STARRED REVIEW
November 2017

A life lived through art

By Allen Say
Review by

In what he describes as “an imagined biography,” Allen Say humanizes the troubled and determined American artist James Castle.

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In what he describes as “an imagined biography,” Allen Say humanizes the troubled and determined American artist James Castle.

Born premature in 1899 in Idaho, Castle was deaf, autistic and probably dyslexic. Undiagnosed for years, he and a sibling were eventually sent to a school for the deaf and blind, to which Castle never acclimated. Sent back home, where he lived in an empty shed or even, at times, a chicken house, Castle was isolated and spent his life creating drawings and handmade books with found materials and soot, using spit as a fixative. He also made cutout dolls, the only friends he had. “He drew from memory and in secrecy,” Say writes. His work is now revered as that of an original artist, one whose art was his vocabulary.

Say tells this fictionalized biography from the point of view of Castle’s nephew, using much creative license. He also varies his style and artistic mediums throughout the book, often drawing with his nondominant hand when recreating Castle’s “unschooled” works. And there’s nary a reproduction to be found; Say faithfully reimagines many of Castle’s pieces using the same materials Castle did—sharp sticks, soot, spit and shoe polish.

This is a haunting story, filled with the stark, striking images of Castle’s memory: faceless teachers with whom he was unable to communicate; children who taunted him; the view from the open door of the attic, where he was often forced to stay as a child; and much more. There was an orderliness to Castle’s art, and Say’s beguiling compositions, which include small vignettes, reflect this. This is an utterly fascinating work.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Allen Say for Silent Days, Silent Dreams.

Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Silent Days, Silent Dreams

Silent Days, Silent Dreams

By Allen Say
Arthur A. Levine
ISBN 9780545927611

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