When you are a young child, your identity is what people say you are. It isn’t until we start to become autonomous human beings that we start to learn for ourselves who we are. Accordingly, there is a niche of juvenile literature that speaks to this conundrum and appeals to kids who are just starting to question their lives and surroundings in a way that will help shape the person they are growing to be. Author and illustrator Allen Say’s picture book, The Favorite Daughter, is one such book.
Yuriko’s heritage is Japanese-American, but kids at school make fun of her blonde hair (“They said Japanese dolls have black hair.” – emphasis by the author), her kimono, and her new art teacher accidentally calls her “Eureka”. Yuriko decides to change her name to Michelle (“That’s a French name, Honey.”), but her father tries to get her in touch with herself before she makes such a momentous change. When stymied by an art project, Yuriko and her father make a trip to the Japanese Garden at the Golden Gate Park, and Yuriko finds validation for herself and inspiration for her project.
Allen Say has been sharing bits and pieces of his life with lucky readers and listeners for some time.The father is chagrined when his daughter wants to change her name, when she wants a nametag instead of the locket he gave her and when she fusses about her art project, though he tries not to show it. Instead, he tries to show her things in her life she’s forgotten that make her who she is: her favorite sushi restaurant, a photograph of her kimono (here, Say inserts a real photograph of his daughter in a red kimono) and the beauty of her name. This book is a little bittersweet, with Say’s touches of nostalgia for his grown daughter accenting each page. The commonplace nature of the base story (an unwanted art project) give readers and listeners a feeling of familiarity and universality, which allow for a multitude of varying recipients to see themselves in the story.
Say’s illustrations are beautiful, as always, highlighting the beauty of the Japanese Garden and the smile on his daughter’s face upon completing her project. Say’s decision to include real life photographs of the real Yuriko, one as a young child, and one grown up, underline the importance of her cultural heritage. Her round infant face and red kimono contrast beautifully with her yellow-blonde hair. Say also uses language in a very detailed way to highlight cultural identity. The linguistic appellations “san” (to denote respect) and “chan” (to refer to a child) are used in a scene that helps Yuriko accept her name. Other cultural details, like it being bad manners to rub your chopsticks together, pepper the story (Father calls it “[s]harpening your sticks.”)
Kirkus Reviews lauded the universality of Say’s story, saying, “Some will identify with the cultural details that ground the tale; all will relate to how teasing makes Yuriko feel uncertain about the very things that make her unique.” Publishers Weekly praise his “meticulous draftsmanship and openhearted honesty.” This book was a silver medal winner at the NAPPA (National Parenting Publication Awards) Gold Awards for Early Elementary literature.
The Favorite Daughter is thankfully not Say’s only piece of autobiographical literature. As I said above, Say has been sharing his story with readers and listeners for many years. His Caldecott winning picture book, Grandfather’s Journey, tells the story of his Grandfather’s trans-Pacific journey and his cultural experiences in Japan and America. Say turned intimately to his own life with Drawing from Memory, a graphic autobiography of Say’s apprenticeship and his road to becoming an artist.
For younger patrons, I would recommend Rosemary Well’s series of picture books about the Japanese cat, Yoko. Like Yuriko, Yoko deals with teasing at school because of her heritage, and like Yuriko, she has an understanding family that helps her see the beauty inside.
Say, Allen. The Favorite Daughter. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. ISBN: 9780545176620