Stories

Allen Say: Music for Alice

“I heard about Alice from a great shiatsu master, a strapping man in his early forties, while he worked on me,” Allen Say recalls. “I had been coaching the shy man in the art of asking women for dates; when he finally did get a date, the woman turned out to be an 87-year-old dancer. That got my immediate attention.”

For award-winning author and artist Say, the conversation led to an introduction to Alice Sumida, the octogenarian dancer. And the introduction ultimately led to Say’s new children’s book, Music for Alice.

Sumida, as Say learned, grew up on a California farm. And since childhood, she had a desire to dance. Sumida fantasized about her father’s tractor becoming a coach to take her dancing, but “it only made noise and dust.” Growing up and getting married, Sumida worked hard to help her husband forge a living. But her love for dancing remained unfulfilled, hampered by the noise and dust of a busy life, until she was an elderly woman.

Then a wonderful day came when everything unexpectedly seemed to change.

Say recognized that Sumida’s story was at once moving and inspirational, and a striking series of illustrations eventually followed. The resulting book also sparked a friendship between the author and dancer.

Music for Alice is the latest in a long series of children’s books that has captivated young readers and brought Say critical acclaim. His 1994 work, Grandfather’s Journey, won him the highly prestigious Caldecott Medal.

In 2000, the Japanese American National Museum held the first retrospective of Say’s work. The exhibition proved illuminating both for museum visitors and the author-artist.

“When I first walked into that hall, my reaction was...‘Who is this busy guy?’” Say recounts. “I had never seen my work displayed in public before. For years I had kept my stuff under my bed, so there was a sense of detachment, almost a kind of alienation. When the shock wore off, I was looking at my diary, and some of the earlier entries were painful. It’s like the time my daughter was looking at A River Dream while watching me work on The Sign Painter and said, ‘I can’t believe how much better you’ve gotten.’ Wines and artists (get better with age)!”

While at the National Museum, Say also toured its core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. The experience left a lasting impression.

“I came to the U. S. in 1953 and so I learned firsthand the prejudice and animosity directed against the Japanese Americans at the time,” says Say. “But their internment experience was a secondhand ordeal for me. Then I saw Common Ground. I walked through it four times, went home and reshaped the story I had been working on into Home of the Brave.” Published in 2002, Home of the Brave marked somewhat of a departure from Say’s earlier books. Haunting, surreal and evocative, it explored the complex range of emotions that the children of America’s concentration camps felt as young prisoners.

Like Say the artist, Say the writer believes that darkness sometimes can help give a work its richness. And he’s learned that children can be much more sophisticated readers than adults realize.

“I have found that when book reviewers think for children—‘Kids won’t identify with this,’ ‘Kids will get nothing out of that’—they are almost always wrong,” Say observes. “So when I write or paint, I try not to have children, or anyone else, in mind. Children and grown-ups do think and see differently, thank goodness.”

It is perhaps telling that the grown-ups who dominated Say’s childhood, his parents, did not want him to become an artist. But like Alice Sumida, the heroine of his latest book, Say ultimately pursued his dreams—and succeeded.

“I persevered out of sheer orneriness,” Say remarks. “Rebellion has been a lifelong passion. But really, I’m interested in obsessions, and obsessed people make interesting stories.”

And as he once again demonstrates with Music for Alice, those stories can be quite entertaining for the young—and young at heart.

February 2004

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