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. When he was twelve, he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother. 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 America and asked Say to join him and his new family. With no knowledge of English but with a sense of adventure, Say traveled to California, where 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, Say was expelled for smoking cigarettes in his room, and with nowhere else to turn, he walked into 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. 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. The Boy of the Three-Year Nap won a Caldecott Honor award and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. This same year, Allen Say quit photography completely and dedicated himself to writing and illustrating books for children.
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 the outsider facing, questioning, and overcoming social, cultural, and physical obstacles.
Two of his most recent works (Home of the Brave and Music for Alice), about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, were inspired by the 2000 retrospective of Say’s work at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Fifty-five of his original drawings and paintings were featured, along with original sketchbooks and autobiographical artifacts.
In 2007—in honor of Allen Say’s seventieth birthday—the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, put together an exhibit featuring Say’s illustrations as well as examples of his commercial photography and oil paintings. The exhibit was titled “The Art of Allen Say: A Sense of Place,” and it explored Say’s thematic complexity and technical mastery. Say’s work was most recently exhibited at the Fort Wayne Museum
of Art in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Allen Say lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
Biography text adapted from a biographical sketch written by Maria Kwong, director of retail and visitor services at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California.