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.
IMG_3186.jpg

IMG_3187.jpg

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.

Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins on Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Since it was published in January, in a modest print run of 3,000 copies, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up has sold out and gone into reprint. Which is as it should be. I asked Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi to tell me what drew each of them to Fred’s story, tragically relevant as it is to our own times.

Stan: Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. As a young man, Fred defied the government’s World War II orders forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans (including my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) from the west coast into concentration camps only because they looked like the enemy. Fred’s family and community did not support his actions. It took tremendous courage for him to stand up for his rights as an American citizen. 

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, communities of color, women and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice, just like Fred.

17022186_10155816341650830_3382624422802570045_n

Jana, Mona, and Batool from Fred Korematsu Elementary School in Davis, CA. Young people. Our last best hope. Photo courtesy of Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi.

Laura: I was over the moon when Molly Woodward, the editor at Heyday, asked me to get involved in the book. I was brought on to add my children’s book experience.

I grew up in an activist family and became an activist myself, arrested twice in high school at protests, and working as at Children’s Book Press and as an editor at Lee & Low Books, with a focus on diversity and equity in children’s books. I love that this series highlights people who have fought for their rights, showing the power of individuals, and collective action, to make a difference. 

This couldn’t be more timely. We’ve now presented to over 1,200 kids, with over 1,000 more in the coming few weeks. It’s been inspiring to share Fred’s story with them, but also to talk about standing up and activism more generally. At a school presentation in Davis last week, three girls told us how they raised money at the school after their mosque was vandalized. They were proud to share their efforts, and clearly supported by their teacher and community. It’s an honor to be connected to kids in this way, and I hope that our book helps to inspire more to know that they can also speak up.

16730152_10155749343635830_295995036952761139_n

Stan and Laura with Karen Korematsu

One additional note: Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter, founder of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, wrote an op-ed that was published in the New York Times. It’s about her father’s life and legacy and the relevance of that narrative to here and now.

Excerpt:

When President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries, he hurled us back to one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of American history. Executive orders that go after specific groups under the guise of protecting the American people are not only unconstitutional, but morally wrong. My father, and so many other Americans of Japanese descent, were targets of just such an order during World War II.

United States policies already seem to be tilting toward inhumanity, intolerance, xenophobia. Here is a history that deserves to be remembered, if we are to keep from repeating it. Stan and Laura have done a remarkable job in bringing Fred’s story to young readers.