Journey of Memory: Allen Say

In the spring of 2014, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) featured the works of award-winning illustrator Allen Say. Originally titled, Allen Say: A Sense of Place, the exhibition is touring as Journey of Memory: Allen Say. Eight-one pieces of artwork done exquisitely in watercolor, ink and Chinese white on paper are on display. Included in the exhibition is artwork from Say’s earlier books such Under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale Retold by Allen Say (1974) and The Feast of Lanterns (1976), his the highly acclaimed books such as Tea with Milk (1999), Home of the Brave (2002), and Kamishibai Man (2005), and Say's award-winning books such as The Boy of the Three Year Nap (Caldecott honor, 1989), and Grandfather’s Journey (Caldecott medal, 1994)

Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937. He dreamed of becoming a cartoonist from the age of six, and, at age twelve, apprenticed himself to his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei. For the next four years, Say learned to draw and paint under the direction of Noro, who has remained Say's mentor. Say illustrated his first children's book — published in 1972 — in a photo studio between shooting assignments. For years, Say continued writing and illustrating children's books on a part-time basis. But in 1987, while illustrating The Boy of the Three Year Nap, winner of the 1989 Caldecott Honor, he recaptured the joy he had known as a boy working in his master's studio. It was then that Say decided to make a full commitment to doing what he loves best: writing and illustrating children's books and since then has written and illustrated several books, including Grandfather's Journey, a winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal.

How does Allen Say go about creating the beautiful artwork?
“I spend most of my time in my workroom - often I don’t stir out of the house for three or four days. Usually, my books start with a very vague notion or idea. Then I begin to draw things that come into my mind. I work on one book at a time and when I start working on a new book, I go through what I call the doodling stage: I just start drawing at random, without thinking much of anything; and if I’m lucky, something interesting might emerge. Eventually, I see a pattern within the pictures. It is this pattern that develops into a tentative plot. My next step is to complete all my paintings for the book. There are times when I make a lot of drawings for an illustration; and there are times when I just start painting without any preliminaries. 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. I often go for walks to look for ideas. Ideas are what I call “found objects.” I can see them with the naked eye or visualize them in my mind. Finding ideas is a process of feeding one’s mind with seemingly unrelated images and informa­tion. Then these things spark a thought or a progression of thoughts. After they are finished, I write the story. This may seem like the reverse of what appears to be the natural storytelling process, but for me, the plot of the story develops through the pictures. This is my way of working out the story as I paint along: so the final story I end up with is usually very different from the outline that I had started out with - if I had an outline. The finished book often surprises me, and that’s the excitement. 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.”  ~Allen Say