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Personal Experience Inspires Children's Author & Illustrator Allen Say

Japanese-born, Portland-based children’s author and artist Allen Say has illustrated dozens of books and won the highest awards in his field: the Caldecott Medal awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished book for children and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for excellence in children’s and young adult literature.

In addition to being a masterful watercolorist whose illustrations are both vibrant and technically precise, he’s also an expert storyteller.

Say often draws from personal experience in the tales he tells to illuminate bigger issues. Books like Grandfather’s Journey, about his ancestor’s immigration to the U.S.; Home of the Brave, which poetically alludes to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; El Chino, which tells the story of a Chinese-born matador; and Erika-san, about a young American woman building a life in rural Japan all describe the “outsider” navigating new circumstances.

Children's Author & Illustrator Allen┬áSay


Say was initially surprised that these books resonated with readers, especially since so many of them draw from his own family history.

“So many people of different cultures and different colors have come up to me and told me that, ‘You have written my grandfather’s story or my father’s story,’” says Say. “The reception has been phenomenal… I was completely taken aback.”

Clearly, many readers recognize the universal springing from the specifics of Say’s own background and relate to that.

Born in 1937, Say’s early childhood was dominated by the Second World War. His family was dislocated by the turmoil, and the strains of this time likely contributed to his parents’ divorce. At the age of 12, Say was sent to school in Tokyo, where he found his great teacher or “sensei”: the renowned cartoon artist Noro Shinpei.

“I simply thought I was following the old Japanese samurai tradition. At the age of 13 or 14 the person will go out and look for a master to serve under,” explains Say. “In order to learn a craft, this is what we used to do in the old days. But when I grew up a little I realized I was trying to effectively replace my father.”

This surrogate father put Say on the path to a life in the arts. The artistic passion Shinpei cultivated in Say stayed with him even when his father moved him to a military school in California. Later Say studied architecture at UC Berkeley, spent two years in the U.S. Army in Germany and became a commercial photographer before taking up writing and illustration in the 1980s.  

To learn more about Allen Say, tune in to Oregon Art Beat on May 10 at 8 pm.

This video was edited by Nick Fisher.