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Big Picture Image
Jack E. Davis
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Say, Allen Tea With Milk;; written and illus. by Allen Say. Lorraine/Houghton, 1999. 32 p
ISBN 0-395-90495-1   $17.00   6-9 yrs

Writing a family history in a manner that interests anyone but blood relations is surprisingly difficult; putting a family story into a picture-book format is even more difficult, as picture books require an economy of form and style that is not necessarily family-story friendly. Allen Say writes family stories for youth, treading the path of his family's past with a sure step, never slipping into the chasms of nostalgia that yawn at his feet. A matter-of-fact tone and a certain severity of style serve to discipline his unsentimental look at his family history, resulting in emotionally resonant stories that are crisp and clean, yet not antiseptic.

Tea with Milk is a love story, and it is a love story in more ways than one. It is the story of a young Japanese-American woman's love for her country; it is the story of her parents' love for their country of origin; it is the story of how Say's own parents met and fell in love; and it is the story of the love between a mother and child in this son's tribute to his mother's life. The opening sepia-toned, snapshot-like illustration shows a little girl dressed in her best clothes; behind the girl is the door to her house where, peeking out from a small window, is the half-hidden face of an observing adult. The accompanying text states: "From the window of her room, the girl could see the city of San Francisco. She imagined that it was a city of many palaces. And one day her father would take her there, he had promised, riding on a paddle steamer across the shining bay." But the girl Masako's parents are homesick, and, after she graduates from high school, they return to Japan. Masako had planned to go to college and get her own apartment. In Japan, however, she goes back to high school to learn to speak Japanese, and she takes lessons in flower arranging and calligraphy in order to become "a proper Japanese lady." When her parents hire a matchmaker to find her a husband and arrange a marriage, Masako realizes that, despite her Japanese parents, she is an "American daughter." She cannot adjust to the life her parents wish her to live so she moves to Osaka, where, thanks to her excellent English, she gets a job guiding foreign businessmen around an exclusive department store. On one such tour, she meets Joseph, the man who becomes her husband and the author's father.

From the title page illustration of the young Masako standing next to a baby carriage with a blonde ringleted doll, Say renders his mother's struggle to maintain her balance on the line between her two cultures with compassionate insight. The loneliness of the uprooted Masako, her conflicting desires to please her family and be true to herself, her courage in leavetaking, all are communicated in a telling combination of words and pictures. The full-page watercolor illustrations are thinly outlined in black with wide white borders, and the spare compositions are elegantly balanced within their frames. The face of the main characterarticulates her changing emotions as her solitary figure stands isolated and apart in several of the spreads. The faces in the crowds are integral to the action of the scene; every now and then a character will look out from the pages, seemingly directly at the viewer, further drawing the reader into Masako's environment. The illustrations have a translucent, light-infused quality, illuminating both setting and characters with unremitting honesty. The backgrounds, whether busy street-scenes or the palatial store interior, serve as uncluttered settings for the story's characters.

There have been several generations of family stories in picture book format over the last several years; their apparent aim has been to contribute to a sense of personal and family history, to give young readers and listeners a sense of where they come from so as to provide them with a sense of where they might go. Unfortunately, many such books are nostalgia pieces for adults, memory anecdotes that require the reader to bring a certain amount of regret or longing for days gone by to the story in order to appreciate the experience. Say has a gift for descriptive prose that effectively communicates the emotional nuances of his family stories; that gift lifts his stories above nostalgia and invites young listeners and readers to an understanding of the passage of time, the impact of distance. Opening with a snapshot-like illustration of Masako and closing with a photorealistic portrait of his parents, Say's respectful tribute comes full circle, ending with a gratifying sense of something well-considered and finally understood.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
June's Bulletin cover illustration
by Allen Say from
Tea With Milk,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Doubleday Books for Young Readers



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