What formative experiences make a great children’s book illustrator? In the case of Allen Say and Ed Young, both Caldecott medalists, the journey begins with unusual childhoods in wartime Asia. Connecting the dots from those beginnings to what would become long and successful careers, Drawing From Memory by Say, and The House Baba Built, by Young, both picture books, portray the authors and artists as not-yet men.
Allen Say, author of Grandfather’s Journey, which won the Caldecott in 1994, is known for his watercolor paintings; among Say’s many books, only one, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, forgoes artwork, even as it tells the story of his early artistic training. With Drawing From Memory, Say reworks that unillustrated autobiographical middle-grade novel into a transporting hybrid of picture book and graphic memoir. In doing so, he shows just how evocative illustration can be in conveying a life to young readers.
Drawing From Memory begins in prewar Yokohama, Japan, where the precocious Say decides early on to become a cartoonist: “When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t need toys or friends or parents.” Yet he quickly learns to hide his art, particularly from his mostly absent and disapproving father. Soon, he is forced to flee bomb-ridden Yokohama for the countryside. By the end of World War II, he says, “everything was broken,” including Say’s scattered family. Following an unusual deal with his grandmother – he gets an apartment in exchange for gaining admission to a prestigious Tokyo middle school – Say moves into a room of his own just before his 13th birthday, determined to become an artist.
Inspired by a newspaper article about a boy who walked 350 miles to apprentice himself to the renowned cartoonist Noro Shinpei, Say likewise walks through the famous artist’s studio door. He re-emerges with a sensei – a master instructor – and a new name, Kiyoi, a mispronunciation of his pre-Westernized surname, Sei-I. Say’s training with Noro-Sensei, whom Say lovingly refers to as his “spiritual father,” lasts for several years, until Say emigrates to the United States. This memoir allows Say to acknowledge, six decades later, his lifelong bond to his teacher.
The House Baba Built, illustrated by Ed Young with text as told to Libby Koponen, opens with another unconventional real estate exchange. With war approaching 1930s Shanghai, Young’s engineer father, Baba, strikes an agreement with a wealthy landowner in an attempt to shelter his family in the city’s safest neighborhood. He will design and build a big house with courtyards, gardens and a swimming pool, which he must then give to the landowner after his own family has lived there for 20 years.
The sprawling, three-story complex becomes a magical playground for Young and his four siblings and, soon, a safe haven for relatives and friends. With vibrant collages comprised of drawings, cutouts and manipulated photographs, Young, who won the Caldecott Medal in 1990 for Lon Po Po, dreamily reconstructs his childhood. The fall of Nanjing, the arrival of a German refugee family and other wartime events figure in the background, but, Young says, “I knew nothing could happen to us within those walls.”
The House Baba Built is as intricately constructed as his father’s house, with pages that extend and open to reveal additional detail and memories. The first such spread depicts an overview of Baba’s house, an oasis surrounded by a bustling Shanghai cityscape, its citizens dwarfed by the house’s epic proportions. The final two facing-spreads, hidden behind a useful time line and author’s note, open to simplified architectural line drawings of the house’s interior, populated by cutouts of the family and friends who made Baba’s house so welcoming.
Both books describe how family can guide artists in their early years. In Say’s case, it was a chosen family; for Young, the extended family into which he was born. In Drawing From Memory, Say, who outwardly faced greater adversity, reveals winking secrets to longtime readers about the ways his youth informed his later work: how he immortalized his mother’s uncle as the curmudgeonly protagonist in Once Under the Cherry Blossom Tree (1974) and threw tiles from the same roof that appears on the cover of The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. He also shows how he channeled the cartoon ego his sensei created of him, decades later, in The Sign Painter (2000). All this is revealed through comics, line drawing, watercolor and half-century-old photographs, a combination that highlights Say’s range and depth as both an illustrator and storyteller. Meanwhile, Young, whose childhood self was largely cocooned, uses a mix of media to depict disquieting reminders of things past: flocks of hovering crows, fading pictures, dark silhouettes and nameless faces as viewed from the safe haven within.
As if intended to be paired, the titles of these two remarkable books prove complementary: “Drawing From Memory the House Baba Built.” In both artists’ lives, art provides a refuge.
Readers: Children, Middle Grade