By Debbie Lillick, executive director of the NCCIL
Say, who was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937, said his family moved often during his childhood, and to cope with the constant transition of homes and schools, he escaped into reading and drawing.
Today, Say, now 76, is a prolific children’s book writer and illustrator whose awards include the prestigious Caldecott Medal. His artwork will be on display at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in downtown Abilene through May 28.
“A Sense of Place: The Art of Allen Say” contains original artwork from Say’s many books and 28 never-before-exhibited pieces of additional art on loan from the artist. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art organized the core of the exhibit.
Say – who rarely does public events – will be in Abilene at the NCCIL March 20 at 6:30 p.m. to talk about his life and work and to sign books.
His love of drawing started during recess at school.
“Students would stand behind me and watch,” he recalls. “That’s probably the first time I discovered that I had this power — it was the only power I had.”
Say spent his childhood in Japan during World War II. When he was 12, his parents divorced, and he went to live in Tokyo with his grandmother. There, he spent four years as an apprentice to cartoonist Noro Shinpei before moving with his father to California at the age of 16. As a young man, he attended a military academy, studied architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, spent two years in the U.S. Army and eventually settled into an advertising 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. Their encouragement led Say to freelance as an illustrator.
His first book, “Dr. Smith’s Safari,” was published in 1972.
For years, Say wrote and illustrated children’s books part time. But while illustrating “The Boy of the Three-Year Nap,” a 1989 Caldecott Honor winner, he recaptured the joy he had known working in his master’s studio and decided to make a full commitment to doing what he loves 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.
When Say creates a book, he wants his pictures to tell the story. Sometimes he paints half the pictures for a book before he knows for sure what the story will be about. And he says some of his best ideas could only come to him through pictures, not words.
“You react physically to a work of art,” Say says. “When you break out in goose pimples, then you know you have something.”
Admission to see “A Sense of Place: the Art of Allen Say” is free. The NCCIL offers a free family art activity based on Say’s work from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and during monthly ArtWalks.