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Gyo Fujikawa: Unsung Artist of Cheerful Children’s Books

Debbie says:

Laurie and I are trying to keep this blog relatively cheerful. We’re not in denial; we just know how rough things are, and we want to provide some distraction.

And it’s almost the end of Women’s History Month, so it’s time anyway to dive into a byway of women’s history. Neither of us had ever heard of Gyo Fujikawa before we found this article by Sarah Larson.

Fujikawa was born in Berkeley, California, in 1908, to … Japanese immigrants and grape-farm workers. … 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.”

Larson goes on to talk about how Fujikawa was not seen as American. In the 1940s, she was working for Disney and was protected, but her parents were sent to internment camps, and she visited them there, which she found appropriately heartbreaking.

She took both political and economic radical positions regarding her career:

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.

And, as Sarah Larson points out in her article, the picture at the top of the blog has a sign saying “Members Only,” where most treehouses of the time were pictured as saying “No Girls Allowed.”



Many prominent illustrators still don’t get royalties today, and of course many women don’t advocate for our own economic advancement; Fujikawa blazed a trail I wish more people would follow. Similarly, emphasizing the importance of multiracial images in children’s books is popular now in much or even most of picture-book publishing, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s these books must have been outliers on the shelves of books about white children–and the fact that they sold so well is a testament not only to her skill but also to people’s hunger and need to see themselves.

Fujikawa died in 1998, and was remembered in obituaries at the time, but is largely forgotten now. At a moment when you need it, take a few minutes to browse the pictures of her work on Google images: they’ll likely bring you a smile or three.

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