Allen Say is the rightfully acclaimed illustrator and author of a number of beautiful children’s books, many of which focus on Japanese stories or cross-cultural issues. One of my childhood favorites was a book called How My Parents Learned To Eat, written by Ina Friedman and illustrated by Say, about a young American sailor falling in love with a Japanese woman, both of them struggling to learn to use each other’s utensils of choice. His tender tone and detailed, precise illustrations belie a deep well of affection for humanity in all its forms and across cultural boundaries, and his work has helped to foster that affection in his readers.
With his recent entry into autobiography, lovers of Say’s work and new acolytes alike have a chance to find out how he developed such a keen sense of cultural complexities and such an observant artistic eye. This story began with Drawing From Memory, a fantastic examination of his childhood in Japan, with a troubled mother, an estranged father, and a burning desire to express himself through the artistic medium. In this first volume, Say managed to apprentice himself to manga master Noro Shinpei at the age of 13, and began to hone his talent. Say’s family life was a bit strange, and his childhood was unique, to say the least. His choice to reflect on his journey to art through art blurs the lines between mediums, drawing from the conventions of both picture books and graphic novels, and touching down at other points along that spectrum.
Say continues his story in The Inker’s Shadow, recounting his equally unorthodox teenage years in the USA. He moves to Southern California with his father, but is soon left at a military academy, where Say lingers somewhere between grunt-work employee and student, even though the student population is mostly comprised of wayward kids at least three years his junior. Through necessity as well as, perhaps, his true vocation, Say seeks solace elsewhere, taking art classes, making friends and trying to learn about the world beyond his bunk. Eventually, through a series of events, some fortunate and others unpleasant (it’s not as though post-war California was a great place to be a Japanese teenager), Say leaves the academy, rents a room in a small town, and secures a spot at an arts high school, where he finds friends and teachers who encourage him in his artistic pursuits. Perhaps the most touching part of this book is his tribute to his teachers and mentors, which show how much one person can change the course of your life just by encouraging you to be who you are. His high school teachers clearly share a place in his heart with his manga mentor Shinpei.
As Say brings mediums other than cartooning into his wheelhouse within the story, those methods are reflected in the book—with photographs, photorealistic art, and the occasional cameo by his manga alter-ego introduced in book one. Say reminds us of how an artist’s life and talent builds on itself beautifully, using a format lingering somewhere between picture book and graphic novel to relate his experiences. It’s almost like his personal scrapbook, cut and pasted together to capture the moments that mattered most to him.
Since The Inker’s Shadow only covers Say’s teenage years, there is an incompleteness about it—it is simply an intermediate moment in his artistic development. It’s a necessary one, of course, but Drawing From Memory felt so foundational in a way that The Inker’s Shadow can’t on its own. It seems almost certain that Say will continue this series of memoirs on to his adulthood, where he worked seriously in photography before finding his singular voice in illustrated work for young people. The Inker’s Shadow is an important, but incomplete part of the puzzle that is Allen Say, and I can’t wait for it to take it’s place nestled into the greater arc of his life’s story.
The Inker’s Shadow
by Allen Say
Scholastic Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 years