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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #18 (May 3, 2005), page 12.
Personal and universal
Written and illustrated by Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 1993
Hardcover, 32 pages, $16.95
By Josephine Bridges
Grandfather’s Journey is one of the finest books I have ever read, and author Allen Say should be recognized as a National Treasure in both Japan, the country of his birth, and the United States, where he has lived since age 16. That Grandfather’s Journey received the Caldecott Medal is no surprise; I’m surprised it didn’t put him in the running for the Nobel Prize.
The story is simple and profound: Say’s grandfather left Japan for the New World when he was a young man. The Pacific Ocean, deserts "with rocks like enormous sculptures," farm fields, huge cities, towering mountains, and "rivers as clear as the sky" all made a deep impression on the young traveler, as did the people he met on his journeys. "He shook hands with black men and white men, with yellow men and red men." He liked California most of all, and brought his childhood sweetheart back to San Francisco, where Say’s mother was born. But he missed his native land, and returned to Japan "when his daughter was nearly grown"; there she married and gave birth to the author. Say’s grandfather missed California, and he was planning a trip when the Second World War began. "The last time I saw him, my grandfather said that he longed to see California one more time. He never did."
Allen Say followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. He too loved California, and had a daughter of his own there. Like his grandfather, he misses the landscape of his childhood and his old friends, but unlike his grandfather, he visits Japan, yet goes on living in California. "The funny thing is," he writes, "the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other."
The author of this marvelous book is also the illustrator, and the pictures are as splendid as the words. There is a photographic quality to them, and while Grandfather’s Journey is never presented as a photo album, it has that deeply personal sense about it.
Grandfather’s Journey is a deeply personal book, but it is also a universal story. Most of the residents of the United States are the descendents of immigrants. Many of us have another land that calls to us, whether we ever set foot there or not. This is a perfect book for parents or grandparents and children to read together. It will provoke the best of conversations, and maybe a few tears.