Silent Days, Silent Dreams

by Allen Say
Grade 3-7


James Castle was born two months premature on September 25, 1899, on a farm in Garden Valley, Idaho. He was deaf, mute, autistic, and probably dyslexic. He didn’t walk until he was four; he would never learn to speak, write, read, or use sign language.

Yet today Castle’s artwork hangs in major museums throughout the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened “James Castle: A Retrospective” in 2008. The 2013 Venice Biennale included eleven works by Castle in the feature exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace.” And his reputation continues to grow.

Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say, author of the acclaimed memoir Drawing from Memory, takes readers through an imagined look at Castle’s childhood, allows them to experience his emergence as an artist despite the overwhelming difficulties he faced, and ultimately reveals the triumphs that he would go on to achieve.

Discussion questions from SOMN

  • What do you think Castle is feeling at various points in the book? i.e., when he is denied tools to make his art, when his art is taken or destroyed, when he has his first art show, when he gets his RV. How did you feel reading about his life? How might you feel in those situations? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt something similar?
  • The book says that Castle could neither write or use sign language. Why do you think that is? How would that affect his ability to communicate? How else might someone who is deaf communicate?
  • Look at the illustrations in the book. How do you think they were made?
  • Have students define culture, then conduct an online inquiry into the subject of the deaf culture. Consider that many people who are hearing impaired are part of a strong community. Some people don’t consider deafness a disability and don’t believe in getting treatments such as cochlear implants to restore hearing. They believe they are better off staying the way they are, and that changing their bodies in order to hear devalues the importance of their differences and their community. What do you think?

Classroom activities from SOMN

  • Research Castle’s art online or through books about his art. What do you notice? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? How does it make you feel? How does it compare with art that is more photo-like? Share your findings and feelings with the class.
  • Make art from scavenged materials. Castle used a mixture of spit and charcoal for many of his drawings because he did not have art supplies. If you didn’t have access to or money for traditional art supplies, what free materials could you use to make art? Gather materials and make a piece of art. Share your art and how you made it with your class.