Allen Say's Journey: The Art and Words of a Children's Book AuthorCaldecott Medal Acceptance Speech
by Allen Say
I know that it's a tradition for the recipients of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals to talk about what they were doing when fate called. It always gives me pleasure to break traditions, and if that's rebellion, I must be young at heart. Anyway, when I received my call, and when it became clear that the news wasn't some cruel prank or a grotesque mistake, I called Walter Lorraine, my editor. I asked him if I was the oldest person ever to receive the prize. "Oh, no," he denied emphatically. Then there was a pause. He was thinking. He couldn't think of anybody older.
But I am in good company. Freeman Dyson, the physicist, had this to say about being a late blooming father:
Life begins at fifty-five, the age at which I published my first book. So long as you have courage and a sense of humor, it is never too late to start life afresh. A book is in many ways like a baby. While you are writing, it is curled up in your belly. You cannot get a clear view of it. As soon as it is born, it goes out into the world and develops a character of its own. Like a daughter coming home from school, it surprises you with unexpected flashes of wisdom.
A few days after the award announcement, a librarian I know sent me a Caldecott fact sheet. I learned that the first award was given in 1938, and that I am its fifty-seventh recipient. It so happens that I am going to turn fifty-seven this August. And this honor is bestowed on the book that was published last year, which marked the fortieth anniversary of my coming to this country.
Then it gets stranger. When I was twelve, I attended a private middle school in a district in Tokyo called Shibuya. Just around the corner from the school, in an American housing compound called Washington Heights, there lived twelve-year old Lois Lowry whose father was General MacArthur's dentist. I like to think that we had seen each other in those days, two youngsters from very different backgrounds eyeing each other from the opposite sides of the track. And tonight we've come to sit at the same table, to be honored with the highest awards in our respective crafts. And astonishingly, we've arrived here under the wings of the same editor. I thank my good fortune that I didn't aspire to be a novelist.
For me, this prize represents the icing on the great gifts I have received in my life: Noro Shinpei for master; my own apartment at age twelve; acceptance of my first children's book by Nina Ignatowicz; birth of my daughter; my association with Walter Lorraine.
But I would like to tell you about the most wondrous gift of all. I was not yet four when I received it, and the donor was a lordly personage whose face I cannot remember. The present was a magnificent ceremonial sword. I could barely put my small hands around the heavy scabbard; I unsheathed it halfway, to make sure it was real, then closed it with a satisfying click, and laid it carefully on the long cherry wood table in the dining room. Then I went to the bathroom, and when I returned, the sword was gone. I asked the maid, then my parents. They gave me a blank stare. In a frenzy I searched the house from top to bottom, and when I could not find it I threw a tantrum, accusing the grown-ups of hiding it. My mother finally understood and tried to comfort me. It was only a dream, she said.
I never entirely believed that it was a dream. Even today, fifty some years later, the sword remains one of the most vivid objects I nearly possessed. And the incident marked the beginning of my lifelong confusion: I have a hard time separating my waking life from my dreams. Frequently, I am utterly lost in determining if a delicious pear I ate two days ago, or an interesting stranger I met three days ago, was real or a phantom.
While I was a student at Berkeley, I discovered the key to my dream life. It came in the form of a shiny silver coin, lying innocently on the ground. As I reached down toward it, another coin appeared, then another, and soon fistful of them lay at my feet. That was when I knew I was dreaming. In real life, unclaimed or unearned money never presented itself to a poor student like me. Ever since then, when I see a cluster of coins, I know I can do anything my aching heart desires and not get arrested. My only fear then is of waking prematurely. So imagine my bewilderment when I spotted three coins on a sidewalk one time, reached down, and was stiff-armed by a panhandler. He was very real.
Back to square one.
My bewilderment deepened when I returned to Japan in 1982, to attend a grammar school reunion. The Bicycle Man had just been published, and, carrying a stack of brand-new books, I went back to the place where the story took place thirty-six years earlier. Mrs. Morita, my first-grade teacher, came to meet me at the train station. It was like one of those teary Japanese movies.
Nineteen classmates came to the party, and we had to point one another out in the old school photographs someone had the sense to bring. I handed out copies of The Bicycle Man, and the banquet suddenly died. No one remembered the incident. "That wonderful black American soldier, he rode the principal's bicycle, don't you remember?" I pleaded. They looked at me with embarrassment and incomprehension, even pity. Then they laughed and called me Urashima Taro, the fisherman of the ancient folktale who returns home after being away for four hundred years.
On the following day, some of my classmates took the day off and accompanied me to the street where I used to live. All the houses were still standing, except mine. It had been demolished only a month before my return.
My homecoming wasn't turning out the way I had expected. Feeling a little woozy, I took the bullet train to Tokyo, to visit my prep school in the neighborhood where Lois and I had been children. Some of my old teachers were still there, and one of them presented me with a thirtieth anniversary school album. The slick book had pictures of anyone who had ever had anything to do with the school - teachers, parents, and caretakers. All except me. I had spent a fifth of my young life there, and yet I did not exist in the school history.
I went back to Yokohama, the place of my birth. I had to find some evidence - any evidence - of my childhood. I knew that my first house, where I had been given the sword, had burned down during the war, but I was not prepared for the changes that awaited me.
The big goldfish hatchery next to my old house, where the carp pond in the Tree of Cranes had been, was now replaced with rows of ugly concrete apartment buildings. The ancient fishing village from where my nanny had come was gone. The fine beach where our maid used to pick seaweed for the evening soup was gone. In fact, the whole seashore had been buried, and a jumble of factories now stood over the playground of my memory. Like Urashima Taro, I had gone back to a world without a past. My childhood was entirely in my mind. A dream.
Feeling a sense of irretrievable loss and uncertainty, I came back to California. I was an advertising photographer at the time, and I think it was then that I began to lose interest in photography, a craft that relies entirely upon reality. It was like watching the dissolving of a sandcastle that had taken me twenty years to build. I began dabbling in commercial illustrations.
The malaise lasted four years. I was forty-nine, and I had a six-year old daughter.
Then I got a call from Walter Lorraine. He asked me to illustrate a story written by Dianne Snyder. Quite frankly, I didn't know who Walter was, other than that he was an editor and vice president. The world is full of vice presidents. In any case, I took on the assignment, with the idea that it was going to be my last children's book. The Boy of the Three-year Nap came out in the spring of 1988, and a few months later, Walter called to congratulate me on winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. I didn't know what it was. But I did work on another book. Looking back on it today, A River Dream seems like a pocket mirror of the state I was in at the time - weaving in and out of reality.
Once I decided to work full-time on children's books, I had a memorable dream. In it, I was walking with a friend in bright sunlight when I spotted a shiny dime in the gutter, and, reaching down, I saw other coins scatted about. I picked up the dime, which was bent in the middle, and showed it to my friend. "Look, we're in a dream," I told him. "I know, but it doesn't matter," he replied. I tossed the dime back into the gutter and walked on.
The gutter needs no explanation. But why a bent dime? Well, you can't put a bent dime in a vending machine, not even a parking meter. It's useless. The coin had lost its meaning. And the friend is clearly the voice of my intuition, telling me that sleeping and waking are the two sides of the same continuum. "It doesn't matter," said the voice of wisdom.
This story gets more interesting if I tell you that the friend in my dream was Walter Lorraine. What prompted him to call me that first time? I believe we are in the same dream.
I don't know how long the term multiculturalism has been around, but as I started to work in my new phase I suddenly came under the scrutiny of educators and book people. And caught up in the swelling wave of social awareness, I began to think of "building a bridge" over the two disparate cultures that nurtured me. A pompous, self-serving delusion. Mercifully, the lapse was brief. What drives me is far more elemental - and honest, I hope. I am striving to give shape to my dreams - the old business of making myths - the fundamental force of art. And so, Grandfather's Journey is essentially a dream book, for the life's journey is an endless dreaming of the places we have left behind and the places we have yet to reach.
I am deeply honored to be a part of the milestones in Walter Lorraine's inestimable career. My heartfelt thanks to Nina Ignatowicz, who so long ago helped me find a voice in our adopted language. I thank everyone at Houghton Mifflin Company for assisting me in bringing this baby into the world. I thank all the librarians and teachers and reviewers who have made me a very proud father. And I am most grateful to the members of this year's Caldecott Committee for acknowledging the beauty of this child, who has already embarked on a journey of its own, displaying flashes of wisdom, which are quite surprising to the dreamer. Thank you, and sweet dreams.
About the Randolph Caldecott Medal
The Caldecott Medal is named in honor of the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott. The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, has awarded the Medal every year since 1937 to the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States. The illustrator does not have to be the author of the text, but must be a citizen or resident of the United States.
1974 Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, reissued 1997.
1976 The Feast of Lanterns. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
1978 Magic and the Night River. Bunting, Eve, author; Say, Allen, illustrator. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
1979 The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice, reissued 1994.
1980 The Lucky Yak. Lawson, Annetta, author; Say, Allen, illustrator. Parnassus Press and Houghton Mifflin Company.
1981 The Secret Cross of Lorraine. Brow, Thea, author; Say, Allen, illustrator. Parnassus Press and Houghton Mifflin Company.
1982 The Bicycle Man. Parnassus Press and Houghton Mifflin Company.
1984 How My Parents Learned to Eat. Friedman, Ina R., author; Say, Allen, illustrator.
1988 The Boy of the Three-Year Nap. Snyder, Dianne, author; Say, Allen, illustrator.
1988 A River Dream.
1989 The Lost Lake.
1990 El Chino.
1991 Tree of Cranes.
1993 Grandfather's Journey.
1995 Stranger in the Mirror.
1996 Emma's Rug.
1999 Tea with Milk.
2000 The Sign Painter.
Other books by Allen Say:1968 A Canticle to the Waterbirds. Brother Antoninus; Say, Allen. EIZO Press.
1971 Two Ways of Seeing. Pinney, Wilson; Say, Allen. Little Brown.
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