Cover image for The sign painter
The sign painter
Say, Allen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston, Mass. : Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Physical Description:
32 pages : color illustrations 23 x 28 cm
An assignment to paint a large billboard in the desert changes the life of an aspiring artist.
Reading Level:
250 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR LG 3.3 0.5 45335.

Reading Counts RC 3-5 3.9 3 Quiz: 22497.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PIC BK Juvenile Fiction Picture Books
PIC.BK. Juvenile Fiction Childrens Area-Picture Books
PIC BK Juvenile Fiction Picture Books

On Order



In his Caldecott acceptance speech for GRANDFATHER'S JOURNEY, Allen Say told of his difficulty in separating his dreams from reality. For him this separation was not as important as finding a meaning behind the contradictions and choices we all must make in life and their consequences.
Early one morning a boy comes into town, hungry, and looking for work. He meets a sign painter who takes him on as a helper. The boy yearns to be a painter. The man offers him security.
The two are commissioned to paint a series of billboards in the desert. Each billboard has one word, Arrowstar. They do not know its meaning. As they are about to paint the last sign, the boy looks up and sees in the distance a magnificent structure. Is it real? They go to find out.
Through a simple text and extraordinary paintings, the reader learns of the temptation of safe choices and the uncertainties of following a personal dream. Here Allen Say tells a haunting and provocative story of dreams and choices for readers of all ages. This title has been selected as a Common Core Text Exemplar (Grades 2-3, Read-Aloud Story)

Author Notes

Allen Say was born in 1937 in Yokohama, Japan and grew up during the war, attending seven different primary schools amidst the ravages of falling bombs. His parents divorced in the wake of the end of the war and he moved in with his maternal grandmother, with whom he did not get along with. She eventually let him move into a one room apartment, and Say began to make his dream of being a cartoonist a reality. He was twelve years old.

Say sought out his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei, and begged him to take him on as an apprentice. He spent four years with Shinpei, but at the age of 16 moved to the United States with his father. Say was sent to a military school in Southern California but then expelled a year later. He struck out to see California with a suitcase and twenty dollars. He moved from job to job, city to city, school to school, painting along the way, and finally settled on advertising photography and prospered. Say's first children's book was done in his photo studio, between shooting assignments. It was called "The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice" and was the story of his life with Noro Shinpei. After this, he began to illustrate his own picture books, with writing and illustrating becoming a sort of hobby. While illustrating "The Boy of the Three-year Nap" though, Say suddenly remembered the intense joy I knew as a boy in my master's studio and decided to pursue writing and illustrating full time.

Say began publishing books for children in 1968. His early work, consisting mainly of pen-and-ink illustrations for Japanese folktales, was generally well received; however, true success came in 1982 with the publication of The Bicycle Man, based on an incident in Say's life. "The Boy of the Three-Year Nap" published in 1988, and written by Dianne Snyder, was selected as a 1989 Caldecott Honor Book and winner of The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for best picture book.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 5^-up. "Are you lost, son?" "Yes . . . I mean, no. I need a job." The words are minimal in this picture book for older readers. An Asian American youth gets a job as a sign painter. He wants to be an artist and paint landscapes, but he's being paid to paint a poster girl on a dozen blank billboards scattered through the desert. Then there's a raging dust storm, and the model from the picture sweeps past in her car and doesn't come back. In a tribute to many modern artists, including Hopper, Warhol, and Magritte, Say shows and tells how their pictures make you feel and how the surreal is part of a young man's search for himself. In fact, the story expresses the wildness in ordinary life, both precise and mysterious, where the blonde on a billboard suddenly sweeps past you, and the all-night diner down the street is as desolate as you feel. Older readers who know the famous pictures will enjoy Say's homage to the masters, even as they are moved by the young man's conflict: Should he stay safe and earn his wages? Or should he follow his dreams? --Hazel Rochman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Like a 1930s cinematographer, Say (Grandfather's Journey), in perhaps his best work to date, pays tribute to a bygone era with a brief slice-of-life story about a boy's encounter with a sign painter. Neither the boy nor the sign painter has a name; what carries their connection and the story is their mutual love of painting. In the opening scene, Say depicts an Asian-American boy standing in front of an urban backdrop, right out of Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning: the red and green strip of storefronts and barber pole provide an ideal backdrop for the young painter's uniform of black trousers and white button-down shirt. From here, Say's full-page panel paintings almost tell the story by themselves. As the boy helps the sign painter work on a billboard, they receive a commission to paint a dozen more, all featuring a woman's face. Thus begins a journey across barren landscapes, through dust storms and into the foothills of a spectacular mountain range. The blonde woman on the billboards could have stepped out of a Hopper painting; one day, in a fleeting moment, she drives past the two paintersDlike Barbie in her pink Cadillac, in stark contrast to the desert scene. The purpose of the painters' enigmatic mission comes together like pieces of a puzzle through snippets of an overheard conversation. And when the job is finished, the boy, now returned to the city, stands in front of the corner bar from Hopper's Nighthawks, empty of customers. One can't help feeling wistful while gazing at this final scene. Say subtly and ingeniously blends a feeling of nostalgia with a hard-hitting immediacy. Even though young readers will not grasp its message as fully as adult readers, the images and the boy's passion as an artist will remain with them. All ages. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Gr 3-5-Puzzling is perhaps the best way to describe this latest offering from one of our most talented illustrators. The quirky, quasi-surreal tale begins with a young Asian-American man disembarking from a bus in a strange town. It's early in the morning and he makes his way to a sign shop where he asks for employment. When he tells the owner that he can paint, he's put to work. The two men soon receive a mysterious commission to paint a dozen billboards along a lonesome road running through the desert. The subject of the billboards is a blonde woman featured alongside the words "ArrowStar." After weathering a fierce dust storm, the painters are nearly run over by the real-life ArrowStar model's car and then spy in the distance the looming metal towers of ArrowStar-a rollercoaster. Eavesdropping reveals that it was constructed in anticipation of a highway being built. Its owner is apparently still clinging to his dreams of amusement-park glory despite unfavorable odds and the loss of his ArrowStar girl. The painters slip away unnoticed, pondering the power of dreams. The young man leaves for parts unknown the next day. Very painterly illustrations conjure up an earlier decade, perhaps the 1950s, and different scenes pay homage to Edward Hopper's cityscapes and Georgia O'Keeffe's Southwest landscapes. While the story's stark visuals match the almost existential tone of the text, they may not engage young readers. Similarly, the narrative is more likely to baffle children than drive home its message about honoring one's dreams, artistic or monolithic.-Rosalyn Pierini, San Luis Obispo City-County Library, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.