Meet the Biographer and Illustrator: Allen Say

9780544050501_hresDuring his career, Allen Say has written and illustrated a variety of children’s books, including Tree of Cranes, Tea with Milk, and Emma’s Rug. Last year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a twentieth-anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1994. Earlier this week, Allen Say discussed the book with Kidsbiographer.

Kidsbiographer: Grandfather’s Journey describes your grandfather’s life, which he divided between two countries, the U.S. and Japan. Did you do any research into family history to write it, or did you rely on stories you had already heard and memories you already had of him?

Allen Say: As I said in the introduction to the anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey, the whole story came to me on a short walk through a park in San Francisco. The book that came out of it was based entirely on memories of what I had heard from my mother when I was a boy. I had no photos of my grandfather as a young man, so I put my face on him and journeyed back in my family history according to my mother’s telling.

Kidsbiographer: Although you wrote Grandfather’s Journey in English, your prose style is very understated, very Japanese. How did Japanese aesthetics and literature influence your work on this book?

Allen Say: The Japanese culture in which I grew up has influenced everything I’ve done, and it will continue to do so in the future. It’s as unavoidable as aging. The story of my grandfather came to me in the plain English I’d first learned at age 16, not in the Japanese of haiku. But the funny thing is, my translation of the story into Japanese that I did for a Tokyo publisher reads better than the original version I wrote in English.

: The book contains an array of illustrations: stunning landscapes of Japan and the United States, portraits of your grandfather and the people in his life, and even images that convey the devastation of war. Which of these was the most challenging to compose and why?

Allen Say: The most difficult piece is on page 18, which shows the grandfather standing among birdcages. I was a purist in those days –- when painting with watercolors I didn’t use frisket, wax, or opaque white because I thought that was cheating. So I painted the little spaces between the birdcage wires with a tiny brush, which took two months. I’m not a purist anymore.

Kidsbiographer: A painting of a yellow origami boat appears on the book’s title page. Can you describe how you conceived this idea?

Allen Say: When the book was finished, I wanted to put a small drawing on the title page that would symbolize journeying; and as I thought about it, I saw on my worktable an origami crane I had made for my daughter. Why not a boat? A symbol of voyage! I bought a packet of origami and folded one.

Kidsbiographer: Since Grandfather’s Journey was first published in 1993, you must have received a lot of feedback about the book. What is the most gratifying response you received from a young reader?

Allen Say: The loveliest compliment I ever received was a question from a fourth-grade English girl who asked, “Mr. Say, when you are painting, are you always trying to make new colors?” It’s the most beautiful question ever asked of me; it made me feel like a super chef who’s trying cook up something that no one has ever tasted before.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Allen Say: My next book, The Inker’s Shadow, the sequel to Drawing from Memory, will be published in the fall of 2015. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a new book, and I don’t know where it’s taking me.


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful interview. Been a fan of Allen Say’s work for a long, long time. I love the question about making new colors too. 🙂

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