Drawn Together

I discovered the work of illustrator and author Dan Santat at my beloved public library the day we were read The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend at story time a few years ago. Minette and I were instantly taken with the vibrant pictures and the inventive plot.

More recently we have come across Drawn Together, a collaboration between Santat and writer Minh Lê. The story is sparse in words and rich in colors and insights. A Vietnamese American boy spends the day at his grandfather’s house. They eat different foods. They speak different languages — the boy answers in English when his grandfather speaks Vietnamese to him. The boy is bored. The old man is quiet.

But then something happens. As the boy starts drawing by himself, the old man has a sudden idea. He brings his own ink and pen and starts drawing next to his grandson. Together they create a glittering wordless story of heroes and dragons, building up the bond that has eluded them so far.

What touches me most is how the book depicts the relationship between the old man and the boy before they find their own personal bridge. The grandfather’s attempts at communicating. The grandson’s youthful lack of interest. The language barrier. The boy understands what his grandfather says but he can’t (won’t?) speak Vietnamese to him.

Language shared, or not shared, is a defining feature in most multicultural families. I have written in a previous post about how important it is for us that Minette understand and speak both our languages, Tamil and French. I feel a multicultural family is the stronger for each member who speaks more than one of the family’s languages. Even though I am aware of and interested in multicultural parents who opt not to raise multilingual children (see my post about Alma), I firmly believe in giving Minette this crucial access to her heritages.

Drawn Together also moves me because it speaks to the grandparent connection and how it can be established in different ways. The Vietnamese old man’s ingenuity in finding a way to engage his grandson is a thing of beauty, particularly after what must have been countless awkward hours spent together — the story does not spell it out but its beginning seems to describe an ingrained pattern.

In our own family Minette relates to her grandparents fluidly, not least because she speaks their languages and she spends long stretches of time with them. Interestingly, drawing is also something she does with both her grandfathers. She even has some joint work ongoing with Grand-Père, himself a lifetime drawing artist.

When I read Drawn Together I am amazed at how meaningfully, yet subtly, a children’s book can echo my own thoughts about what matters in multicultural families: language(s); time spent together; gaps and bridges between generations and cultures. They are here, in this deceptively simple story. They matter as much in our life as they do in this American Vietnamese family’s. That must be why the book’s happy ending feels so warm and joyful to me.

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