Maybe you are familiar with Allen Say’s gorgeous picture books–my personal favorites are Grandfather’s Journey and Emma’s Rug, but really, I could fall into the artwork of any of them, and they also have this incredible emotional resonance. Say is that kind of artist whose humanity reaches out of the artwork and text and grabs you.
Drawing from Memory is an illustrated memoir of how Say came to be the artist he is today, or at least the first 16 years of that journey. Using an incredible array of sketches, comics, old photographs, and paintings to support his narrative, Say shares how he came to love drawing (his mother didn’t want him to drown in the sea near his island home in Japan, so she kept him inside as much as possible; drawing kept him busy); how his family rejected his dream of becoming an artist because artists weren’t considered “respectable”; how he lived alone starting at age 12 (!) after his parents’ divorce; and most importantly, how he came to be mentored by famous cartoonist Noro Shinpei (who he called Sensei).
Say’s determination to follow his heart and become an artist, in spite of his family’s resistance and other obstacles, will likely speak to middle school readers. But even more than that, the variety of images in this book–not just different mediums (photography, drawings, watercolor, etc.), but different styles within them–will amaze and inspire budding artists.* When I finished the book, I immediately wanted to go back and pour over the artwork again. But first I had to dry my eyes because the story was moving enough to get me a tad weepy!
Ultimately, Drawing from Memory is a thank you note from a student to the teacher who quietly changed his life in immeasurable ways. There is an amazing story in the Author’s Note about how, after several years of no contact with Sensei, Say returned to Tokyo. He hoped to see Sensei, but had no address or way of contacting him. He writes, “As I got on a train to Tokyo, I felt calm, as though walking in my sleep, and I’m usually very nervous about everything. Somehow I felt certain I was going to find Sensei in a city of eight million people. And arriving there, for no particular reason, I picked one of the many city trains and got on. As I was pushed into the crowded car, I almost ran into Sensei. There he was, standing in the aisle in his usual kimono, holding on to a hand strap and carrying a sleeping baby on one arm.”
If that doesn’t give you a chill, I don’t know what would!
*I wish the cover image were more representative. I like it, but so much of the power of the book comes from the variety of the artwork, I wish that were captured better on the cover.