Drawing From Memory by Allen Say



Say, Allen. Drawing From Memory. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. ISBN 9780545176866

Plot Summary

Allen Say recounts the events of his life that led him to be the artist and author he is today. He takes readers through his parents’ divorce, his moving into an apartment at age 12 to study, how he apprentices himself to a famous Japanese cartoonist, the subsequent training and relationship with that mentor, and finally his leaving Japan for the United States. The main focus of the work is the relationship between Say and his mentor, Noro Shinpei.

Critical Analysis

In this autobiographical picture book meets graphic novel, Allen Say includes information about Japan after World War II, such as the fact that U.S. troops had occupied Japan by his eighth birthday on August 28, 1945. A quick internet search on the history of Occupied Japan reveals that this is accurate. In addition, the rest of the information included about Say, his family, his mentor and fellow mentee, and his comings and goings can be counted as accurate since Say himself experienced them and then put them into this book.

The organization of this book leaves a little to be desired. One review referred to it as a collage style, but the combination of photographs, drawings, and sketches results in a cluttered landscape. Some illustrations are full-page, some take up a small corner of a page. Some of the illustrations are accompanied by a paragraph of text while some merely boast a small caption. The book follows a clear sequence in that Say starts with his birth and moves chronologically through his life, but each page is not clearly sequenced. Some of the pages are laid out very logically and are easy to follow, but others are jumbled and leave the reader to guess which spot he or she should jump to next. There are no reference aids to assist readers in locating information, but then again, the book does read more like a graphic novel, so it is not entirely surprising that there is no table of contents, index, etc. There is a four and a half page author’s note at the end of the book that provides more background information, photographs, and a back story for why Say wrote this particular book. The note is a welcome addition to the main text of the book and leaves the reader with a deeper look into Say’s life.

Cartoon drawings, sketches, photographs, and the use of both color and black and white make this book very attractive and inviting to a reader who picks up the title and flips through it. If the reader can pick the correct path through each page, the information is interesting and the different types of illustrations, which include drawings and sketches by Say as well as Noro Shinpei and photographs from Say’s personal collection, highlight and enhance the text beautifully. The design elements communicate the subject matter clearly and effectively, but those elements suffer from the poor organization of the book.

Say’s style shines through this work and readers also have a chance to see where that style began and to watch some of it’s progression and development. It is clear from the narrative as well as from Say’s sketches and cartoon drawings that he is passionate about his work as an artist. The language of this book is suitable for the age range (10 years and up) without being too childish. This book could also be enjoyed by adults. Say ends the book with his departure for the United States, leaving readers eager to learn what happened in his life in the years since he left Japan and to find out more about him by reading more of his books. Say is able to communicate important events and times in his life to readers without overwhelming them.

This account of Allen Say’s time in Japan and his relationship with his mentor, Noro Shinpei, is an enjoyable read with great illustrations and pictures and an intriguing story. In my opinion, the only drawback is the poor organization.

Review Excerpts

School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

( WON AWARD in 2011 )

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award


American Library Association Notable Books for Children

( WON AWARD in 2012 )

“Say tells the story of his decidedly nontraditional Japanese upbringing, supplying watercolors, photographs, and humorous sketches to create a vivid record of life in postwar Tokyo…As the story of a young artist’s coming of age, Say’s account is complex, poignant, and unfailingly honest.” — Publisher’s Weekly, June 2011

“This rendering of Say’s adolescence–a coming-of-age story within the context of a long life and vocation–takes the form of an album, with text, photographs, drawings, and paintings.” — Horn Book Guide, January 2012

“This captivating and seamless melding of words and brilliant pictures provides the lens of memory and inspiration.” — School Library Journal, December 2011


Read some of Allen Say’s books:

  • Grandfather’s Journey, ISBN 9780547076805
  • Emma’s Rug, ISBN 9780618335237
  • Tea With Milk, ISBN 9780547237473

Have students draw a cartoon sequence of a series of events in their own life.

Have students make a poster or bookmark advertising Allen Say.

Find a local cartoonist and have them speak to the class. Then compare their story of becoming an artist with that of Allen Say’s.

Allen Say wanted to be a cartoonist, so he sought out a mentor. Have students identify something they would like to do and then draw a concept map or cartoon sequence of the steps they would take in order to achieve the goal.

Image from Amazon.com, accessed February 18, 2015. Cover art by Allen Say.


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