Playwright Tom Hooper has noted that “the more uncompromisingly specific you are the more you end up touching the bigger universal truths.” In Drawn Together Minh Lê and Dan Santat explore universal themes of family, love, and communication through the very specific story of a child and his grandfather’s yearning to find common language.
The book begins with a young Thai-American boy leaving his mom’s car to spend the day with his grandfather. From the outset we see that grandfather’s joy and anticipation is not reciprocated. The boy’s facial expression and body language display his reticence to spend time alone with his grandfather. Santat uses several devices of graphic novels in structuring the illustrations. Multiple panels per page allow a slow and gentle discovery of the challenge facing the characters, they do not speak each other’s language, and that inability to communicate creates a wedge in their relationship. The only text found on the first ten pages of the story are within speech bubbles, the young protagonist speaking in English and his grandfather in Thai.
Frustrated by this inability to communicate, the young boy pulls art supplies from his backpack and begins to draw. He creates a version of himself dressed in cape and hat and carrying a magic wand. When grandfather discovers what the boy is doing his face lights up. He leaves the boy and quickly returns with a sketch book and the ink and brush required for traditional East Asian brush painting. It is then, in the 29thpanel of the illustrations, that narrative text begins. “Right when I gave up on talking, my grandfather surprised me by revealing a world beyond words.” And with a simple turn of the page we are swept off on a stunning visual journey.
The boy’s drawing of the wizard faces an ink avatar of Grandfather dressed in traditional Thai armor. The contrast between the colorful, child-like creation of the boy and the brush-drawn ornate ink design of Grandfather highlights Santat’s artistry. Rather than hearing the two distinct voices of the characters, he has given them each an individual artistic style. On the following pages Santat’s visual storytelling begins to blend the traditional brush paintings with the multi-colored drawing of a child.
The tale within the tale finds the warrior and the wizard fighting a serpent determined to keep them apart. They find themselves disarmed and separated by a great chasm. The wizard finds the warrior’s brush as the warrior picks up the magic wand. As they fight their way to reunite, their unique artistic styles begin to blend. Running across a bridge a child-drawn, monochromatic wizard runs toward an ornate, multicolored warrior. As the book draws to a close Santat ends the story within the story, and we find the boy and grandfather happily hugging one another, a marker in Grandfather’s hand and the brush held by his grandson.
The story concludes with wordless panels, harkening back to the beginning of the book. The now-smiling grandson waves goodbye to Grandpa from the back of his mom’s car. We see the boy is holding his grandfather’s brush and come to understand that the bridge across the canyon was the young boy beginning to learn about Thai culture from Grandpa.