Allen Say was born James Allen Koichi Moriwaki Seii in Yokohama, Japan in 1937. Two years after his parents’ divorce, he was sent to Tokyo at the age of eleven to attend school and live with his maternal grandmother. A year later, his grandmother permitted him to live alone in his own apartment.
In his semi-autobiographical work »The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice« (1979) and also in »Drawing from Memory« (2011), Say recounts how at age twelve he sought out his role model, the famous Japanese cartoonist Noro Shinpei, and convinced the artist to take him on as an apprentice. His mentor soon became his spiritual father, who guided the boy toward a career as an artist. At the age of 16, his father offered him the opportunity to emigrate with his new family to the United States. Say chronicles his first three years in the USA in the picture book »The Inker’s Shadow« (2015; [»inker« is a term used to describe a technical pen in the comic-book field]). The many challenges he faced – a Japanese teenage boy who knew no English in post-war America – are depicted here in a diverse styles that range from charcoal drawings and color images to sketches and comic-strip format. Say’s work is often autobiographical – numerous dislocations, change of jobs. These themes are vividly portrayed in »Grandfather’s Journey« (1993), for which he won the Caldecott Medal in 1994. In this Say’s best-known picture book, a young man (his grandfather) leaves Japan to start a new life in America. He misses his homeland, returns to Japan and gets married. Over time, he starts longing for California, his second home, at which point he returns with his wife to California and have a daughter (Say’s mother). When the daughter grows up, she is taken back to Japan where she marries and has a son to whom she tells the stories of his grandfather’s wanderings in America. As the narrator of the story, the son only comes to understand what it was like for his grandfather to live between two cultures when he himself travels to America. Throughout the book, Say’s watercolor illustrations resemble the photographs in an old family album – people in contrasting landscapes of two countries that bespeak many crossings of the Pacific Ocean.
Say spent 20 years as a commercial photographer in Northern California; at age 50 put aside his cameras and began working on picture books full-time. In 1999, Say relocated for the 39th time to Portland, Oregon, where he resides today. According to an interview given in December 2015, he is currently working on a book that will be entirely different from his previous work.