It Began With an Homage by Maclear and Morstad

It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way – Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, Harper, 2019


Just like the beautiful and energetic children in her books, Gyo Fujikawa became absorbed in her tasks before she was even conscious of doing so.  In Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad’s homage to an artistic and literary pathfinder, Fujikawa begins with a page, seated at a table with her poet mother.  (Maclear and Morstad are each brilliant in their own right with many great books to their names; for reviews of their other work together, see here and here.) The following two pages show the preternaturally gifted Gyo doing ordinary kid stuff: eating noodles, playing with a younger sibling, getting dressed.  With the elegant humor typical of this author and illustrator, we also see her reading Goethe’s Theory of Colour, a volume nearly as big as she is. This is the Gyo Fujikawa whom readers come to know in the book, an exceptional figure dedicated to depicting the ordinary with subtlety and compassion.


Women were important influences in Fujikawa’s development as an artist.  Seated under a table, she looks up at her mother discussing with other Japanese-American women why their rights should not be curtailed.  It is impossible to separate the impact of the book’s illustrations and design from its text: “Mama’s friends had come and they were full of talk.”  The “talk” is given form in larger font, like chalk letters teaching a lesson: “We sailed to America with our best kimono to see what we could be…such disappointment…we need the vote.  We need rights.”  Their boldly demanding tone contrasts with their elegant long skirts and pointed-toe boots, as they turn to one another around a table decorated with flowers and painted china.  Gyo is learning, to listen, absorb, and draw what she sees around her.


As a student, Fujikawa is ignored by her haughty white schoolmates, and in her college art classes, male students ignore her.  Still, her female teachers had recognized her as “this girl whose eyes missed nothing.”


She travels to Japan, immersing herself in the work of traditional masters.  A successful beginning working for Disney is interrupted by the trauma of her family’s internment, along with thousands of other citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.  She is grief-stricken, but “When the world felt gray, color lifted her.”  Throughout the book, Morstad alternates black, white, and gray with full-color images, linking Fujikawa’s heightened perception of color to her insistence on portraying children of every color in her books.  Resistance from publishers who remind her that this could not happen in America of the 1960s, “a country with laws that separated people by skin color,” Fujikawa refuses to take no for an answer.

In Morstad’s idiosyncratic art, delicate beauty pairs with powerful drama.  There are black and white drawings of families forced to leave their homes for prison camps, as well as watercolor and pencil drawings of Fujikawa leading a parade of her own creations, multiracial children enjoying life.  The accuracy of her images balances their interiority, as people’s feelings become as real and accessible as the details of their clothing.  The book consistently resists any artificial separation of medium or message.  There is a sense of triumph in Fujikawa’s success in spite of initial setbacks, but a detailed timeline with photos, as well as an author and illustrator’s note and list of sources, provide further information about Fujikawa’s life and career.



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