Review of the Day: Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say
I love what makes biographers tick. I lack that ability and it’s so interesting me the way in which a person selects not just their subject but the aspects in their life to highlight. Not all biographies are of good or admirable people, but to research and write about anyone you need to find them interesting. And sometimes in the course of things that interest will, in turn, become a kind of kinship. I don’t think Allen Say needed much of a push to find artist James Castle interesting. Considered deaf, mute, autistic and possibly dyslexic, Castle’s life and art were inextricably linked. Now for the first time (ever?), Say has written a biography of a fellow artist that could never have told his own story. It’s a departure for the usually self-focused Say and may also be one of the best creative biographies for kids I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
In September of 1899 James Castle was born two months premature. Deaf and possibly autistic and dyslexic, James struggled to connect with other people. In art, he found his voice. Throughout his life, people attempted to squash his work. Creative beyond measure, James could draw with everything from burnt matches to soot and sticks, using spit as a fixative. In time an art professor took notice of James’s work, and soon the director of the Boise Gallery of Art had a showing. James died in 1977, leaving 15,000 pieces of artwork behind. Taking what details he could and applying creative license with great judiciousness, Allen Say gives Castle’s life breadth and depth. For young readers, the lesson is never explicit but there just the same. An Author’s Note and Bibliography are found in the back.
Allen Say’s mini-biography on the book flap of this book says a lot about how the publisher wants this title to be viewed. After listing his myriad honor it ends this way: “He is known for his technical skill and varied style.” Only a fool would doubt it. There is a desperate need sometimes on the part of librarians like myself to categorize author/illustrators in neat little boxes. Peter Sis draws with dots and Grace Lin with deep luminous colors. And Allen Say? Well, he won the Caldecott for Grandfather’s Journey so that’s his style, right? A kind of realism paired with different personal stories. I think we saw the beginning of a shift away from that mode of thinking when he published the autobiographical Drawing from Memory, but it’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams that truly allows him the chance to flex his proverbial muscles. Flex and display.
Say has said that one of his greatest influences before discovering the works of James Castle included the great Saul Steinberg. Until this book, Steinberg played only a kind of peripheral role on his art. Castle, however, allows Say to open up in a way he couldn’t before. For example, there are these moments when Say drifts purposefully into a kind of Expressionism. The very first image in the book is of a baby screaming and though you can see the slightest imprints of nose and eyes, it’s that mouth that gapes so wide. That crying, screaming baby. Say references Castle’s style consistently, even if it means going directly against his own artistic training. As Say says at the end of the book, “… to mimic James’s unsteady lines, I often switched hands – to my left hand, which hadn’t learned to tell lies.”
It’s interesting to note the title of this book. Silent Days, Silent Dreams is good, but it is notable that there is no subtitle. The book is not purporting to be some kind of a straight biography. Though it includes an extensive Bibliography in the back as well as a very personal Author’s Note, the narrative is written in the first person from the point of view of Castle’s nephew. It’s an odd choice, and maybe it was the choice that precipitated the lack of subtitle. But why was it done? There’s no real reason to put the book in the p.o.v. of a relative. An omniscient narrator would actually be more accurate than this false narrative. It’s by no means a necessity to the book, and may cause some to question whether or not the book is strict nonfiction. Say himself calls it an “imagined biography” which may be the best possible encapsulation. Librarians and teachers have a tough time with the “imagined” part of that, though.
True to form, Say refrains from making any kind of overarching commentary about James’s drive to create art. He speculates not at all about what art meant to James, preferring to let actions speak louder than words. Say selects one motif in particular that speaks volumes simply through its inclusion. Say says that once, as a small child, James escaped into an unused icehouse, “and saw a living picture framed by the open door.” That window is reflected throughout the rest of the book. The attic window that looked into his bedroom. When he runs away from the school for the deaf all we see is his outline and the light that pours from a single door or window. And if you read long enough you begin to wonder if Say is forming a connection between these windows and James’s art. As if the art, in its way, was a window into James himself. What Say sees is remarkable. He writes in his Author’s Note that in James’ pictures, “None of them has a sun or a moon or a single flower – things one always sees in children’s art…” Plenty of windows, though. Plenty.
The book does have a single, solitary, gaping flaw. Though Say labels it as an “imagined biography” there’s no clearly delineated line between Say’s art and Castle’s. I was thoroughly shocked to find that there wasn’t a guide at the back of the book to help distinguish between the pictures created by each of the two artists. Without that guide the book becomes a kind of guessing game. For example, there’s a two-page spread of dolls and animals Castle created from cardboard. Yet I know from a talk Say gave that his wife made replicas of some of these figures. Are the ones in the book real? This is, in its way, the ultimate compliment to Say (and, let it be clearly said, his wife). Though Allen Say’s art sometimes looks nothing like Castle’s and clearly is there to serve the story, the emotion of it matches James point to point. As a mother, I actually had a hard time getting through some of the pictures. The image of James alone and frustrated in the attic. Or his expression when his family calls him Dummy and he clutches the dolls he has made, his only friends, close to his little chest. Mommies beware.
If the purpose of a children’s biography is to bring its subject to life, humanize them, make them identifiable but no less remarkable, and give their life and/or work a voice, Silent Days, Silent Dreams does precisely that. Its beauty is almost an offshoot of its story. The great artist Shaun Tan was once asked when he started drawing. He responded by asking, “When do people stop drawing?” If they’re lucky, they never do. There wasn’t much about the life of James Castle you might call lucky, but that was. And now readers of this book get to share in that luck for themselves. A labor of love that accomplishes everything its creator set out to do.
On shelves October 31st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Bottle Houses: The Creative World of Grandma Prisbey by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker, ill. Julie Paschkis
- Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes by Jeanette Winter
- Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art by J. H. Shapiro
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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