One of the first images in “A Child’s Book of Poems,” a 1969 collection illustrated by the American artist Gyo Fujikawa, shows a boy on a hill, heading to a village under an enormous sun. This sun, unlike the real one, encourages staring: it’s layered with stunning oranges and yellows, a flourish of bright beauty filling the sky. The boy wears round sunglasses and a cap, and has a bindle slung over his shoulder—he’s contemplating the quiet harmony of the village and the celestial wonder that illuminates it. In Fujikawa’s children’s books—she illustrated fifty books, forty-five of which she wrote, and several are still in print—these elements consistently appear in harmony: the beauty and power of the natural world and the earthly pleasures of the people walking around in it. As a child, I knew that seeing her name on a book cover meant feeling connected to the page, being transported—by joy, cheerful fellow-feeling, occasional stormy moods and skies, and a hint of nursery-rhyme dreaminess. I associated her giant-sun image with the bounding pleasures of a favorite song, “Free to Be . . . You and Me.” Its opening banjo and this yellow sun both led to a land “where the children are free.”
Fujikawa was born in Berkeley, California, in 1908, to Hikozo and Yu Fujikawa, Japanese immigrants and grape-farm workers. Yu was an activist who wrote poetry and did embroidery. In the early twenties, the Fujikawas moved to Terminal Island, a fishing village near San Pedro, populated with many first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans. At mostly white schools on the mainland, Fujikawa struggled to fit in—late in life, she said that hers wasn’t “a particularly marvelous childhood”—but she excelled at art, and a high-school teacher helped her apply for a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), where she thrived. After a year travelling in Japan, she returned to Los Angeles, where, in 1939, she was hired by Walt Disney Studios. She designed promotional materials for “Fantasia,” and in a piece in Glamour, published in the early nineteen-forties and titled “Girls at Work for Disney,” a caption identifies her as “Gyo, a Japanese artist.”
More in this series on the power and pleasures of children’s books.
The article was hardly alone in failing to recognize Fujikawa’s Americanness, especially as the Second World War gathered strength. One day, Fujikawa later told an interviewer, Walt Disney “came in to see me especially. . . . He said, ‘How are you doing? I’ve been worried about you.’ ” She said she was doing O.K., and that when people asked her what nationality she was, “ ‘I tell them the truth or I give them big lies, like half Chinese and half Japanese, or part Korean, part Chinese, and part Japanese.’ He said, ‘Why do you have to do that? For Christ sakes, you’re an American citizen.’ ” 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.”
Back in New York, heartbroken and feeling guilty about her own freedom, Fujikawa continued to make her way in the commercial-art world. In 1957, she was commissioned to illustrate a new edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” She was paid a flat fee, as was standard; the book was a hit; and she turned down future work until the company agreed to pay her royalties. It did, and her career flourished, as did her creativity. She illustrated “The Night Before Christmas” (1961) and, in 1963, her first original book, “Babies.” She told the publisher that she wanted to show “an international set of babies—little black babies, Asian babies, all kinds of babies.” The publisher was reluctant, fearing that images of black babies would impair sales in the South. Fujikawa stood firm, “Babies” was published as she wanted, and the book became a best-seller. Along with a companion book, “Baby Animals,” it has since sold more than two million copies. Fujikawa’s babies—red-haired, kimono-wearing, doll-wrangling, chamberpot-sitting, and otherwise—continue to roll around lovably in board books, distinctive and universal at once.
In the decades that followed, Fujikawa’s illustrations depicted children of all kinds, on adventures of all kinds, often in transcendent natural settings. The children’s faces can at times resemble the advertising work that Fujikawa did for Beech-Nut and other brands—they’re expressive but simply rendered, with dark points for eyes and almost smiley-face-like lines for mouths. Yet they’re focussed and intent, expressive, active. The pages of her books often alternate between black-and-white spreads of crosshatched spot illustrations and stunning color spreads of a single painting, often depicting a sweeping scene: a city and a helicopter above it, a girl under an enormous green-leafed willow tree on a blustery day; a child sleeping cozily in a hammock made of a leaf, under a patchwork quilt, attended by a fairy. In “Oh, What a Busy Day!” (1976), we see a boisterous group of kids in a treehouse, under a stormy greenish sky, playing and looking out at the rain. There’s a sign on the treehouse, and “NO GIRLZ ALLOWED” it isn’t: it says “MEMBERS ONLY,” and the members are a multiethnic group of boys and girls, happily communing with birds, a cat, and a squirrel. In “A Child’s Book of Poems,” Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, little black boys in cozy pajamas, pilot a Dutch-looking shoe-ship through a night sky full of stars.
Fujikawa didn’t insist that all of her children be cheerful. In “Gyo Fujikawa’s A to Z Picture Book” (1974), on the first painted spread, a girl stands in a marsh, looking neither happy nor sad, hands in pockets, looking at a frog on a rock. “A is for Alone, all by myself,” the text reads. “Hi, there, frog! Can I play with you?” Solitude and loneliness are natural, too, we learn. Later, at “F,” we see a boy leaning over a toadstool, looking at two fairies: “F is for friends, fairies, flowers, fish, and frogs.” All of these moods are presented with acceptance, just as her spot illustrations nod to an array of pleasant items in the world’s catalogue: “M” is for moose, marigold, milk, mockingbird, and moo goo gai pan.
Fujikawa died in 1998, at age ninety, and obituaries in the Times and the L.A. Times illuminated her life story well. But, considering that her work has mesmerized children for several decades, I’ve been surprised not to see more acclaim for her during my adult life—no articles or exhibitions, or calendars or tote bags or socks—as I have with other great children’s-book artists, such as Garth Williams, Arnold Lobel, Virginia Lee Burton, Margaret Wise Brown, William Steig, Maurice Sendak, Louise Fitzhugh, and so on. But lately, other artists have begun to pay homage to Fujikawa’s story. In 2017, the playwright Lloyd Suh staged a one-act called “Disney and Fujikawa,” imagining a dialogue between Walt and Gyo; this fall, HarperCollins will publish “It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way,” by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, which tells her story beautifully, in picture-book form.
“I think she wanted to create a body of literature that would invite all children onto the page,” Maclear told me recently. A later book, “Welcome Is a Wonderful Word,” saw Fujikawa getting more explicit about inclusion, but Maclear prefers her earlier works, where inclusion was “effortless,” and where Fujikawa seemed to create “new laws of the universe for the children she was making books for.” Fujikawa didn’t have a marvellous childhood, and she didn’t have children of her own. But, like Sendak and Fitzhugh and others, she stayed in tune with a child’s way of seeing the world. She also found a way to draw a better one. “I loved it, drawing children’s books,” she told an interviewer, late in life. “I always wanted to do art work for children about children. It was just what I wanted to do.” Their freedom was her freedom, too.