"Come gather around me, little ones, your kamishibai man is here again!"
"Come get your sweets and listen to my stories!"
Clack, clack, clack!
Long ago, children in Japan would come running at the sound of the kamishibai man's wooden clappers, anxious for his stories and his sweets. But as time went by, fewer and fewer children gathered around, until there was only one small boy left. So the storyteller stopped riding his bicycle into town. Years later, the kamishibai man and his wife prepare a fresh batch of candy and he pedals into town to tell one more story. When he comes out of the reverie of his memories, he looks around to see that he is surrounded by familiar faces the children he used to entertain have returned, all grown up and more eager than ever to listen to his delightful tales.
Using two very different and remarkable styles of art, Caldecott medalist Allen Say tells a tale within a tale, transporting readers seamlessly to the Japan of his childhood, when he used to come running with the children of his own neighborhood at the sound of the kamishibai man's clappers.
Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937, Say grew up when kamishibai (paper theater) flourished because of an economic depression that sent many people into the streets looking for ways to make a living. Children and adults gathered daily to hear the kamishibai performer's suspenseful stories and buy candies.
As Japan's economy improved and television first called denki (electric) kamishibai became more popular, kamishibai as a street performance art all but disappeared.
As the well-known storyteller and Japanese language and folklore expert Tara McGowan details in her afterword, kamishibai artists turned to more lucrative pursuits, like the creation of manga (comic books) and animé, which are wildly popular today.
Say came to the United States when he was sixteen years old. He began his formal training in art when he was twelve, and he spent most of his professional life as a highly successful commercial photographer. For years, he wrote and illustrated children's books on a part-time basis. But in 1987, while illustrating The Boy of the Three-Year Nap (a Caldecott Honor Book), he recaptured the joy he had known as a boy working in his mentor's studio and decided to make a full-time commitment to doing what he loved best: writing and illustrating children's books.
Since then he has written and illustrated many books, including Grandfather's Journey (winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal), Tree of Cranes, Tea with Milk, The Sign Painter, Home of the Brave, Music for Alice, and, most recently, Kamishibai Man.
Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937. His father, a Korean orphan raised by a British family in Shanghai, and his mother, a Japanese American born in Oakland, California, divorced when Say was eight. The family split, with Say living unhappily with his father and his sister living with their mother. When he was twelve, he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, who had not approved of her daughter's marriage. His relationship with his grandmother was such that he ended up living by himself in an apartment closer to his school. It was during this time that Say apprenticed himself to Noro Shinpei, a cartoonist whom he greatly admired, marking the beginning of his serious training in the arts. This important period in Say's life is documented in The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice (1979).
When Say turned sixteen, his father decided to move to the United States. He now had a new family, and he asked Say if he would like to emigrate with them. With no knowledge of English but with a sense of adventure, Say traveled to California. To his dismay, he was enrolled in the Harding Military Academy in Glendora, California, forty miles from his father's home in Long Beach. As the only nonwhite student in the military school (and one who was half Japanese and half Korean in postwar California), Say was received as one would expect.
After an unhappy year at Harding, he was expelled for smoking cigarettes in his room, and with nowhere else to turn, he walked to the city of Azusa and enrolled himself at Citrus Union High School. There he was encouraged to pursue his art. His life after high school is alluded to in The Sign Painter (2000).
In the early 1960s, Say moved to northern California, where he enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley as an architectural student. His studies were interrupted by a stint in the army. (Say's student deferment was revoked owing to a technicality, and he was drafted.) He served two years in Germany, where he inadvertently became a photographer for the newspaper Stars and Stripes.
Returning to California, he pursued commercial photography as a career. Art directors and designers working with Say were impressed with his ability to sketch out ideas before committing them to film. It was their encouragement that led Say to become a freelance illustrator.
His first book, Dr. Smith's Safari, was published in 1972. For the next ten years, Say continued to alternate writing and illustrating with his photography.
In 1979, Say published his only novel to date, The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice. In 1984, he illustrated How My Parents Learned to Eat, by Ina R. Friedman, but, discouraged by the color reproduction, he vowed to quit illustrating altogether.
Walter Lorraine, an editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, can be credited with bringing Say back to the career that would eventually become his life's work. In 1988, Lorraine tempted Say with The Boy of the Three-Year Nap, a retelling of an old Japanese folktale written by Dianne Snyder, promising the finest color reproduction possible. Published in 1988, The Boy of the Three-Year Nap won a Caldecott Honor award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. The same year, Allen Say quit photography completely and dedicated himself to writing and illustrating children's books.
Tree of Cranes, Grandfather's Journey (winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal), Tea with Milk, and The Sign Painter are the most autobiographical of his illustrated works. In addition to his own life and memories, Say has written on a wide range of subjects, but there is a recurring theme of an outsider facing, questioning, and overcoming social, cultural, or physical obstacles.
Say's most recent books, Home of the Brave and Music for Alice, about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, were inspired by a retrospective of his work at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 2000. Fifty-five of his original drawings and paintings were featured, along with original sketchbooks and autobiographical artifacts.
Written by Maria Kwong, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, California, May 2005