Summary: Tea With Milk by Allen Say is the story of young girl named Masako, or May, as she was known growing up in San Francisco. But one day, her parents get homesick and decide to move back to Japan with May. In Japan, Mays world is turned upside down. Everyone calls her Masako and she has to learn Japanese customs like sitting on the floor and wearing kimonos. Not too soon after, her parents want to match her up with a rich banker. May does not like the idea and moves out on her own to Osaka. There she gets a job as an English speaking tour guide. She then meets a young man at her job whom also speaks English and together they move to Yokohama and get married. The twist at the end is that this is actually the story of how Allen Says parents met.
Cultural Markers: The illustrations captivate the Japanese culture very well. The book starts out with a young May in her San Francisco home. But what makes this illustration stand out is that it is almost black and white. The rest of the book, once she is in Japan, has more lively watercolors in the illustrations, symbolizing a change in culture for the story. Throughout the story, you can also see Japanese influence in the illustrations. You see May wearing a kimono, a traditional Japanese room with paper windows, and you can see Japanese writing on the stores as May walks by. It is revealed that this story took place in the past, and you can you can see that with the types of cars in the background and even more familiar when the English family is talking to May and they are wearing clothes typical of maybe late twenties or early thirties. The skin color of the characters are that of Japanese descent and are not the awfully stereotyped “yellow” skin coloring. The name Masako is a traditional Japanese name, as we see when she gets to Japan and everyone is calling her that instead of May. May has to get accustomed to the Japanese culture as she eats different food, “There was no more pancakes or omelets, fried chicken, or spaghetti” and has to get used to a new style of home, “Her new home was drafty, with windows made of paper.” Mays first job was pretty much “bowing” to customers, which makes sense, as bowing is a traditional form of greeting in Japan.
Personal Reflection: Since it is revealed that this the character of May is actually Allen Says mother, it is of now doubt that this book is culturally authentic. I would say that it covers the theme of immigration with families moving to the United States, but the whole story is about moving back to Japan. The important part here is the culture shock that May experiences. I think it worked pretty well for May. She first hand experienced both American and Japan culture and then passed it on to her son. The secondary love story at the end where she meets Allens father is just a bonus to the book. It actually got me thinking about my students as many of the are also children of immigrants. Not from Japan, but Latin America. I know they come here in search of a better life, but I wonder if they will experience the same culture shock that May did if for whatever reason their family decided to move back.
Awards: Notable Childrens Book (2009)
From Publishers Weekly: “His exquisite, spare portraits convey emotions that lie close to the surface and flow easily from page to reader: with views of Masako’s slumping posture and mask-like face as she dons her first kimono, or alone in the schoolyard, it’s easy to sense her dejection. Through choice words and scrupulously choreographed paintings, Say’s story communicates both the heart’s yearning for individuality and freedom and how love and friendship can bridge cultural chasms. Ages 4-8. ”
From School Library Journal: “The pages are filled with detailed drawings featuring Japanese architecture and clothing, and because of the artist’s mastery at drawing figures, the people come to life as authentic and sympathetic characters. This is a thoughtful and poignant book that will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly our nation’s many immigrants who grapple with some of the same challenges as May and Joseph, including feeling at home in a place that is not their own.”
Say, Allen. (1999). Tea with Milk. Boston: Walter Lorraine Books.