The Inker’s Shadow by Allen Say
Caldecott Medalist author/illustrator Allen Say introduced his personal portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-young-man in the one title he didn’t illustrate, the autobiographical middle-grade novel, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, originally published in 1979. More than three decades later, in 2011, Say returned to his early artistic journey, reworking his Apprentice into a hybrid picture book/graphic memoir in the multi-award-winning Drawing from Memory.
Say’s transatlantic odyssey continues on this side of the world in The Inker’s Shadow – hitting shelves this month – when, at just 15, he “decided to go to America and make a name for [him]self.” He landed via ship in the summer of 1953 in southern California with just a cardboard suitcase and a paint box from his beloved Sensei (“teacher” in Japanese), the renowned cartoonist Noro Shinpei. A starring character in Memory, Sensei was more a parent to Say than his own father ever was or would be.
Although Say traveled across the oceans from Japan with said father, his new stepmother, and his baby half-sister, his father is all too eager to say good-bye to his only son: the teenager is unceremoniously handed over in the care of an American friend Bill with just $10 and the admonishment, “‘Don’t disgrace me in America.”
Under Bill’s tutelage, Say entered the Harding Military Academy in Glendora, California – a town Say likens to “an Edward Hopper painting with palm trees.” Bill’s father had founded the school before World War II. His fellow students, Say recalls, “were friendly and very curious about a new arrival from their former enemy country.” Yet Say’s only reliable companion was his “comic shadow” Kyusuke, a mischievous character created by Sensei, who enjoyed an envious life of endless freedom.
To earn his tuition, Say works in the kitchen, then helps the handyman outside. He’s placed in sixth grade in spite of his age; he wears a uniform, even as he “looked like a fake GI and talked like one.” He gets a room of his own, separated at the request of paying parents who see only an enemy in him. He gets ejected from the Academy because Bill is certain Say’s father would take his own son back: “Father is a prince to his friends, but to his family he’s an ogre,” Say clarifies.
His peripatetic, self-sufficient adventures resume, landing him in a tiny town with one hotel and a main street. He’s accosted by two policeman for carrying his dinner of peanut butter and crackers back to his rented room, but he’s befriended by the high school principal who calls him “son,” who guides him to a job and indirectly back to his art. The continued kindness of strangers sustains and nourishes him until he’s ready to leave again, this time heading north to the city of his mother’s birth.
Surely Say’s journey will continue in a future volume to come …
An extensive “Author’s Note,” complete with half-century-old photographs from Say’s past, heightens his graphic memories here, adding gravitas to his experiences, difficult and joyous both. In spite of the magnitude of Say’s challenges – he’s little more than a child arriving in a country that has too recently bombed his homeland to shreds, he’s abandoned by his family and somehow expected to survive alone – Say never, ever succumbs to maudlin self-pity; his matter-of-fact, often humorous remembrances of things past is testimony to an exemplary, resilient young man. His Shadow embodies gratitude, and becomes a precious gift of acknowledgement to the many who supported his artistic soul in so many ways, enabling him to become one of this country’s most admired, respected, treasured children’s books creators.
Say’s wondrous feat of drawing from memory continues here, taking him clearly out of any shadows onto the bright, open, welcoming page. Grateful readers are we …
Readers: Children, Middle Grade