Taking a cue from Stephanie, I decided that we would try to read our Five in a Row selections geographically–that is, read books set in the same part of the world together, rather than spreading them out over the year. After reading (and loving!) Masako Matsuno’s A Pair of Red Clogs ( my thoughts here), we picked up Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say. I feel like this Caldecott Award-winning book hardly needs an introduction . It is the touching biographical sketch of Allen Say’s gradfather’s immigration to the United States as a young man and his eventual return to Japan as an old man. It is all about discovering a new country and missing an old country. It is about restlessness and wanderlust. It makes me cry, and despite that, my girls love it. 🙂
Even before we read Grandfather’s Journey, we had read several books about Japanese people assimilating into American culture. The girls thought they were hilarious, and I really enjoyed reading them aloud. What I didn’t realize, though, is that we would be gaining so much of Allen Say’s perspective either through his writing or his illustrations. The one the girls loved most is How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman. In this humorous story, a young girl explains how both chopsticks and knives and forks came to be the utensils of choice in her home. It is the story of her Japanese mother and her American father, a sailor stationed in Yokohoma. We read of the beginning of their romance, which is speeded along when her father learns his ship will be leaving in three weeks. The young couple has enjoyed spending time together, but they have never eaten together due to their discomfort at each other’s manner of eating. What follows is a story faintly remisicent of “The Gift of the Magi” in which each person sacrifices to learn the other’s traditions. Allen Say‘s illustrations are recognizable in this story. In fact, my girls were pretty sure that the young woman in How My Parents Learned to Eat is the same one in the next selection. . .
Tea with Milk by Allen Say might be subtitled “Mother’s Journey,” for it is the story of Allen Say’s mother, and while it is a continuation of the story begun in Grandfather’s Journey, in many ways these companion stories are opposites. In this story, a young girl is born outside San Francisco and spends her youth there, until her Japanese father grows so homesick for Japan that he relocates his family there. Masako cannot assimilate into life in Japan, and she eventually grows restless enough to move away from her parents’ village into the larger city of Osaka. In Osaka she gains employment in a department store, and it is there that she eventually meets her future husband (the father of Allen Say). Their meeting is through a unique turn of events that happens precisely because they both, though they are both Asian, speak English.
Allen Say is obviously both a talented author and illustrator. His illustrations, particularly in his own books, are more portrait-like than most children’s book illustrations. However, this style fits the tone and subject matter of his books very well.
We actually read another book which Allen Say illustrated, and I’m including it in this post even though it is a totally different type of book. The Boy of the Three Year Nap by Dianne Snyder reads like a Japanese folktale. It is the story of a lazy boy named Taro who maneuvers to marry the daughter of a wealthy neighbor, but his exasperated mother turns the tables on him in order to teach him a lesson and win the girl. Lulu thought this book was really funny–she really seemed to grasp what Taro was trying to do. Louise, on the other hand, didn’t like this one as much. She seemed a little frightened by the scary costume Taro dons when he dresses up as a village ujigami (god) to trick his neighbor. Allen Say’s illustrations in this one are very colorful and humorous. All of the characters are represented in a way which captures the emotion and humor in the story.
We read several other books in our study of Japan, but we didn’t really do anything other than read, talk, and look at Japan on the map. (I hope to share about these books later.) Oh, we also ate at a new Asian restaurant and tried our hand at using chopsticks, much to the amusement of our waiter. We never did master it. 🙂