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Caldecott Winning Illustrators Series: Allen Say

By Adrienne Rivera. Mar 30, 2022. 8:51 PM.

Topics: Caldecott Medal, Children's Books

The Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for children's book illustrators in America, is awarded annually to an artist whose work exemplifies the highest standard and quality in the industry. Both parents and children alike seek out these books with their shining gold medals emblazoned on the cover, knowing that what is inside is sure to be of high quality. In 1994, the Caldecott Medal was awarded to an illustrator whose dedication and skill are devoted to depicting his Japanese culture. Join us in this edition of the Caldecott Medal Winning Illustrator series as we take a look at the life and work of illustrator Allen Say:

Who is Allen Say?
drawing from memoryAllen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937. He was the child of a Japanese American woman and a Korean-born raised in China by a British couple. One of his earliest life experiences was facing the destruction of his childhood home when the US bombed Japan.

He and his family were forced to relocate. His mother taught him to read before he went to school, and in those early years, he read comic books to his classmates who couldn't yet read. His first-grade teacher encouraged his love of art and introduced him to the work of cartoonist Noro Shinpei, whom he eventually became apprenticed to at the age of twelve.

During this time, he first saw an exhibit of the art of Vincent Van Gogh, who is said to have had a major artistic influence. His parents divorced in the 50s, and he went to live with his grandparents. Eventually, he joined his father in America when he remarried. After a short and awful stint in military school, he returned to the world of publication, where he continued to focus on art after being encouraged by teachers. He studied at the Chouinard Institute, the Art Center College of Design, before eventually studying architecture at UC Berkeley. His studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army.

He continued to draw during this time, and his photographs appeared in the army magazine Stars and Stripes. After being discharged, he worked as a photographer but turned to illustration at the urging of a friend. His illustrations in The Boy of the Three-Year Nap by Dianne Snyder were named a Caldecott Honor Award and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. His 1993 book, Grandfather's Journey, received the Caldecott Medal. He continues to write and illustrate to this day.

Where else have you heard of Say?

Say's mentor Noro Shinpei, added a character inspired by Say to his popular comic, Demokurashee-Chan called Kyusuke. Additionally, his work has appeared in numerous exhibitions and museums, including in a special exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art titled The Art of Allen Say: A Sense of Place.

Examining Say’s Artistic Style

Say typically works with various mediums, often pen and ink, photographs, and watercolors. His illustrations are often understated and rooted in reality, though occasionally, a work demands dipping a toe into the surreal. Say has stated that when he is working on a book, he starts with an illustration rather than the idea, then adds another, and lets the story the images present lead him to the story his book is meant to be. Japan, racial identity, culture, and the differences and similarities between Japan and America often inspire him.

Collecting Say

Drawing From Memory

Say's 2011 autobiography, Drawing From Memory details his mentorship with Noro Shinpei, who became a father figure for him during his apprenticeship in World War II-era Japan. This mix of graphic novel and memoir presents an intimate look at the relationship between mentor and student and how this relationship helped shape his identity both as an artist and person. While not necessarily a good fit among the picture books of a child's shelf, this book is ideal for those looking for greater insight into this amazing artist. The book was the recipient of the Oregon Spirit Book Award.

Grandfather's Journey

grandfathers journey-1Say's best-known book is undoubtedly his Caldecott-winning Grandfather's Journey. This beautiful book is inspired by his own grandfather's immigration to America.

He talks about his family's unique blend of American and Japanese culture and how homesick he is for one country in another, loving both simultaneously. This beautiful book is a classic for a reason.

Tea With Milk

Showcasing some of the same themes as Grandfather's Journey, Tea With Milk is a perfect book for Say collectors. He was inspired by his mother's move from San Francisco as a young woman and how she felt torn between her two cultures. This loving tribute to Say's mother cannot be missed.

Browse Caldecott Winners

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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