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.

The Idealized World of Gyo Fujikawa’s Books

The idealization of reality has long been a technique available to children’s writers and illustrators. When the world spins in dangerous directions and you try to remedy that in a book for adults, you run the risk of seeming either disingenuous or naive. But when your audience is still tender and young, sorting that world out, learning to live in it, it seems only fair to right its wrongs on the page, to show what might be. In the end, we may hope, those signposts to the very young can imbue them with the energy to nudge that world in a kinder, better direction.

No one knew this like Gyo Fujikawa. Born in 1908 to Japanese immigrant parents, she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, today the California Institute of the Arts. She wrote and/or illustrated over 50 picture books. She also designed promotional materials for Disney and six United States postage stamps.

In a New Yorker article, Sarah Larson paints a loving portrait of a beloved children’s author-illustrator for whom freedom became an enduring yet elusive dream.

Excerpt:

In 1941, she was sent to New York, to work in Disney’s studios there; in early 1942, her parents and brother, along with many Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, were sent to internment camps. The Fujikawas were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack, where they lived in horse stalls, and then to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Fujikawa visited them there and found what she described as “barbed wire and a sentry walking around the wall with a bayonet.”

Here is the first book that Fujikawa both wrote and illustrated:Babies.jpg

IMG_3184.jpgThe babies are lovingly drawn, capturing the expressive emotions of the very young–and there’s more.

This little board book exemplifies something that was subtly characteristic of Fujikawa’s art. She didn’t beat you over the head with it, but Gyo Fujikawa was perhaps the very first American illustrator to render a diverse array of children in her books.

Here, she seems to be saying, is an Asian child, a child with ginger hair, a black child. Here they are, all children, doing what children do, being in the world the way all children are.
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Like the best picture books, there’s a huge takeaway from this one that isn’t spelled out in the words. It’s there in the images without explanation and it’s all the more powerful for that lightness of touch.

This is the way the world ought to work, the book seems to be saying with quiet authority. In these pages, this is how it is. So here, toddler whose eyes fall upon these pictures, put that into your heart. Carry it out into the real and precious world you will inhabit.