N_amandascholz's Reviews > Grandfather's Journey
by Allen Say
by Allen Say
This stunning book is a picture book that I would consider using with high school students when we discuss the process and history of American immigration and assimilation. In this picture book, the author, Allen Say, shares the story of his grandfather who was born and raised in Japan. Eager to see the world, he journeys to the United States and marvels at the natural and varied beauties of the country. The large water-color illustrations are like large-format photographs, faded with age and sepia-toned and make the book feel like you are flipping through a treasured family album. I loved the illustrations of Say's grandfather dwarfed by Western rock formations or adrift in a sea of waving prairie grass. Say's grandfather eventually settles in San Francisco after returning to Japan to marry his childhood sweetheart. The couple have a daughter who was raised in America. Restless to see his Japanese home again, Say's grandfather crosses the ocean back to Japan. His longing is sated with visits to family and friends and childhood haunts. In Japan, his daughter marries and has a son, the author. The story takes a more intimate turn as Say recounts his fond memories of visiting his grandfather and listening to his stories about California. We feel Say's grandfather restlessness and longing returning for his other "home;" however, he is never able to return to that "home" because of WW II. The family's fortune is gone (a fact emphasized by a stark illustration of the family standing on top of rubble), and Say's grandfather cannot travel back to California. Instead, Say journeys to America as a young man and settles here. Again, he marries and has children, but he claims that "the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other" --- explaining that he crosses the ocean back and forth between Japan and the United States in order to fulfill a desire to be a part of both places. This simultaneously contradicting longing for both places is simply stated and imaginatively illustrated with contrasting images of Say's grandfather in Western and Japanese clothing, looking equally comfortable in both. However, this feeling of belonging and "otherness" is a complicated aspect of immigration and assimilation that students struggle to understand. How can a person feel like he/she belongs to two places simultaneously? This book does a lovely job trying to communicate this strange sense of "twoness" that does not favor one identity over the other. For older students, this book could open conversations about what the assimilation process asks/forces individuals to give up or change in order to be "accepted" and whether a "melting pot" vs. a "tossed salad" metaphor for the American experience is a more accurate or "better" description/outcome. For younger children, I see this book as a way into personal family stories. That is to say, I can see younger children imitating the format of the book, tracing the journey of a family member -- parent, grandparent, etc, -- to this country. Of course, such an assignment assumes no Native American children and that students have stories of immigration/assimilation that are remembered within the family and/or that the family is willing to share with outsiders.
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