As a boy, Allen Say barely knew his grandpa.
As a man, he came to understand him.
That’s why he created Grandfather’s Journey, a picture book for which he won the Caldecott Medal in 1994.
“My grandfather was a young man when he left his home in Japan and went to see the world,” the book begins.
“He explored North America by train and riverboat, and often walked for days on end.”
In spare prose and stunning watercolors, Say, now 78 and a resident of Portland, Ore., presents a lightly fictionalized account of his grandfather’s unusual life.
“Of all the places he visited, he liked California best,” Say explains.
He returned to Japan briefly to marry a woman his parents chose for him and settled with his wife in Oakland, Calif., where the couple had two daughters.
Over time, however, this “lovely” and “gentle” man grew homesick, and in the 1930s, when his daughters were nearly grown, he moved the family back to Japan.
There, his elder daughter fell in love with and married a businessman, and in 1937 they had Say. A few years later, Japan and the United States went to war.
“When I was a small boy, my favorite weekend was a visit to my grandfather’s house,” Say writes. “He told me many stories about California.”
But because of the war, Say spent much of his early childhood in hiding with his mother and sister, and he only met his grandpa a few times before his death.
“The last time I saw him, my grandfather said that he longed to see California one more time. He never did.”
But years later, when Say was a young man, “I left home and went to see California for myself.”
“After a time, I came to love the land my grandfather had loved, and I stayed on and on until I had a daughter of my own.”
Unlike his grandfather, Say made the United States his permanent home, but he never forgot Japan.
“So I return now and then, when I cannot still the longing in my heart.”
“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”
“I think I know my grandfather now.”
“I miss him very much.”