January is a month of new beginnings: a time to reflect on things we want and the aspects of our life that need a change. Allen Say’s newest picture book, “Erika-San” illustrates that it is possible to not only pursue a dream of home and happiness, but also find the answer in a place only seen in a picture. Inspired by a true story of a girl Say met in an Oregon sushi house, Erika-san is a beautiful addition to Say’s already moving body of work.
Born in Japan but currently living and working in Portland, Ore., Allen Say is a Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator whose books not only inspire young readers but also include profound insights for adults. Say’s many books have included themes from his own life from immigration in “Grandfather’s Journey” to the celebration of Christmas in “Tree of Cranes”.
Say’s beautiful watercolor portraits of individuals are most striking in his work such as “Allison”, “Emma’s Rug”, and “Music for Alice”. His luminous portrayals are filled with warmth and spirit, providing exceptional Asian American and Asian protagonists, rare finds in US children’s literature.
Erika-San, his newest picture book, tells the story of a young American woman who tenaciously seeks a place pictured in her grandmother’s house. Rejecting the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Erika gravitates to a remote island where she discovers her true home, filled with family and love. Told in Say’s peaceful watercolors and simple, elegant prose, this book is especially engaging for upper elementary readers who are thinking of new adventures or as encouragement for desk-bound children to explore the world.
The IE was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Allen Say some questions over email about his story-making process and the theme of seeking home in his stories.
IE: You often paint from interesting perspectives, for example, from above the rooftops on the cover of Erika-san. Are these unique views something that you envision before drawing or ones that you develop as the story matures? Allen Say: Having worked as a commercial photographer for twenty years, I developed a habit of looking at the world through lenses of certain focal lengths — 100mm for a tight shot, 35mm for a wider frame — and my illustrations reflect that habit. The cover art for Erika-san is a fairly accurate rendering of a photograph I stole outright from a book of Japanese houses.
IE: While many picture books are based in a fantasy world, your paintings are rooted in the material world. How did you develop this style for the picture book genre? Do you think of your audience as children or adults?
Say: As a youngster, I didn’t like science fiction stories because I couldn’t believe them; I preferred stories staged in what you call the material world. As a storyteller, I try to present believable situations in that world, which is far more fantastic than any fantasy world. The main audience for my work is the child in me.
IE: Many of your books including the new Erika-san are about finding one’s home. Other than the place where you live, where are the other places you consider home?
Say: When I was small, my idea of home was a house with lighted windows at dusk. It’s a universal image for children, and mine wasn’t even a real house but a picture by a schoolboy that had a powerful hold on me all my life. We carry that image with us in our journeys, and it fades as we become obsessed with the business of making a living. Mine never faded. And since the age of four, I have never truly felt at home anywhere.
Allen Say will be appearing at the Wing Luke Museum on Saturday, Jan 16 at 4 p.m. and at the Seattle Public Central Library at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan 17.