Caldecott medalist Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams is a biography of self-taught artist James Castle (1899-1977). It is a “memoir” as narrated by a fictionalized nephew of Castle who shares details about his deaf, mute, autistic and dyslexic uncle who was completely closed in himself and yet learned how to draw. Castle’s father was the postmaster for a small community they lived in Idaho. The family’s drawing room doubled up as the postmaster’s official space so it was cluttered with parcels, catalogues, paper etc. The little James Castle probably taught himself to draw while whiling away his time in this room. Over time he was found to be of absolutely no help to his family on their farm or other household chores so he was left to himself. He slowly found quiet in the attic of an old barn which he converted into his “studio” which in subsequent shifts was the chicken coop in an empty barn. He drew and drew and drew. For lack of sophisticated art materials he drew using the soot of wood combined with spit and used junk paper. When he was about seven his parents sent him off along with his older sister to the Idaho School for Deaf and Blind. There too he tried to draw in secret ( only girls were permitted to learn drawing, not boys) and punished if discovered. He never did learn to read and write and was sent home when he was fifteen years old. While at the school he did discover the joy of being in the library, surrounded by books and watching his teachers “create and stitch new books for their students. Years later his drawings were “discovered” and he did one-man shows. Upon his death he left more than 15,000 pieces of work that are estimated to be less than one-third of his productivity during his lifetime, as every time Castle’s family moved, all his paintings were left behind and lost.
The research Allen Say did for this book was intensive. He even tried to recreate the illustrations for Silent Days, Silent Dreams using the soot from the wood fireplace in his home. He tried to emulate the drawing style of James Castle to create as “authentic” an account of Castle’s life. Most of Castle’s drawings were made from reclaimed trash he found on the property such as junk paper, construction materials, and rags. Allen Say was assisted by his wife in creating the toys in a similar fashion for this book.
In Allen Say’s graphic novel memoir The Inker’s Shadow Kyusuke, Allen Say’s cartoon double, advises him to draw what’s around you”; much like what James Castle later become famous for too. Allen Say like James Castle had a room to call his own, a retreat, a studio, that was given to him first by his mother in Japan and later when he moved to America by his guardian Major Bill at the American military school he was studying at. In his part memoir, part graphic novel Drawing From Memory which is about his relationship with his sensei, spiritual father, and well-known cartoonist Noro Shinpei, Allen Say says about his childhood “I drew what I saw and what I imagined, and I copied from comic books. When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t toys or friends or parents.’
The story of James Castle probably resonated with Allen Say who too became an artist against all odds as his father was convinced his son had to learn English to “become a success in life” and was shunned for his artistic leanings. Both the artists’ artistic temperament was not appreciated by their families and they were shunned; so they “withdrew” to draw in makeshift studios. For Allen Say “Art is like translating my dream world, put that on paper”, much as it was for James Castle who drew all that he wished for. No wonder Allen Say says “my discovery about Castle’s art was that the act of drawing was an act of possession”.
What a treat it is to discover these books! Biographies as picture books are a fine art form. It is an excellent way to introduce an eminent person to a younger generation. It is not an easy form to tackle but if done well it is purely magical. In the case of Silent Days, Silent Dreams there is something extra special for one artist describing another’s life and discovering the many similarities.
Dream books to possess!
Allen Say Silent Days, Silent Dreams Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2017. Hb.
Allen Say Drawing From Memory Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. Hb.
Allen Say The Inker’s Shadow Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb.
6 May 2018