Well, If I Don’t, Then My Children Will

A Basket Full of Figs-Retold by Ori Elon, illustrated by Menahem Halberstadt, translated from the Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, Green Bean Books, 2020


Everyone knows that we don’t always act strictly according to our own personal interests, right? As many of our political leaders are now adrift in a sea of their own narrowly defined needs, Green Bean Books’ new take on an ancient source of wisdom is definitely welcome. In an often-told Jewish folktale, eventually recorded in the Talmud, a very old man plants a fig tree, only to be taunted by a mighty Roman emperor for the pointlessness of his efforts.  The great leader is too egocentric to understand the motivation for the old man’s selfless act, but the tree planter patiently explains it to him.  Even though he is too old to see the results of his efforts, his descendants will enjoy the fruits of his labor: “Well, if I don’t, then my children will.”  In Ori Elon’s poetic and accessible version of this story for children, with beautifully appealing pictures by Menahem Halberstadt, the tale’s lesson takes on a new and vivid form.


The book opens with an image of the emperor as overweening power, sitting on his horse with huge limbs and outsized chest puffed up with pride.  To emphasize the disproportionate nature of his authority, he is riding through a poor village, where a goat tethered to a rooftop is munching a plant right below the emperor on tour.  Throughout the book, the disparity in stature between the old man and the emperor seems almost comic; by the story’s end, children will understand who is the greater man.  When his tree does produce a huge basket of figs, the man and his basket fill most of a page, defying the emperor’s belittling presence.


Elon’s carefully chosen words convey the message as persuasively as the Halberstadt’s pictures.  The old man plants his fig tree “gently,” while the emperor’s response is as overwhelming as his body. He is “astonished,” because “the tree is so small.” He rides into town “astride his great horse,” and he addresses the old man with utter insensitivity: “Surely you won’t live long enough to eat its fruit!” The old man, in contrast, is attuned to the world’s beauty in all its many forms.  He remembers clearly that the world of his birth had been full of trees: “There were fig, pomegranate, mulberry and date trees, all offering cool shade and delicious fruit.”  His ode to the natural world appears on a two-page spread featuring children, themselves as different in appearance as the trees he remembers, perching on the different trees and enjoying their fruit just as the old man remembers and hopes for the future.

The delicate lines and subtle earth tones of Halberstadt’s pictures invite caregivers and children to read this book together.  When Elon summarizes the enduring strength of the old man’s philosophy, we can only hope it is still true today:

The emperor rides on.
And the old. man, who was once a small boy
resting in this very spot,
lies in the shade of the fig tree.
He looks at the trees all around him and
sees so many gifts, one after another, after another.




Art Starts Here

Studio: A Place for Art to Start – Emily Arrow and the Little Friends of Printmaking (JW and Melissa Buchanan), Tundra Books, 2020

studio cover

Children’s books about art often focus on one or two media. One of the many welcome qualities of Studio: a Place for Art to Start, is its simple and patient explanation of creativity itself.  What is a studio, who works there, and what exactly do they do?  With boldly outlined and brightly colored animals as a guide, and plenty of objects connected with designing, making, and performing, this is a perfect introduction to how artists work, as they follow a path from idea to realization.

Combining general ideas, “A place to be creative, wherever that might be,” with specific examples, “A habitat for makers/with string and sculpting clay,” Emily Arrow’s words and the Little Friends’ pictures teach by example.  Making art is a joyous project where individuals dream and groups collaborate.

studio 1st page

The story begins as one grownup and one child rabbit enthusiastically approach a building bustling with activity.  The authors sets the broad parameters: “A place to build and dream and move,/A place for art to start.”  Silhouettes in the windows portray animals engaged in music, painting, and sewing.  Art is definitely not just one thing, and artists don’t only use paint!  In another engaging image, an airy skylight and tall shelves stacked with tools and paint impress the reader with the scale of some artists’ work.

studio 2nd page

The tallest character in the room, a painter bear, seems small by comparison with his own canvas, and the smallest character, the child rabbit, even seems intimidated.  Don’t worry. From towering attic to “tiny nook,” there is an appropriate setting for everyone’s creative impulses.

studio clay

By the time the young rabbit arrives at the sculptor’s studio, she seems entirely comfortable. While her parent learns about how to use a potter’s wheel from a duck, she is happily seated at a table experimenting with the clay and kaolin stacked beneath.  The stuffed rabbit which she has been carrying for security is now sitting by itself, while a goose in a tutu can be seen dancing next door.  Different types of creations, visual and performative, can take place at the same time.  While that may seem obvious to adults, children will find it encouraging that not everyone’s needs for self-expression are the same.  Arrow helpfully reminds them also that sometimes artists need a break, as they “simply stop to play.”

Caregivers may feel saturated with books about STEM; welcome to Studio, where scientists don’t have a monopoly on group-centered innovation.  The mice in their printmaking workshop are generating ideas, some of which are clearly represented on a small whiteboard, and using trial and error to dream up, produce, and improve their projects.  The small details in each picture who the illustrators’ attentiveness to a child’s point of view.  Ink puddles on the floor, a mouse hauling jars on a shelf, and another mouse storing their work on a specially designed tray, are as significant as the big picture of creating beauty.

studio music

The universal language of music, performed by animals in wild costumes, has the young rabbit dancing. Meanwhile, a sewing machine, tailor’s shears, and other tools provide a visual explanation of how the arts are interrelated.  Every image in the book reflects both the individuality of art and the distinctive personality of its practitioners. The tailor cat quietly smiles as he watches the band perform.

Art is about freedom, and the author and illustrators know how important this idea is to children. Some of their education must be geared towards productivity and success, while Studio emphasizes exploration.  Each artist learns that her environment is unique: “Make it your own, an artists’ home,” where splashes of paint can tell her story, and the audience is unlimited.  This unusual book for children generates excitement and affirms the importance of art, tracing the different routes imagination takes for each of us.

studio last page

Gloria’s Dreams

Gloria’s Voice: The Story of Gloria Steinem – Feminist, Activist, Leader – Aura Lewis, Sterling Children’s Books, 2018


Gloria Steinem’s name evokes the movement to liberate women from all the restrictions historically placed on us. Introducing to young readers her work on behalf of economic justice, reproductive rights, political participation, and empowering consciousness-raising, is a challenging task.  In Gloria’s Voice, author and illustrator Aura Lewis has chosen to embed Gloria’s message of liberation in simple language and colorful pictures with subdued symbolism, reserving many details for notes at the end of the book.  The result is a kind of two-books-in-one, which allows optimism to dominate, while providing additional information to supplement information in the text.  Some adult readers may find that this mechanism compromises the truths of Steinem’s complex life and career, but children will definitely come away with a message of female strength,

At first glance, Lewis’s pictures are full of pastel colors and cheerful colors, even when characters confront difficult realities.  Gloria first appears dancing across the keys of a typewriter. On the next pages, she is absorbed in reading about female heroines under a background of oversized flowers.  Yet within some of the illustrations there are more provocative images open to different interpretations.  Facing in the opposite direction from the girl propped on her elbows, reading, are a tiny-scale elephant followed by its child, a likely reference to Gloria’s painful challenge of caring for a mentally ill mother.


A scene of mother and child against the background of New York City, where Gloria’s mother had hoped to pursue dreams of journalism, shows Gloria holding hands with Steinem; both are serenely smiling.  Only in the “Page-by-Page Notes” do readers learn that Ruth’s illness was psychiatric. The story itself refers only to the fact that she “falls ill,” and the one-page biographical summary states that “Gloria lived with her ailing mother.” This choice may serve to stigmatize mental illness, or simply to relegate some painful aspects of Steinem’s life to the book’s backmatter, where interested readers may access them.  There is undoubtedly some dissonance in the book’s structure.


Then again, maybe the pictures themselves reveal some of the young Steinem’s suffering. One two-page spread shows an uncharacteristically sad Gloria playing with a large dollhouse. Inside, the figure of her mother has been reduced to an exhausted figure covered by a blanket, a book open in her lap, and the slippers at her side pointing to her immobility.  “Sometimes, it’s as if Gloria is the grown-up and her mama is the child,” the text reads. Even the use of the word “mama” here intensifies the inappropriate nature of the role reversal. Gloria is a child herself, forced to care for an incompetent parent.  Some readers may understand this situation to be frightening, while others, if they have not experienced the situation themselves, may read the text literally as one small disappointment, especially as it is followed by Gloria’s many achievements.


That typewriter keeps showing up, with Gloria typing articles about the silly features reserved for women journalists, and, finally, as she strides the keyboard in her 1970s bellbottoms, envisioning the “big idea” of Ms. magazine.  The “Page-by-Page Notes” are keyed not by page number but by image.  They are inconsistent. Readers do not learn which “friend’ sent her to cover a meeting of the women’s liberation movement, while the notes do add more complete information about “Dorothy,” as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the African-American activist with whom Steinem founded Ms.  Some of Aura’s decisions about whether or not to include information in the text may seem random.  There is a key to the picture of people, some ordinary and some famous, lining up to buy a copy of the magazine.  Bella Abzug is wearing a signature hat, but otherwise looks uncharacteristically demure.

Gloria’s Voice does allow children, to hear that voice, offering a moving account of Steinem’s progress from sad childhood to remarkable life of advocacy on behalf of women and men.  Its inconsistencies are real, but they do not ultimately take away from the experience of readers aged seven and older, as they are immersed in Steinem’s life of commitment to change.

Pushing the Right Buttons

The Button Book – Sally Nicholls and Bethan Woollvin, Tundra, 2020


As soon as you open The Button Book to read with a young child, you will probably be reminded of Hervé Tullet’s innovative Press Here.


Certainly, Sally Nicholls and Bethan Woollvin have created an homage to that modern classic, but their new book stands on its own. The Button Book is an invitation to participate in a funny and tactile experience where words and images allow kids to create meaning.  While the book shares a basic premise with Tullet’s, its crazy and colorful sequences of instructions and results is also quite independent, a kind of Rube Goldberg mechanism of momentum ending in a soothing wind-down of sleep.

clap button

all button dancepng

The premise of the book is the unpredictability of what will happen when you “press” a particular button.  For example, what will be the result of pushing a blue pentagon? You probably won’t be asked to clap, because that action has already been connected with a triangle of a different color.  Will children figure out that each button has its own consequence, and, if so, how long will it take for that reasoning to kick in?  One thing you will predict is the entertainment value, especially as the whole journey takes place among an endearing group of animals drawn in simple shapes and heavy black outlines, each with its own distinctive splash of color.


They are all curious; just look at that fox, an animal known for craftiness. He seems rather tentative poking that red button.  Children will identify with the sense of mild insecurity, and then relief and laughter.  The purple-induced tickle attack involves turning a turtle upside down, but everyone seems to be having a great time. Adults may find themselves becoming as drawn into this world of cause and effect as much as the kids.  What might pushing a green button produce? The answer might surprise you about this soothing color!

tickle button

The Button Book is not a mere novelty. Parents and other caregivers will share with their children a sense of reassurance that one button calls for hugs. (image) The very human interactions among the book’s animal friends lends it a different dimension from Tullet’s inspired visual game.  The book is about actions and their results, but also about the social meanings of play.  Even children realize that games have to end; they, along with their parents, find this fact reassuring.  The Button Book includes this happy transition  in a picture where white has become the calm darkness of bedtime, but the animals’ pink feathers and red fur remind readers that the cycle of activity will begin again.  The Button Book will bear reading again and again.


A Never-ending Story

Story Boat – Kyo Maclear and Rashin Kheiriyeh, Tundra, 2020

Maclear cover

The story of refugees, of their vulnerability and courage, of the injustice of often-chaotic journey from peril to freedom, is an endless one.  While young picture book readers cannot assimilate the particulars of each group’s experience in its search for a stable home, they can understand the fears of being uprooted and the joy and finding safety.  In Story Boat, author Kyo Maclear and illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh do not reduce the lives of immigrants to an easy object lesson in tolerance. Instead, they create together an incredible poetic and visual metaphor of strong and determined people, without losing sight of their individuality or the immediacy of their need for freedom.  Children will identify with the book’s resilient characters on their journey towards a haven through space and time. (For more on the brilliant work of Kyo Maclear, who often teams with Julie Morstad, see here and here and here and here.)

maclear here we are

The book opens with a line of pilgrims against a background of bare trees and flying birds.  They are old and young, dressed for a harsh winter, but their origin could be a number of different locations in a globe full of the dispossessed.  Maclear’s poem begins, “Here we are./ What’s that?/Well, here is…/Here is just here.”


maclear cup

To children, these words are not a surrealist evocation of life’s impermanence; they are just the way their world is.  They have no control of their destination, and the adults with them have little more. But they do have tangible objects and sturdy dreams.  An oversized teacup becomes a central image of the book. It is a homely domestic object which the children use to keep warm, “Every morning,/As things keep changing,/We sit wherever we are/And sip, sip, sip.” But an enormous version of the humble cup becomes a paradox, both a home and a vehicle, a magic carpet that alludes to both Middle Eastern and universal traditions of the fairy tale.

maclear cup is home

maclear tents

The children’s lives alternate between the need for some continuity and their longing for a place of safety and welcome.  Both the pictures and the text reinforce this delicate tension.  Their blanket is the familiar “color of apricots,” although the people surrounding them are “weary/From hoping and hurrying.” Somehow, the steady gaze of their mother feeding an infant, and the permanence of important objects, need to be enough to sustain them.  Some of those objects are pencils and notebooks, implements which help them to dream and to tell a story. Dreaming is important, but so is recording their upheaval and turning it into a tale which makes sense.  The transience of their tent city is transformed into meaning in a sentence, “Sometimes it’s here/just for a moment,” and the image of a community interacting as if their setting were normal.  Then, just as their cup was elevated to a magic carpet, a lamp becomes a lighthouse leading them through rough seas. Fantasy and beauty take the form of flowers as ladders, allowing the children to literally rise above the chaos which surrounds them.

maclear lighthousemaclear flowers

By the time the refugees reach a village where they are helped across a dock by caring hands, readers know that both the kindness of strangers and the children’s own determination have played a role in their lives.  Helpless to change the facts of their existence, they have nonetheless learned how to respond with their own narrative:

Every week,
We dream and draw,
Make and play,
Search for treasure,
Find our way
And grow,
And wait
And wait
And wait
Adding words to this story.

In Story Boat, finding refugee is not easy and life is governed by the kind of contingencies that are incomprehensible to children.  Words can’t save their lives, but they do allow their authors to impose a kind of structure on their experience.  Dreaming, drawing, searching, and waiting, are central to children’s lives, whether they are forced to leave their homes and hope for freedom, or whether they are young readers learning empathy.  The unforgettable beauty and strength of Story Boat’s story make it a journey for everyone.

maclear end


Life in the Hive

The Queen Bee and Me – Gillian McDunn, Bloomsbury, 2020


If you think that the queen bee metaphor for mean girls has been exhausted for middle grade readers, Gillian McDunn’s new novel may change your mind.  Meg Garrison is a kind, nerdy, and sometimes anxious preteen, in thrall to her best friend, Beatrix Bailey.  Meg is in a constant state of trying to maintain her equilibrium by anticipating which of her preferences or her momentary impulses at independence may upset their relationship, one which, to the reader, seems to be less than rewarding.  Yes, Beatrix is wonderfully accomplished and her family is wealthy and influential in their small town, yet, like the queen of the hive, her controlling nature never allows for truly reciprocal affection.  McDunn avoids simplistic moralizing and the reassuring message that, in the end, the worker bees will thrive. Instead, she presents nuanced characters who struggle with finding their place in the ecosystem of family and friends.

Meg is smart and inquisitive, the kind of girl who likes learning about the mechanics of things; she has “a jumpy kind of brain.” Her mom has devised a rule for making sure that this positive quality doesn’t wreak havoc on their home: “You have to ask first. You can never touch anything that is still plugged in. And anything you take apart, you have to put back together.”  Beatrix is a graceful dancer and an all-around model of perfection, the kind of girl who organizes other girls in watching the boys play.  Then Hazel, a new girl, moves to their community. She has a single mom, and singular sense of style, and a proud defiance of conformity in all its menacing forms.  When Meg decides to take a science elective along with Hazel, leaving dance class to Beatrix, the queen bee goes to any length to ensure that Meg learns a lesson about obeying the queen.

Beatrix’s behavior is chilling, but McDunn conveys her deep insecurity not through exaggerated examples, but everyday consistent proof of her callousness. (One incident involving embarrassing Hazel with a gift of acne medicine is truly awful, but completely within her character’s norms.)  Meg’s parents are a counter example to the values which Beatrix has assimilated at home; they support her unconditionally, although her understanding mother at times projects her own childhood traumas on Meg, even failing to trust her daughter’s judgment.  No one in this novel is perfect, and emotional growth, just like in real life, is more possible for some than for others.

McDunn expertly weaves the bee theme into the narrative without belaboring the similarities between drones and insecure kids, queens and rich girls.  Hazel’s obsession with bees leads to a science class partnership with Meg, who needs to confront her own fears of the insect, but also to negotiate the ups and downs a more mutual relationship.  Secondary characters match the subtleties of the main ones: Ms. Dupart, the empathic science teacher; Hazel’s practical and independent mom, Astrid; Mr. Thornton, the kindly literacy teacher who is sometimes overpowered by the determination of his students to turn on one another.  By the book’s conclusion, Meg has succeeded in putting things back together, but there are still loose pieces for readers to contemplate. Returning to the bee hive model and Meg’s project, “they beat their wings to cool the hive….they flex their muscles to create warmth…They need one another to survive.”

Travelling Girl

Lately Lily: The Adventures of a Travelling Girl – Micah Player, Chronicle Books, 2014

lily cover


Books about geography, broadly speaking, for kids, are a lot of fun. They may include maps, and specific information about places in the wide world with which young readers are unfamiliar. They may inculcate both enthusiasm for and knowledge about different cultures and languages.  Often, they rely on colorful pictures to make the different manageable and appealing.

Micah Player’s lately lily (the title on the cover has lower case, script letters), mainly presents the idea of venturing out as intrinsically fun.  The endpapers feature luggage in several shapes and colors, including a pet carrier. On one valise, Lily’s stylish monogram introduces her. By the end of the book, preschoolers will not have learned much about the different countries which Lily has visited, which are not always named in the text. Instead, they will have met a cute little girl open to new experiences, but also happy to return home.

So who is Lily? She has the exaggerated big eyes so popular in commercial illustrations and toys, the spunk of Eloise without the malice, and the familiarity of a figure from Disney’s It’s a Small World ride.  For children too young to focus on specifics about the countries Lily visits, her jaunt around the world is undeniably appealing.  Player’s pictures have bright colors, geometric shapes, and lots of other children.  The adults are generic; even Lily’s parents, who she informs us “travel all over the world for work” in a moment of rare insight into her life, are depicted from the neck down only.

lily inside

Lily smiles in every picture, and she totes along her “best friend,” a stuffed animal (donkey?) named Zeborah.  This transitional object no doubt helps her to feel secure as she boards canoes, hot air balloons, trains, and bumper cars.

lily bus

When Lily visits London, we infer where she is by the double-decker bus and other landmarks.  Paris and Mexico are similarly cinematic, and if the costumes of some of the locals tend towards the stereotypical, Lilly herself is a broadly drawn caricature of a cosmopolitan, urban child.  One lovely scene in the metro has Lily holding on to the pole, earbuds and Mp3 player at hand, while her friend, Zeborah, is seated, reading an ad for pizza.  The other passengers are casually multicultural; Player emphasizes diversity in a natural and unaffected way throughout the book.

If you’re a purist, you might object to the fact that the Mona Lisa has Lily’ face, although the same page shows Lily as a chef and a mountain climber. She is just trying on possibilities, from playing guitar to ice fishing, to brushing a llama’s fur.  One intriguing picture has her writing a letter to “Dearest Audrey.” Is this an allusion to the beautiful world citizen Audrey Hepburn, and if, to which movie? Either Roman Holiday or Sabrina would fit the theme of trying on new identities in the most glamorous locales.

Children will also enjoy the book’s comforting end because, after all, there’s no place like home.  Lily and Zeborah take a well-deserved nap, having arranged the tchotchkes from her trip on a shelf.  The book’s title pops up from a retro typewriter, promising that Lily won’t forget to write up an account of her trip.  You are your children will enjoy reading it, if it is this innocent and playful invitation to look explore and return.

Learning to Hop

What’s Up, Maloo? – Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2020

maloo cover

Geneviève Godbout’s new picture book, her first as both author and illustrator, is about a problem both typical and rare. Maloo is a joey who can’t seem to master the art of hopping, not a problem encountered every day in the natural world.  With few words and many pictures in her inimitable cinematic style, the author and artist also tells another and more common story, about young members of any species struggling to achieve an elusive goal.  With the encouragement of friends, Maloo joyously succeeds in learning what every young kangaroo must.


maloo hop

When we first meet Maloo, he is able to hop with impressive ease, rising above a field of pink flowers as if in flight. Suddenly, something goes wrong, his disorientation expressed in one word, “Hop?”  His friends’ untiring support reassures him that they will try everything to help him become himself again.


maloo wombat

Maloo water polo

When Maloo visits his wombat friend in the fellow-marsupial’s cozy burrow, the joey looks bereft but the wombat is full of empathy, as he puts aside domestic tasks to help Maloo. Along with a koala and a versatile crocodile, the wombat seeks unfamiliar environments and activities to promote hopping: playing ball in the water, and even blowing air in his face with an outdated electric fan.  Nothing works.

Maloo big tree

After a low point, when the four friends appear as sad silhouettes dwarfed by a giant tree, the turning point arrives. The reward for his friends’ perseverance is the opportunity to briefly feel like a kangaroo.

Maloo pogo

katy np

Looking at Maloo in his bright yellow overalls, I was reminded of another children’s classic about a kangaroo with a frustrating limitation.  In Emmy Payne and H.A. Rey’s Katy No Pocket, the issue isn’t jumping, but rather the lack of a pouch without which a kangaroo is unable to carry her young.  In Katy’s case, the kindness of a human friend, who equips her with a giant apron, allows her to transport not only her own joey, but every baby animal in need of a ride.  While I don’t know if the homage to Payne and Rey is deliberate,  Geneviève Godbout’s work reflects a tradition of illustration in which the common experiences of childhood become visual (see my reviews of her other illustrations here and here). The energetic appeal of Maloo’s story will be welcomed by every child who has tried, faltered, and tried again.

Glam-Ma Knows Best

I Love My Glam-Ma – Samantha Berger and Sujean Rim, Orchard Books, 2019

gm cover

This is a bright and fashionable ode to grandmas, but it is also tender and reassuring.  The grandmas lovingly described and jauntily portrayed by Samantha Berger and Sujean Rim are one hundred percent supportive of the grandchildren who love them.  Whether pulling the children in wagons, or rolling along with them in a wheelchair, these women are in charge where it counts: making blankets into reading forts, cooking without a recipe, emptying an enormous purse full of treasures.  I have added it to my list of favorite picture books about grandparents, along with Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Grandma’s Purse, and Drawn Together, by Minh Lê and Dan Santat.

gm - entrance

Maybe you are worried, if you are a grandma, or perhaps go by one of the other titles listed in a two-page spread of portraits: Yaya, Abuela, Mom-Mom, Oma, or Bubbe (me). Maybe you would prefer to be more understated, less flashy, not the glam-ma who chooses not to just arrive, but to “make a grand entrance.” Maybe you don’t wear a lot of makeup or perfume. Don’t worry. Those are only the external attributes of grandmotherhood extolled in this book.

gm coconut

The more important qualities are making your grandchildren feel like unique individuals worthy of every moment of your time. Some of that time might involve activities like sipping juice from a coconut while wearing a flower in your hair and a lei, but others are as simple as letting your granddaughter apply lipstick to your lips and the general area of your face. (Both the grandma and the granddaughter wear glasses, and the grandma has stylish gray hair.) My favorite image is the serenely quiet one of a child asleep on her grandmother’s lap in a rocking chair.  It doesn’t get better than that.

The text is simple, repeating to children on each page how they are the “guest of honor” in their grandmothers’ life. The pictures are colorful and bright, alluding to older images of femininity but updating them with a broad range of roles, and multicultural characters.  Whether or not the grandmothers you know build sandcastles at the beach, or keep a bottle of classic scent with them at all times (GM No. 75), they, and the grandchildren who are at the center of their lives, might recognize themselves in the pages of this lovely book.

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.