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The Asian Reporter's
BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V14, #47 (November 16, 2004), page 20.

Minimalist and mysterious

The Sign Painter

By Allen Say

Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.00

By Josephine Bridges

That morning, only one passenger got off the early bus." So begins The Sign Painter, Allen Say’s minimalist and mysterious tale of yearning and searching for dreams. While Say’s language is simple enough for young readers, the author’s decision to hint at the story, rather than tell it outright, makes The Sign Painter an uncommonly mature, profound children’s book.

There are four characters in The Sign Painter, but the reader never learns any of their names. The early passenger is referred to throughout the book as "the young man" or "the boy," and his employer is "the man" or "the sign painter." Two characters who appear only briefly are "the ArrowStar woman" and "a man in a white suit," also known as "the builder."

The narrative is straightforward, but there are plenty of blanks for the creative reader to fill in. The young man arrives in town (What town?), displays considerable skill at painting signs (How did he learn?), and travels through the desert with his employer painting a woman’s face and the word "ArrowStar" (What does it mean?) on billboard after billboard, wishing he could be painting mountains and clouds. Immense towers and a group of adobe houses built on a mesa appear in the distance. The narrow streets are silent; the houses are empty. Suddenly they hear someone talking, and the two eavesdrop on a telephone conversation. They return to the road. A wrecked billboard frames "the cloud you wanted to paint — even has a frame around it." The boy waits on a corner for the last bus out of town.

Allen Say’s illustrations are as masterful as his storytelling. The light and shadows on the buildings when the boy arrives are unmistakably morning, and the empty diner on the corner across the street where the boy waits for the bus is evocative of Edward Hopper’s "Nighthawks." You can smell the desert air, feel the slightest chill in the shadow the enormous towers cast.

There’s a moral to this story, but it’s hidden in a throwaway conversation between the boy and the man:

"I keep wondering, who’ll know the difference if I put mountains in the background, even just a cloud?"

"Son, when someone pays you to paint a woman, will you give him a landscape?"

 

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