Stories about artists — NWAW’s monthly must-reads

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

“Drawing from Memory”
By Allen Say
Scholastic Press, 2011

From the time he was a young boy growing up in Japan, Allen Say knew he wanted to be a cartoonist.

Inspired by comic books, he drew what he saw, what he imagined, and what he copied from his beloved comic books. Say’s parents were not happy with this, wanting him to be a respectable citizen who can earn a living. But Say was not deterred.

“Drawing” is the true story of how Say, who grew up to become an award-winning artist and illustrator, moved away from home at the age of 12 to go to school. He became a pupil to Noro Shinpei, a well-known Japanese cartoonist — and Say’s favorite.

The story ends when Say is about 15, on the verge of moving to the United States with his father, but it is clear how important his formative years were.

Despite living in a new city by himself at a very young age, Say takes the initiative to seek out Shinpei. He admits to being extremely nervous and intimidated at first, but he stands his ground and eventually becomes more comfortable. I think this is an important lesson to teach kids: to not give up what they love.

Say’s story also shows that even though he was doing what he loved, his life wasn’t perfect. The beginning of World War II forced his family to leave their first home.

His parents separated and eventually divorced. He had trouble making friends and approaching girls.

What I really liked about “Drawing” is how Say’s story is a combination of a memoir, graphic novel, and narrative. Advanced readers will enjoy Say’s story of hard work and determination, while younger readers will enjoy the colorful graphics — a combination of drawings, photos, and sketches, depicting Say’s childhood.

“The House Baba Built”
By Ed Young, Text as told to Libby Koponen
Little, Brown and Company, 2011

Born in 1931 — two years into the Great Depression — with war spreading to his home city of Shanghai, Ed Young’s life could have been pretty bad.

His family did not have much, but this did not matter in “the house Baba built.” Young and his four siblings used their imaginations to make the most of their situation. A rocking chair became a horse, radiator pipes were used to send coded messages for underwater search parties, and the roof of the house became a skating rink.

Because of the war around them, meat was a rarity in the Young household and the five children often fought over second helpings. But this did not mean the family was not close. They were.

And relatives would often visit and join in on the fun and games — no matter what their age.

What I really enjoyed about this book is how relevant it is today. Despite the story taking place about 70 years ago, many people can relate to it nowadays during the current economic recession. Young shows how he and his siblings were still able to have fun, even though they didn’t have the newest toys. And in a time when there is so much emphasis on the latest games and gadgets, not every family can afford to have them. So seeing how the Young family relied on their creativity to have fun is important for children.

Although “The House Baba Built” is based on Young’s life, the book is a collection of vignettes. At the same time, it’s an ongoing narrative of the award-winning illustrator’s life. This style makes it easy for young readers who may have a hard time following a long narrative.

This book also features a combination of rich, colorful illustrations and sketches of Young’s childhood with foldout pages to tell the story on a bigger visual scale that is sure to please readers of all ages.

“A Girl Named Faithful Plum”
By Richard Bernstein
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

At 11, all Li Zhongmei wants to do is dance.

So when her older sister sees an ad in the newspaper for an open audition for 11-year-old girls and boys at the Beijing Dance Academy, the young girl from Baoquanling — a small country village near the Russian (Soviet Union back then) border — zeroes in on the opportunity.

“Faithful Plum” is the ultimate underdog story, right down to Zhongmei’s humble beginnings, her jealous classmates, and her teacher who is out to get her and won’t allow her to participate in the “most important dance class” she will ever take. But Zhongmei also has a few supporters in her corner, including her family and the rest of her hometown, policeman Li’s family, Zhongmei’s surrogate family in Beijing, Xiaolan, her best friend at school, and Jia Zuoguang, vice director of the Beijing Dance Academy.

This true story follows Zhongmei’s first year at the academy away from home and the family who borrowed money to buy the train ticket for Beijing.

Zhongmei is one of 12 girls selected from about 60,000 from around China. Her talent and ability impress some people, but those whose opinions seem to matter the most — her direct instructors and her classmates — see her as nothing more than a country bumpkin.

What I loved about “Faithful Plum” is Zhongmei’s passion and determination. Dancing isn’t just a hobby for her. It’s her life and even at a young age, she recognizes this and doesn’t let anyone stop her — although she does become discouraged at times. She faces extreme prejudice and ridicule, but stands up for herself, even demands a second chance at auditioning because she had traveled three days and two nights for the opportunity and wouldn’t leave until she got to dance. Zhongmei also practices in the middle of the night in secret to compensate for her lack of instruction in class.

Zhongmei’s story is inspirational and admirable and will show readers that having “guanxi,” or the right connections, doesn’t always mean success and humble beginnings don’t always equate to failure. (end)

Samantha Pak can be reached at

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