Award-Winning Books Early Readers Features Genre Lifespan of a Reader Memoirs, Biographies, and Constructed Narratives Middle Grade Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Reading Themes

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Biography of Self-Taught Artist James Castle in “Silent Days, Silent Dreams” by Allen Say

Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2018 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, when we can.

I have heard of this book for quite awhile now, and meant to borrow it from the library. But I saved it for our current reading theme, and it clearly was well worth the wait.

Silent Days, Silent Dreams

Written and Illustrated by Allen Say
Published by Arthur A Levine Books (2017)
ISBN-10: 0545927617
ISBN-13: 9780545927611
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

This is, most likely, a picturebook biography that I will be talking about for a long time to come. Unlike most standard picturebooks, Silent Days is extra long at 64 pages. While I have been a huge fan of Allen Say’s visual and textual narrative for a long time now, this by far, at least for me, is one of his absolute best, if not his best work to date.

The story revolves around James Castle, a hearing impaired, possibly autistic, and self-taught artist born on 1899 in a small farm in Idaho. The narrative is written from the perspective of Castle’s nephew.

The first few pages were harrowing, as no one knew how to get through to James, who was then bullied, labeled, ostracized, ridiculed, and ultimately dismissed and locked up in the attic, where people can conveniently forget his existence. He and his older sister (made deaf by measles when she was six or seven) were sent to the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind, around 160 miles from where they live, but James was declared to be “ineducable.”

Throughout all this, James found refuge in art. That was his sanctuary. The most painful thing, however, was how people around him would cruelly take this away from him, declaring his works as trash or useless or no-good. It was this image of a landscape against a backdrop of an open window that made me catch my breath:

I believe what made the narrative immensely powerful for me was how sensitively Allen Say portrayed this man’s life – a man who was not valued for the longest time, until he was; who remained not just unheard – but also unseen despite his physical presence in his family’s life. As explained by Allen Say in his Author’s Note at the end of the book:

I was also called a dummy when I first came to America. Not knowing English in California felt the same as being deaf and mute. Now I wanted to dig out my buried memory and try to see the young James’s silent world through his eyes. And so began this book.

Allen Say stretched his boundaries here as an artist. He adroitly experimented with a very different way of creating his images that he felt would capture the essence of this mostly-forgotten man’s life. This act of creation produced such an intimate connection between artist and subject, such that Say was able to respectfully return Castle’s lost voice and art to him all these years – through this gem of a book. The thought alone is deeply moving, wait until you read this story; hopefully it changes the way you see the world.

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “[Nonfiction Wednesday] Biography of Self-Taught Artist James Castle in “Silent Days, Silent Dreams” by Allen Say

  1. lindabaie

    I have read this recently and enjoyed visiting it again through your eyes, Myra. It is a marvelous book. I love all Allen Say’s stories, always helps us readers consider how we think of others. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was truly a special read. I was starstruck when I met Allen Say at a book event!

    Liked by 1 person

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