by Allen Say
Caldecott Medal Book
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (October 25, 1993)
Allen Say reveals the intense and poignant feelings of longing an immigrant heart brooks with its consuming affinity for the birthplace as well as the adopted homeland.
Chronicling his grandfather's journey from Japan to America at the turn of the century, with breathtaking watercolor illustrations, Allen Say shares a beautiful dilemma in an elegant, compact, and moving way.
Clothed in Western attire, a young Japanese man boards a steamship and sails across the Pacific. When he embarks in America, he continues his journey to explore the new land, learning as much as he can, experiencing the awe-inspiring majesty with the thirst of an explorer. Of all the places he visited, he liked California the best and so settles there. For a while. Soon, the immigrant soul longs for the birthplace.
So he returns to Japan. He gets married, brings his new bride to San Francisco Bay that he calls home. They have a baby girl. But, the dormant longing for the childhood friends and places resurface. He grows restless till he can take it no longer. Then, he packs his family and heads back to his homeland. Once there, surrounded by his old friends and familiar childhood places, his heart seems to fill up with joy.
The baby girl is all grown up now and is married to the man she fell in love with, and soon, the author Allen Say is born. The author grows up with stories of California from his grandfather's journey. A war intervenes when grandfather plans a trip back to California, and somehow circumstances arrange themselves so that grandfather could never make that one last trip to the second home he loved so much.
When the author finally makes his journey to California as an adult, he understands his grandfather's emotions as he undergoes similar emotions himself.
The watercolor illustrations are photoreal, to borrow the only word that comes close to describing them. The faces rarely betray any emotion, mostly appearing sombre and tranquil. Each page has a large portrait with only a crisp sentence or two with carefully controlled words.
Significant events like marriage, new baby are presented incidentally, keeping the focus on this overarching ache for being in two places at once.
Being an immigrant myself, and of the view that geographical boundaries need not be divisive thus fostering exclusivity, I completely identified with: "The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other." Home is where the heart is. And for some of us, the heart refuses to be contained within one arbitrary man-made geographical unit of land.
Tea with Milk is another book by this author that struck a distinct chord in me. Multicultural themes naturally have a special appeal for us at home. Raising bi-cultural children as an immigrant mother, it has been a struggle for me to balance the exposure to the culture I grew up with. While When in Rome be a Roman has been my philosophy, I also feel I owe it to my children to educate them on my side of their origin... but, that train of thought has to wait for another day.
We had borrowed the copy that comes with an audio CD of the story. It was quite an experience to read the book a few times first, poring over the images, and then turning out the lights at bed time and listening to the subtly powerful words.
I doubt if my six year old got as much out of it as I did. It seems to me that many of the books that win the Caldecott medal seem to appeal more to the adult mind than the child.
[image source: Houghton Mifflin Books]