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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #37 (September 11, 2007), page 16.
From anguish to compassion
By Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 1997
Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.00
By Josephine Bridges
When Allisonís grandmother sends her a kimono and her mother urges her to try it on and look in the mirror, the girl canít help noticing that she and her doll, Mei Mei, resemble each other, but she looks nothing like her mother and father. "Where did Mei Mei come from?" she asks, and so begins this adopted childís struggle to comprehend how she fits into the only family she has ever known.
Thereís a stray cat, a big tabby tom, hanging around the fringes of Allisonís life, looking in her window, meowing, and running away, but Allison doesnít pay the cat much attention at first, and neither does the reader. In the cat, Allen Say has deftly introduced an element of magic in the ordinary. Itís one of the things he does best.
At school, Allison asks her classmates questions about their families, watches the children with their parents and grandparents at the end of the school day. She rides home silently with her mother, then spends the rest of the afternoon destroying toys her parents have had since they were children. "Youíre not my mommy," she declares, justifying her indefensible actions, "Youíre not my daddy."
Fortunately, Allison isnít so immersed in her distress that she stops noticing whatís going on around her. When she implores Mei Mei, "Allison isnít my real name! Do you know what my real name is?" the stray cat sitting outside her window answers, "Meow."
"Donít you have a mommy?" Allison asks the cat, and then she brings him a saucer of milk. When she asks if she can keep the cat, her mother suggests a kitten instead. "I want this one," she insists, "He doesnít have a mommy or a daddy."
Allen Sayís illustrations are every bit as engaging as the story itself. Page after page after page, he shows us this lovely, lonely little girl in all her pain and perplexity, and even when we canít condone her behavior, we are rooting for her. In the remarkable painting of Allison watching the cat lap milk, itís clear from the expression on her face in profile that her anguish is letting up, compassion moving in to fill its place, right there before our eyes.