Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice

The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice

Allen Say
For ages 12 and up
HMH Books for Young Readers, 1994   ISBN: 978-0395705629

Kiyoi has a rather unusual life. His parents are divorced - which is uncommon in Japan at this time (just after the end of WWII) - and he lives in a small apartment on his own. His mother supports him financially, and his grandmother keeps a close eye on how he is doing in school. She is old-fashioned and thinks that “a good family name, genteel upbringing, and good schooling” are important. One thing Kiyoi knows is that his grandmother would not approve of him becoming a cartoonist, but that is what he wants to do.

Gathering up his courage, Kiyoi goes to see Noro Shinpei, a much-loved and famous cartoonist. He meets the great man at his studio, which is in a rundown part of the city. There he draws for Master Noro, and to his delight the cartoonist agrees to take Kiyoi on as an apprentice. He already has one young man working for him, Tokida, who will be Kiyoi’s “partner” from now on.

At first Kiyoi is afraid to touch any of his sensei’s panels, to work on the backgrounds and other aspects of his drawings with Tokida; but over time the boy learns skills and gains confidence. The biggest worry he has now is that his mother and grandmother will be very angry with him when they find out what he is doing. Eventually Kiyoi decides that it is time to tell his mother about his apprenticeship and he goes to Yokohama to see her. Visiting her there will mean that Kiyoi will be able to talk to his mother without his grandmother intervening in their discussion. Surprisingly, Kiyoi’s chic and pretty mother is sympathetic and she is willing to let Kiyoi continue working with Master Noro, as long as his school grades do not suffer. This seems like a fair request and the mother and son part on good terms. Best of all, Kiyoi’s mother agrees to talk to Grandmother. Kiyoi feels much better as he boards the train to go back to Tokyo.

When a reporter comes to Master Noro’s studio to do a story on him, he takes pictures of the great man, and he also takes pictures of his two apprentices. When the magazine comes out Kiyoi dares to take a copy to Grandmother, who to his amazement does not scold him. Instead she actually seems to be proud of him. The article causes “quite a sensation” at Kiyoi’s school, and some of the students actually acknowledge Kiyoi, which is very unusual.

One day Kiyoi goes to a bookstore to buy a copy of Dear Theo for Tokida, who has a passion for Van Gogh’s art. While he is exploring the shelves he comes across a book containing a reproduction of a portrait that was created by Degas. The painting has a profound effect on Kiyoi, who begins to consider learning how to paint with oils. He works harder than ever on his drawing exercises and sometimes the drawings are so good that Kiyoi feels that they are “too good to be my own work.” Could it be that he has, somewhere inside him, the “Power to work magic?”

This novel is based on Allen Say’s own life story, and it gives readers a picture of what it was like to be a teenager in Tokyo in the years following the end of WWII. We witness how Kiyoi grows up a lot and how he makes some life-changing decisions as he becomes a young man.

Allen Say did grow up to become an artist, and in 1994 he won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in Grandfather’s Journey, a story about the journey his grandfather made from Japan to the United States and back again to Japan.