What a Book Can Hold: Kyo Maclear’s Picture Book Biography of Gyo Fujikawa

A couple of months ago, I posted about Gyo Fujikawa’s work and how her bright, inclusive books, created all the way back in 1963, contained a subtle call to the world to become kinder and better, to treat all children alike.

Now Kyo Maclear‘s beautiful picture book biography of Gyo Fujikawa offers another loving tribute to an artist who was far ahead of her own time.

Consider the title. It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way.

It began with a page. That is how the book opens as well:

Look to the right and the eye falls on little Gyo, five years old in 1913 and sketching away as her mother writes a poem, rendered in sweet bare-toed concentration by illustrator Julie Morstad.

It’s a dual kind of looking–back in time to the story’s chronology, yet capturing the  immediacy of the child’s reaction to the events of her life. Yet somehow, in the space between image and word, the book manages to leap forward as well, showing by example how art can heal and illuminate. At the same time, it recognizes the family’s aspirations and disappointments and the enormous tragedy of the prison camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

And then it shows us who that child grew into, and what imagination looks like:

At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories–mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.

Gyo knew a book could hold more and do more.

It Began With a Page is a rich evocation of a life that offers direction in our own challenging present and reminds us that equality remains an urgent cause. As Maclear puts it:

…babies cannot wait.

Lunch with Plummie

P.G. Wodehouse invited the New Yorker to lunch on October 15, 1960.

I was four years old then, and had not yet discovered my grandfather’s Herbert Jenkins editions of Plum’s novels. I’d discover them at 10, and chuckle over them for many summers to come. Strange as it may seem, there was much in that Edwardian world to entrance and amuse a kid growing up in India. I, too, had obsessions–not newts, but notebooks and pens and the other stuff of writing. I, too, had aunts. Not masses of them, but they were certainly strange, alien beings to me, the way adults are during the developmental phase of conjecture and bewilderment that we term childhood.

Although I leaped with delight into the Jeeves and Emsworth books, into legends on the golf course and the nutty exploits of Psmith, I would know nothing of Wodehouse’s life, its ups and downs, its errors and regrets, its triumphs and sorrows, until many years later, when I read Robert McCrum’s biography, Wodehouse: A Life. For me, the ex-child who once found something close to pure delight in his books, it matters that Plum’s story is told as clearly and compassionately as it is in this biography. McCrum unravels the charges of Fascism and treachery that tainted Wodehouse’s legacy, the blind spots and flaws that led to his dreadful miscalculations.

He recognizes the sweet melancholy in the books, the importance of their lightness and airiness, the universality of the human connections they delineate. I couldn’t have said so at the time, but all those things resonated for me at 10 and 13 and 15. They resonate still.

Courtesy of WGBH, I came across this talk by McCrum and was delighted to find out that he, like me, had discovered Wodehouse at the age of 10. There was something pleasing about that coincidence.  

When, at 15, I wrote Plum a fan letter, he sent me a typed reply with an ink signature and one of his wife’s return labels bearing their New York address. Plum adored America. (“It’s like being elected to a very good club.”) I can’t help wondering what he’d think of it, if he could see it today. Perhaps our time would remind him of another era when Fascist thinking spread its tentacles through Europe and otherwise well-meaning people did their best to carry on, ignoring what was going on around them.

“In the sea, they will hold funerals”

In case we are tempted to think of the  1990s as a cultural wasteland defined by incongruous clashing motifs and Prozac Nation, let us remember that was the decade that launched National Poetry Month. On the steps of a post office in New York City, we are told, with a reading of T. S. Eliot’s (what else?) The Wasteland, which begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

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David Portrait 3Mixing memory and desire. Apt words to tap the yearning, unerring poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, best beloved Japanese children’s poet and a symbol if there ever was one of beauty emerging from sorrow. David Jacobson is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a picture book that not only speaks with honesty and grace about the poet’s life but also includes translations of some of her poetry. I asked David a few questions about his lovely book:

[Uma] Every book begins with a writer’s longing or a dream. What was your journey with this book?

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Sally Ito, translator

Michiko portrait

Michiko Tsuboi, translator

[David] The dream came to me a year or so after I became acquainted with Misuzu’s poetry. Probing into her backstory, I learned of her tragic life, and was startled to discover that she was virtually unknown in North America.  I couldn’t believe she had been so overlooked, even by academics.  (I have subsequently been shocked to learn how few children’s authors from Japan get translated into English: only about 6 a year!)  I then made it my mission to spread the word about her through this book.  Fortunately, I was able to assemble a team of those who felt the same way: translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi and illustrator Toshikado Hajiri.

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Toshikado Hajiri, illustrator

We are all so thrilled that the book is starting to reach those who never heard of Misuzu before, especially those who don’t have a particular interest in Japan.

 

[Uma] The opening poem, Big Catch, is so brilliant and so startling in how it suddenly throws the reader off kilter, plunges us into empathy in spite of ourselves. And I loved how you framed this book so a child of the 20th century serves as witness to this older life. How did these layers of narrative come together for you?

[David] From the start, there were a lot of elements I wanted to include in this book:  Misuzu’s life story, the story of her rediscovery, the tsunami, and most of all, lots of examples of her poetry, in both English and Japanese.  Others tried to dissuade me from doing all this in a single book, but my publisher, Bruce Rutledge, supported me, partly because he and I felt that this might be our one and only chance to introduce Misuzu to the English-speaking world.  Given all those elements, we knew from the start that we would need to divide the book into a narrative section and a poetry section, and then within the narrative create a frame within which we could introduce Misuzu’s life story.  So the story laid itself out, and we just had to fill in the blanks.  Looking back at my first draft, I see that the structure was there from the beginning, but the specific text has changed dramatically.

[Uma] Tell me about the work you did with Sally Ito, the translator. 

[David] The work I did with Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi constituted the real core of putting the book together. We all stretched beyond our nominal roles in the project. Though ostensibly “translators,” Sally and Michiko made extensive textual and content-related edits to the narrative, which is why they got additional credit on the title page.  Though “author,” I edited their translations of the poetry and challenged their interpretations of the Japanese.  Over the course of about 4-5 months, we produced some 40 drafts of the narrative and multiple drafts of each poem (including a number that weren’t included in the book).  Michiko, who is Japanese born and bred, was a little shocked, I believe, by our occasional disagreements over wording.  But I think our close and sometimes confrontational collaboration, cemented by our mutual love for Misuzu’s poetry, made it a better book.

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[Uma] Thank you, David, for sharing some of the background to Are You An Echo? A literary life revealed for young readers, along with exquisite poetry, all in a lovingly crafted picture book container.

More from David on Sally Ito’s work translating Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry.

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

ImageIllustrated by Evan Turk, here is a powerful book narrated by the grandson of the man who turned peace into possibility for India and for the world, and equated personal truth with moral imperative. His words and actions ring into the world against all odds, even today.

Beautifully created and deftly written, this is a stunning picture book portrait, part biography, part family memoir, told from a simple stance of memory, love, and healing.

In this remarkable narrative in words and pictures, Arun Gandhi worked with writer and VCFA alumna Bethany Hegedus to weave a stunning portrait of the man who taught him to “live his life as light.” Evan Turk’s collage paintings use a glowing palette. He employs the power of light and shadow, space and perspective, to bring the text to life. At every level, this is a breathtaking book.