Nonfiction Monday: Music for Alice by Allen Say

I know that we seem to have featured quite a lot of Allen Say books for our Festival of Asian Literature and the Immigrant Experience theme. It simply could not be helped. He is such an amazing artist and most of his picture books do resonate with our theme so beautifully. Here is another recent find: Music for Alice. Nonfiction Monday is being hosted this week by A Curious Thing.

Story behind the story. This picture book is based on the life story of Alice Sumida, a dancer in her late 80s. How Allen decided to write this story is a wondrous tale in and of itself. In this interview featured in the Japanese American National Museum page, Allen shared the little details that sparked his interest:

Alice Sumida. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

“I heard about Alice from a great shiatsu master, a strapping man in his early forties, while he worked on me,” Allen Say recalls. “I had been coaching the shy man in the art of asking women for dates; when he finally did get a date, the woman turned out to be an 87-year-old dancer. That got my immediate attention.” (source here).

This little snippet reminded me that for a writer, what is truly essential is one’s eye for a lost fragment, a distinct detail from a life story narrative, and that avid curiosity and empathy for another person’s life. Spoken in the first-person narrative, Allen Say truly had to listen to the music in Alice’s soul for him to find the words and the perfect image to render justice to Alice’s life.

This story fits our current bimonthly theme in various levels as it shares the story of Alice who grew up on a farm in California. It appears from the story that she is a second-generation immigrant. From California, she moved to Seattle Washington where her husband Mark had a business selling seeds to farmers. Their lives, however, changed drastically with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese airplanes.

Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941
The forward magazine of USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the second Japanese attack wave. To the left of the explosion, Shaw’s stern is visible, at the end of floating drydock YFD-2.
At right is the bow of USS Nevada (BB-36), with a tug alongside fighting fires.
Photographed from Ford Island, with a dredging line in the foreground.
NHHC Photograph
Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

This is a part of history I am not that aware of, and learning about it through picture books makes my heart break into a million fragments. However, rather than concentrate on how Japanese Americans were rounded up and locked in internment camps – Say focused on another group of Japanese Americans who volunteered to work for a group of White American farmers who are looking for people to work on their fields. Alice recounted her experience during this time:

We watched the other workers and tried to do what they did. In the heat, they wavered like slow dancers. Even the thought of dancing didn’t cheer me very much. 

When we had finished the job, a government agent came and told us we could go where we liked, as long as we stayed in the county. We were still prisoners, I thought, in a bigger prison.

Turning Stones into Colorful Gladiolas. Since it was important to grow food during this time, there was a lot of government support provided to farmers. With the loan that Alice’s husband got from the government, they were able to lease two hundred acres of desert land. However, the land was hard and filled with stones: “Our first harvest was a harvest of stones” Alice recalls. 

This picture book shows the value of hard work, courage, persistence – even in the face of overwhelming odds. It also highlights the gift of foresight and captures the resiliency of the human spirit to thrive. For a dancer like Alice, the uncertainty, the risks that her husband took in planting something so out of the ordinary, the continual struggle to survive – seemed daunting, yet the music within her never failed to provide her with hope and faith that things will be different.

Dancing among the flowers. Soon enough, they were able to transform the unyielding land into a field of vibrant, colorful flowers as it became the country’s largest gladiola bulb farm. People from everywhere started trickling in just to see their flowers.

A gladiola field. Photo taken by WunderPhotos. Sourced from the net. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Alice shared the beautiful experience of seeing the flowers bloom before their eyes:

As they grew, they sprouted buds and then bloomed. Two hundred acres of gladioli – sword lilies of pink and white, yellow and purple, apricot and orange. For a moment I forgot about all the hard work in the desert, and even of the war. I wanted to dance through the field. I had almost forgotten that feeling.

Photo taken from the book. Illustration by Allen Say.

This book renders a different meaning to the hackneyed phrase ‘take time to smell the flowers.’ However transient and fleeting, this field of wondrous beauty is enough to share colored joy and sweet-smelling music – reminding us that if we look hard enough, we can always find something to dance about.

Music for Alice by Allen Say. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 2004. Walter Lorraine Books. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: 23 (12)

Picture Book Challenge Update: 68 of 120

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 25 of 25

Immigrant Stories Challenge: 12 (6)

4 Comments on Nonfiction Monday: Music for Alice by Allen Say

  1. We have several of Say’s books in our school library, but not this one! And either does the town library. I’ll keep looking Myra. It sounds like a wonderful story, & there are so many. I love the backstory too. Writers are amazing when one hears the path from which a story is born.

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  2. Good writers are able to find these fabulous stories. What a find! The gladioli farm project is wonderful. I do sometimes feel books like this are almost more appreciated by adults. What do you think, Myra?

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  3. I LOVE Allen Say books! 🙂 But I haven’t read this one. I will have to find it! Thanks for telling me about it and some of the history behind it!

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  4. Say’s books have this uncanny ability to tell a story with many layers of messages and experiences – just like this one, Myra. Thank you for that arresting photograph, as well – I could just imagine Alice dancing through, taking pleasure in the movement, the flowers, this fateful turn.

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