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Nonfiction Monday: Drawing From Memory by Alan Say

Drawing from Memory
By Allen Say

Scholastic Press

ISBN: 9780545176866
Grades 5 and Up
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*Best New Book*

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Schuler Books | Your Library

Can anyone tell their life story like an illustrator? The ability to use artwork as well as words adds a storytelling facet and element of interest that draws readers in. Think David Small’s exceptional Stitches. Allen Say paints the picture of his early life in Drawing from Memory and the results are moving. Do you know a budding artist? Give them this.

If you’ve read Say’s earlier novel The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice (which covers some of the same turf as Drawing), you know the artist’s life was far from ordinary. Born in 1937 and growing up in and after World War II, his life takes a number of unexpected turns. In the midst of a broken home, Say leaves to attend school, living in his own apartment and getting his first taste of freedom. At 13 Say became the apprentice of Japan’s most famous cartoonist, an event that proves to be the central driving force in his artistic life. Throughout his schooling Say slowly gains skill in a variety of different artistic mediums. His life takes a monumental turn at 16, when faced with the difficult decision to emigrate to America.

The artwork is an engaging mix of watercolors, pen and ink, pencils, and photographs. It makes sense that Say would use every medium in his toolbox to illustrate his life story. The pages take on a scrapbook quality that’s hard to resist.

Can I make a formal request to have Allen Say’s next project be a graphic novel? The segment in Drawing from Memory that goes full-on comics left me wanting more.

Infinitely readable and unfailingly honest, Drawing from Memory is a book, and a man, that readers will likely find captivating.

Review copy from publisher.

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at Jean Little Library

Read the Oregon Live feature on Allen Say.

Also reviewed by Bookends, Chicken Spaghetti, Waking Brain Cells, Abby (the) Librarian, Good Comics for Kids, The Children’s War, Lindy Reads and Reviews, Sommer Reading.


About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Travis, just finished writing my MRJ review of this book. Great minds. I don’t know about you, but the ending, with Say burning all of his youthful sketchbooks before beginning his new life in the US was too painful! I want to look at those sketchbooks and share them with would be illustrators (along with Grandfather’s Journey).

    • I agree – heck of a way to mark a fresh start in America. I think the question of why he burned them would be great for discussion with kids.