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 separated, Say living unhappily with his father and his sister living with their mother. When Allen was twelve, he was enrolled in Aoyama Gakuin in Tokyo and sent to live with his maternal grandmother. Since his relationship with his grandmother was no better than that with his father, the two negotiated an agreement that Say would live by himself in an apartment closer to the school. During this time, Say apprenticed himself to Noro Shinpei, a cartoonist whom he greatly admired. This period marked the beginning of his serious training in the arts and was to prove pivotal in Say's life, as documented in his words in The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice.
When Say turned sixteen, his budding career in art was abruptly cut short. His father, dismayed by the lack of opportunities in postwar Japan, decided to move to America. He had by that time acquired a new family, but asked Say if he would like to emigrate as part of that family. Say left Tokyo, and with no knowledge of English but with a sense of adventure traveled to California. To his dismay, his father had arranged for him to be enrolled in the Harding Military Academy in Glendora, California, a dusty forty miles from where his father settled with the rest of his family, 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. He was segregated from the student body and given his own private quarters in a modified storage room. After a year at Harding, Say 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. He attended a special weekend arts program at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now Cal Arts in Valencia) and classes at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (now in Pasadena). After graduation, Say went back to Japan, vowing never to return to America, but after a year in a much changed Japan, he returned and worked as an apprentice to a sign painter. Finding little satisfaction in painting other people's ideas, he quit, got married, and moved to northern California, where he enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley as an architectural student. In July 1962, Say's student deferment was revoked owing to a technicality and he was drafted into the army. His next two years were spent in Germany, and after his work caught the eye of a commanding officer, he published his first work in photography in the newspaper Stars and Stripes.
When he returned to California, he pursued the idea of commercial photography as a career. Say's work brought him in contact with art directors and designers, who were often impressed with his ability to sketch out ideas before committing them to film. It was the encouragement of these people that led Say to freelance as an illustrator. His first book, Dr. Smith's Safari (Harper & Row), 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, which is essentially an autobiography of the period when he realized he wanted to be an artist. In 1984, Say illustrated How My Parents Learned to Eat, written 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 approached Say with a story written by Dianne Snyder, The Boy of the Three-Year Nap, which was a retelling of an old Japanese folktale. Lorraine tempted Say with the finest color reproduction possible, and, though reluctant, Say accepted the job and began to work on the book that was to change his life. Published in 1988, The Boy of the Three-Year Nap won a Caldecott Honor Award and the Boston GlobeHorn Book Award. That same year, Allen Say quit photography completely and dedicated himself to writing and illustrating books for children. In addition to exploring his own life and memories, Say has written on a wide range of subjects, such as overcoming cultural and physical stereotypes (El Chino); a search for a lost paradise (Lost Lake); a story about agism and aging (Stranger in the Mirror); an exploration of the source of the creative impulse (Emma's Rug); and an adopted child's questions about belonging (Allison). 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 works.
In 2000, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles held the first retrospective of Say's work in children's literature. Fifty-five of his original drawings and paintings were featured along with original sketchbooks and autobiographical artifacts.
Adapted from a biographical profile by Maria Kwong for Distinguished Asian American Artists and Musicians, by Brian T. Niiya and Elisa Kamimoto, to be published by Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, CT, 2002. http://www.greenwood.com Used by permission.