my book; it is a comment on history. History is cyclical, ongoing.
What are your own experiences of World War II?
Running all over Japan, trying to avoid the bombs falling on us — B29s (the flying fortresses). I attended seven grade schools, which was due to constantly moving around. I was born in Yokohama (Japan). We moved to Yamaguchi Prefecture, near Hiroshima. Grandfather's Journey, Tree of Cranes, and Tea With Milk form a trilogy, which was unintentional, it just happened.
They are fairly accurate stories of my mother and grandmother (on my mother's side). My father was a Korean orphan and never knew his parents. My mother was born in Oakland, California. Her father, my grandfather (the protagonist in Grandfather's Journey), was a very gentle and privileged gentleman — he never had to work a day in his life. He discovered steamships, so he traveled all over the place, including South America and came to California. One day he received a letter from his father: "Get home and marry this woman we've chosen for you, or else." Otherwise he would've been disowned and there was much to inherit — he was the second son. He rushed back to Japan and married my grandmother, and took her to Oakland, California, and put her up in an apartment.
My mother was born; she obviously was a disappointment because women couldn't inherit in those days. It had to be a male heir. Five years later my grandparents had another girl, who was a clone of my grandmother, a miserable, horrible woman. They quit trying to have sons. To proper Japanese parents, America wasn't a place to bring up a proper lady.
So at the age of 18, after my mother went to high school, my grandparents dragged her back to Japan. This is the story of Tea With Milk. They hired tutors to mold my mother into a proper Japanese young lady, and my mother rebelled. She got herself a job at Daimaru Department store in Osaka (it still exists). She was not an elevator girl, which she is in my story Tea With Milk. She worked in the office doing translation. She met my father at the store; he was a customer. She ran off with the first man who spoke English to her. My father spoke with a British accent because he was reared by an English family in Shanghai. My poor mother was very impressed with that.
Was Grandfather's Journey an experience from your life? Was it really your grandfather? The part with the woman with the baby in her hands, was that part about you and your wife?
Yes, it's really a slightly cleaned up story about my grandfather who I didn't meet until I was six. He was a very lovely man. He was a privileged Japanese man who never had to work a day in his life, the second son of a very old Japanese family. His older brother is the man who is depicted in Under the Cherry Blossom Tree as a very wealthy landlord, not very nice. But my grandfather was just a very gentle and kind man.
The part with the woman and the baby was not about me and my wife but just an imaginary tale, though the man is loosely modeled the way I looked as a young man.
In Tree of Cranes, are you the little boy in the story? If yes, do you celebrate Christmas every year like that?
Yes that is me as a little boy, but now I don't celebrate Christmas like that. I didn't celebrate like that as a little boy. When peace descended on Japan, my mother did try to have a tree every year, but that was about it. It didn't last very long since I started living by myself when I was 12 years old. In the next four years, I became the apprentice of a famous cartoonist, and this is chronicled in The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice.
In Tree of Cranes, how did you draw the mother behind the window and the wood of the tub?
Laboriously! It is the out of focus look, and I probably scraped with all kinds of things like bristle brushes to blur the image. I studied photography for a year and had a teacher that said only in photography can you blur an image. Now, I am still getting even with him, and I always try to blur my images — selective blurring that is.
Did you really get sick from playing in the neighbor's pond?
Probably not. I was probably sick before then, but my mother had such a fear of water, she was always afraid that I was going to drown in the pond, especially since I was always running away. She would always come looking for me. But next door, they had these series of ponds, a large goldfish hatchery, which was sort of magical place for me. And there was an old man going around throwing handfuls of live worms into the ponds, and the fish would gather around like metal filings to a magnet. I have a very vivid memory of that. Some of the ponds had koi, which are multi colored carp, so it was very colorful.
We understand that many of your stories are memoirs — we have a question about How My Parents Learned to Eat. Where did you get that idea from? And did you eat with chopsticks or a fork when you were little?
I did not write that story but I illustrated it. It was my first full color work, and when it came out, I was so upset with the production and felt the quality wasn't good, so I said that I would never do another children's book again.
I ate with both a chopstick and a fork when I was a kid. Using a chopstick is an acquired skill. Most children start with using a spoon.
We just read and enjoyed several of your books. We would like to know what you like to read, and who are your favorite authors?
I'm very eclectic in reading. I read fiction and nonfiction. Frequently I read three to four books simultaneously. I don't read for the plot or story. My editor finds this strange. I do a lot of rereading. Some stories I've read over ten times. I usually open a book anywhere, and if I don't like it, I skip pages. Or I'll start a new book. I'm a very slow reader. I don't believe in speed-reading. I'll frequently read a passage over and over again, to find the mystery and meaning. I have a fear of the English language. I've always felt like an imposter using it. It's a very precise language compared to the Japanese language, which has a very loose form.
Which of your books was the easiest for you to write, and what was the hardest? Why?
They are all difficult and painful. There is no such thing as an easy book. If it were easy I would toss it out, it is probably no good. Writing isn't fun — painting is fun at times. I'm in the position where I write something and it goes out into the world, and I'm opening myself up and all these reviewers will say whatever they want (often wrong).
Do you repeat yourself in your stories for impact or to stress a point?
It's kind of a rhythmic thing. It feels right, and I'm not sure if I can explain that. All artistic endeavors — whether painting, music, or writing — rhythm has a big part of it. Sometimes it just feels right to repeat or echo something.
Mr. Say, we are writing from a classroom in Rochester, NY. We are currently studying many of your books as a part of an Author Study. The children would like to know how you write so well. They are having difficulty now writing their own narratives.
I think the best way to tell a story for young people is to make storyboards — sort of like cartoon strips. It can even be stick figures. Lay out the story like a storyboard, and somehow words will come to you. They do to me anyway. And this is much easier than if I start by groping verbally; then it becomes unworkable. I can sit the whole day at my desk, struggling to write an opening sentence, and this is crazy. If I don't have the first sentence down, I can't go on.
I thought it was just me, but I was reading an essay by Mavis Gallant, and she said the same thing. She has to have the opening sentence just down cold or she can't go on and write the next sentence. And I thought, "It's not just me. This is a great writer." And it gave me great comfort. Writing is a very unnatural act, and using the images, particularly for a picture book, doodling is just perfect, and children like to do that.
In The Bicycle Man, are the pictures drawn of your school? Are they from photos of Sports Day or your memory?
They are entirely from my memory. The school didn't look like that at all; it's all poetic license. I actually returned there in 1982 for my reunion, first grade reunion, and I had drawn my teacher from memory and she looks exactly the same. It was a little creepy. The landscape was so accurate, relatively speaking. Of course, it has changed with new buildings, but essentially the outline of the mountains is how I depicted it.
Eighteen out of 50 students came back for the reunion, including the teacher, Mrs. Morita, and no one remembered the incident. Only one classmate's older brother (he was three years older than us), he remembered the incident.
You said that every book is difficult and painful to write. What did you mean by painful? Physically, emotionally, morally? And why?
All of the above! Mental anguish can be more severe that physical pain. I'm not really a writer, and I'm almost embarrassed to be called an author. Call me an artist and that is okay, but I'm completely insecure when it comes to my writing.
Do you get inspired by music? If so, what type?
I do like music, but I have to work in complete silence. I can't read or draw when music is being played. Sometimes music does inspire me, but not often. I do listen to a lot of Bach, but there is nothing I could listen to for three months at a time. I don't own a TV set, and I've never turned the radio on in my car.
What sport do you like?
I used to like fly fishing; it was the only physically graceful thing I could master. My father was an athlete, so I hated physical sport. I couldn't do anything, really. I was the slowest runner at all the grade schools I went to. On the day of the Sport Day in Mrs. Morita's class, I was praying for a typhoon in order to get me out of those relays. And in the end, I was saved by those soldiers. That's probably why I remember the incident so clearly. You know artists are cursed with very acute memory. The only way we can go on is by putting it on paper. I feel as though I analyze myself and I get paid for it.
How does it feel to write all these interesting books about your life? What is your favorite book you wrote? Mine is A River Dream.
My favorite book is always the one I am working on right now. When I finish a book, it no longer means anything to me. It's almost like a work done by somebody else. Like when I walked into my museum exhibit, I was shocked and had never really looked at the body of work, all framed and looking very proper and official. I thought "Wow, who did those? One busy guy." There is a detachment after I'm done with a piece. It doesn't really belong to me, and I'm thinking about the next project.
What did it feel like to win the Caldecott?
I didn't believe it. I thought it was a grotesque joke, honestly. I had already won the Caldecott Honor (silver runner up), and I thought it was the same thing, not the gold. I didn't quite know what to make of it. I had no idea what it entailed. It did change my life.
How have things changed in Japan since you were there?
Unimaginably. Everything is so strange. Youngsters are called "space people" because old people like me don't understand them. I used to go there every year for my sushi fix.
What is your favorite food or restaurant in US and Japan?
Sushi. But I only eat it in Japan.