Book Review: “The Inker’s Shadow” by Allen Say

The Inker’s Shadow is a companion to Allen Say’s 2011 graphic memoir Drawing from Memory. In Drawing from Memory, Say chronicled his childhood in Japan in WWII and his path to meeting his mentor, cartoonist Noro Shinpei. In The Inker’s Shadow, Say continues his autobiography, telling of his life in America after he left Japan – and Shinpei – behind. Post-WWII America wasn’t a particularly friendly place for a young boy of Japanese descent, especially since Say was living on his own, without any adult support. Graceful illustrations accompany straightforward and easy-to-read text as Say navigates readers through some tough topics – his father’s criticism, his struggles to fit in and finish high school, and discrimination from his peers among them. Say’s journey takes him from a military school to living on his own and finally to a high school where encouraging teachers make sure he gets his high school diploma and cultivates his artistic talent.

Though Say experienced some truly horrible things, like being stopped by the cops just for walking home with his dinner or essentially being abandoned by his father in a foreign country, he still manages to relate his experiences with humor and warmth. Readers of Drawing from Memory will be happy to see Kyusuke (Say’s comic alter-ego given to him by his mentor Noro Shinpei) make occasional appearances in The Inker’s Shadow, as Say tries to decide what kind of artist he’d like to be, but even those who have never read Say’s first memoir will be drawn into his tale of perseverance and triumph.

My favorite thing about the book is the simplicity with which Say shares his experiences, both good and bad. He doesn’t dwell on the the negative parts of his experience, and he doesn’t need to – the callousness of many of the people around him is shocking even when unembellished. An added effect is that the kindness Allen encounters – from his high school principal Mr. Price and from his art teachers, especially – is even more influential, although Say doesn’t overemphasize these relationships either. The author has a real talent for engaging readers emotionally with his own life and memories with seemingly very few words. I won’t forget this story soon. The Inker’s Shadow is a treasure.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.